Change maker series: Shawn McVey

Change maker series: Shawn McVey

May 01, 2007

Editors' Note: This is the second 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.

LAST NIGHT SHAWN MCVEY WAS COMMUNING WITH veterinary students in Pennsylvania. This morning he hustled his luggage out of the Phoenix airport for a quick sprint home. Now, after a frantic turnaround, he sits at a big wooden table in La Grande Orange restaurant in an ice-blue shirt and blue-black tie thinking about how a guy with degrees in political social work and marriage and family therapy ended up so deeply involved in veterinary medicine.

The path that took McVey from a private counseling practice to managing specialty veterinary hospitals is not a straight one. He lays the blame at the feet of a leotard-clad woman who approached him 10 years ago—a woman who turned out to be a dermatologist at the Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado. This woman saw something in McVey that would enable him to become a leader of veterinary specialists.

And lead he did. The Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado flourished. McVey moved on to Eye Care for Animals in Phoenix in 2002 and impressive growth ensued there as well. He began to garner a reputation for his work in the emerging specialty practice movement—which in many ways is redefining the organization of veterinary medicine—and for his ability to take listeners inside the emotional content of team building and leadership.

As the only nonveterinarian in 75 years to sit on the board of the American Animal Hospital Association, Shawn G. McVey, MA, MSW, brings an outsider's sharp eye, a student's curiosity, and a counselor's empathy to the dynamics of management in modern veterinary practice. Veterinary Economics asked McVey—who is CEO of his own consulting firm, Innovative Veterinary Management Solutions—to take us back a decade to the pioneer days of the specialty referral movement and his inauguration into the profession.

Q. Tell us about your background in marriage and family therapy and social work.

A. After I finished my first master's degree in the late 1980s, I started a private marriage and family therapy practice in Houston. My clients were primarily families dealing with gay and lesbian issues, and I had a good ride for about two years. But then HMOs and PPOs came on the scene and decimated my business. Clients couldn't afford to pay $100 an hour out of pocket, and I needed to eat. I also discovered that social work was a much more useful degree if you wanted an eclectic job opportunity, so I got a degree in political social work.

What's that?

Political social work is about social systems and how macrosystems interact. If you want to run a political campaign, you have to understand large groups—Republicans and Democrats and religious fundamentalists and atheists and how they all interact. It was a fascinating degree.

But it's not like accounting. You don't walk out and get a specific type of job.

No, but I knew enough to follow what I was interested in. I never intended to be in veterinary medicine. I thought I would be a social worker at a nonprofit organization. My goal was to be altruistic and help people. To make a really long story short, I had a relationship end badly, so I did what therapists call a "geographic cure." I put a finger on the map, and Denver, Colorado, popped up. I took a job with an insurance company where I talked with people on the phone and either allowed or disallowed their claims.