Change maker series: Dr. Jack Stephens

Change maker series: Dr. Jack Stephens

Jun 01, 2007

Editors' Note: This is the third in a series of articles about change-makers—the thought-leaders who've profoundly affected the business of veterinary practice and whose vision could change practitioners' career path, business model, or workday in the future.

Dr. Jack Stephens and his wife, Vicki.
JACK STEPHENS, DVM, DOESN'T HAVE A LARGE VOICE. But machismo isn't always about volume. At 5-foot-7 he was a high school wrestler, runner, and football player. He worked from six to nine in the morning as a cook, went to school, then went back to work from three to nine every afternoon. He was on his own at 15, a father at 17. When he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1990, he was given six months to live—and he missed only two weeks of work.

"I'm a very disciplined person," he says.

Still, Dr. Stephens has needed all the volume and strength he could muster to wrestle pet insurance into existence. Pet insurance was, he thinks, an alien concept in 1982 when he first went to the mat with the idea. Today, an estimated 520,000 policies are spread unevenly among 11 U.S. companies. In his lifetime, he thinks the industry could reach $3 billion.

The largest insurer, by far, is Veterinary Pet Insurance, the company Dr. Stephens founded 25 years ago and fought to keep alive for more than two tumultuous decades. He left VPI in late 2004, and his departure was not without controversy. Rather than retire, Dr. Stephens started a new pet insurance company, Pets Best.

"Why not just go fishing?" we asked this 60-year-old agent of change.

"I guess I'm just uncomfortable when I'm not working," he said.

Q. When did you decide pet insurance was an idea that ought to happen?

A. I was in practice, and I realized it wasn't what I thought it was going to be. Practice in the 1970s was too reliant on vaccines, and we weren't getting paid for our knowledge. And I just hated putting pets to sleep. So I started looking for solutions that would let veterinarians practice medicine. I wasn't a fan of pet insurance at the time, but as time went on I got more enamored. I found 900 veterinarians to trust me and invest, and off we went.

Q. That was about 1980, right?

A. It's been 25 years last month since VPI started selling policies.

Q. What were people saying about pet insurance then?

A. It was a totally new concept for veterinarians. Although there had been a few attempts to launch the idea before that, it hadn't gotten much exposure. I started talking it up—saying that it was the only viable way to help consumers afford our services. That made it the only way to stop economic euthanasia. I was just sick of economic euthanasia. And the bond wasn't as strong then. People weren't willing to spend as much on their pets as they are today.

Q. Was there a lot more economic euthanasia then?

A. I did a survey in 1980 that showed that once the veterinary bill topped $275, most people would not pay for care. Today that number is well over $1,500. I think it's still too low, but it has risen a great deal.