How I found my superstar veterinary associate

How I found my superstar veterinary associate

When my wife left veterinary practice for good, I had to launch a new plan.
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Oct 01, 2014

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I wasn’t supposed to have to search for an associate.

I am co-owner of Cuyahoga Falls Veterinary Clinic in Cuya­hoga Falls, Ohio, a practice founded in 1981 by the other owner—my dad, Doug. The first plan was for me to buy out my father’s stake when he was ready to retire and for my wife, Jenn, to work in the practice with me. That plan didn’t happen. Here’s how it went down.

The end of Plan A

Jenn and I met in veterinary school at Ohio State. We married between our second and third year, and in two areas of married life she was firm: no kids and no cooking.

Our first two years were tough. We spent our first anniversary apart, one of us taking farm calls and the other working a shelter medicine-surgery rotation. Then I went back to work with my father in Cuyahoga Falls, as I’d always planned, and Jenn worked elsewhere: first in a high-volume, good-experience position, then in a fantastic practice with good mentorship, good associates, a competent staff and wonderful clientele. In her second job she was paid on production—and she was a stellar producer.

Drs. Jenn and Ryan GatesOur first child was born in 2008 (remember that part about no kids?) and Jenn went part-time. Our second came in 2010. When our third child arrived by adoption in 2012, she left the professional workforce—for good. Jenn had been able to take on some personal goals and challenges by stepping away from practice, and the benefits of returning, she decided, would not outweigh the benefits of pursuing these nonveterinary goals.

So 11 years after she told me, “No kids, no cooking,” Jenn chose to be a full-time homemaker and parent, selling fantastically decorated cakes on the side. Who would have thought such a talented, educated woman would choose that in this day and age? Neither of us! (Why do women find themselves leaving the profession? See “Associate hiring help” at right.)

You can imagine the impact this had on the plans for the clinic. Jenn was the best associate I knew. I’d thought I would have one experienced, highly productive veterinarian family member replacing another, and I’d just need to look for a part-time associate. Instead, I started looking for a full-time associate, one who might become the practice partner I’d thought my wife would be.

Launching the search

In 2014 I advertised my job opening at several veterinary schools as well as my state veterinary medical association. Then I sat back and waited for the stack of résumés to arrive, expecting mostly new grads with a sprinkling of veterans. As it turned out, I received nine résumés: three new grads and six experienced practitioners. Not quite what I’d anticipated.

As I met the candidates informally and through interviews, it became increasingly clear that a philosophy of high-quality medicine was the common denominator rather than a differentiating factor. With the quality of applicants nothing short of spectacular, I realized this wasn’t going to be an easy process.

I wasn’t too concerned about lack of experience. A new or recent grad who was relatively short on practice hours would be overlapping with my father. (This would also let my clients see both the new face and the senior Dr. Gates under the same roof for a time—an endorsement of sorts.) Sound financial planning had put us in a position where we’d be able to pay three doctors, so production pressure would be minimal. The upshot? Very little separated these candidates from a professional standpoint.

So my decision became highly personality-driven. I found myself thinking less about medical and surgical talent, or production and compensation, and almost exclusively about which of these candidates I’d want to spend the foreseeable future working with ... sitting next to in a small office ... tag-teaming cases on days off.

This made the decision much harder. Financial considerations, skills and experience levels would have been objective benchmarks, which was much more appealing to an evidence-driven practitioner like me—and more immune to criticism and self-judgment. But in the end, I decided that three of the nine applicants would make very good teammates and become prolific producers for my practice.

Nabbing the doctor

By the time I had calculated what I could afford to pay (see “Associate hiring help,” page 11), conducted interviews and was ready to start negotiations, I only had two candidates left! One smart young graduate had accepted an offer from a former mentor’s clinic before I’d even put together my complete package. Lesson learned: Don’t dawdle.

Both remaining candidates struck me as fantastic veterinarians. And I was stumped. I reflected on the interviews and follow-up communications, and I thought about the next year, about who was going to sit in the chair next to mine if it wasn’t my dad or my wife. In the end, I decided one person was simply a better fit. So that’s who I extended an offer to.

This recent graduate was coming off a very good contract—one that knocked my socks off, in fact. I worried that any offer that fit my budget would be a turnoff to him. I started on the higher end of my offer range and ended up a little higher still.

Does it rub me the wrong way that I paid the high end of what I’d figured? No way. I found an associate I wanted, and I felt it was a good use of the practice’s money to make sure my offer was at the top of his list. At the end of the one-year contract—which will include the five months before my father retires and seven months after—we’ll sit down and review our production as doctors. If his production justifies it, his salary will be raised. Good talent is hard to find, expensive to train, highly productive if well-managed and therefore worth retaining.

But talent isn’t just production; it’s also being a good fit with the clientele the practice has cultivated. At my practice we cultivate perception of value, beginning with an immaculate facility and the friendliest of support staff. We also maintain a cutting-edge social media presence that allows us to show our behind-the-scenes quality in surgery, anesthesia and diagnostics via photos on Flickr and Facebook. We communicate with our clients in ways that are convenient for them, including text messaging procedure updates as well as live-tweeting some surgical procedures for our clients to follow.

I don’t expect every prospective associate to have a lot of comfort with this at first—so if my new associate’s production isn’t as high as we’d hoped but he helps me nail these things, the contract will stay where it is, and I’ll help my associate identify and improve areas that are limiting production. We all want this to work out—my associate and my clientele as well as me.

I may not be able to keep this associate beyond the initial contract, and if I don’t it isn’t likely to be over money. He made sacrifices in accepting my offer so he could be close to family. He may make similar moves in the future to serve goals he has outside the profession.

The bottom line is that hiring and keeping top veterinary talent is not entirely under the control of the practice owner. However, owners put themselves in a much better position by treating associates as professional equals and appropriately compensating them. The cost of having to repeat the hiring process when good talent leaves is high. When we take a holistic approach to hiring, compensation and retention, everybody wins: the clinic owner, the associate and the clients.

Dr. Ryan Gates writes for Dr. Eden Myers' website justvetdata.com. Dr. Myers contributed to this article.