Veterinary practice management by the open book

Dr. Ross Clark has built a legacy on open-book management. And all that transparency has meant financial success for him and his teams.
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Mar 01, 2012

With a healthy back to carry his 180-pound frame through the defensive line, Ross D. Clark might never have made news in the veterinary world. He'd have been Emporia State Teachers College fullback Ross Clark, not Ross Clark, DVM, and from there, who knows? Green Bay Packer fullback Ross Clark, perhaps. And at Green Bay he would have played for coaching icon Vince Lombardi.

But his back was broken in a car accident his senior year of high school, so he turned down the Hornets scholarship and enrolled at Kansas State University instead. At the time, football was the only thing on his mind. "That's all I lived for," he says.

Without football as a career option, Dr. Clark focused on veterinary medicine. Ironically, the car accident set him on a journey that would make him, for many, the Vince Lombardi of veterinary practice management.


Book excerpt: Why open book opens the floodgates to success*
Today, Coach Ross is putting the final touches on a new playbook he thinks will help veterinarians win the game of practice management. It will be his eighth book, his fourth on management strategy. That's a lot of words for a man who says writing was his weakest subject in school; Composition 101 earned him the only C of his college career.

"I just didn't have anything to write about," he remembers. "The prof said, 'Go outside and write 1,000 words about the Formal Gardens.' To me, well, it was just a bunch of flowers."

Practice management proved to be much more than a bunch of flowers. Dr. Clark began writing management columns in Veterinary Economics in the early 1980s. In 1989 he wrote an article about his "12 Worst Management Mistakes." It was the most widely read article in the magazine's history up to that point, garnering a whopping 92 percent readership score.

The heart of his advice in 2012 will be familiar to anyone who has heard him speak since he began consulting and writing on management issues in 1981: Open your books and let the sun shine in.

OPEN YOUR EYES

Dr. Clark has refined his management thinking since the "12 worst" article went to press 22 years ago. No. 1 on that list was not scheduling enough staff meetings. And he still believes in weekly staff meetings. But an idea he encountered later crystallized his thinking: Veterinary practice is a team sport.

He came across the idea in 1994 when he read a groundbreaking book, The Great Game of Business: Unlocking the Power and Profitability of Open-Book Management (1992, Currency/Doubleday) by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham. He was captivated by the story of how Stack and 11 other investors turned around their nearly bankrupt company, a subsidiary of faltering manufacturing giant International Harvester. Their resurrection secret, Stack wrote, was treating the business and the employees like a team locked in serious competition. The key insight was this: Nobody keeps the score secret when they play a game. Hits, runs, yards gained, even poker chips are always front and center for every player and fan to see.

"The way Ross puts it," Dr. Ron Hooley explains, "is that sometimes you're just shooting baskets in your backyard with your friends. Nobody's keeping score. But the minute somebody says, 'Let's go to 10,' your game goes up a notch." Dr. Hooley entered veterinary practice as a kennel attendant in 1982, graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1989, and has spent most of his career working with Dr. Clark. Last August he opened his own practice in Tulsa—River Trail Animal Hospital and Pet Lodge—with partner Dr. Roddy Roberts.

"Open book is such an obvious concept, it's hard to see why people don't get it," Dr. Hooley says. "You want people in your practice to be actively engaged in what you're doing. It's human nature to want to compete. Let's see who can make the most baskets, let's get in shape to win. That's where the energy comes from."

It's not difficult to see how the coach in Dr. Clark was energized by the ideas in The Great Game. Stack's company, Springfield Remanufacturing Corp., not only survived but thrived. The way Stack described his employees is poignant:

Our people work with plugs in their ears and leave the factory every day covered in grease. ... The Great Game takes down the walls. ... The best, most efficient way to operate a business is to give everybody in the company a voice in shaping how the company is run and a stake in the financial outcome, good or bad.

Dr. Clark was so taken with the book and its authors that he visited Springfield and later brought some of Stack's partners to Tulsa to speak with staff members of National PetCare Centers when they were starting the national chain. The ideas took root. "It was the greatest idea I'd heard in all these years thinking about management," Dr. Clark says. "It's built on a simple principle: Things that get rewarded get done. Things that get measured get done. If we emphasize in a meeting that our rechecks need to increase, that we're down in follow-ups, they go up."

When Dr. Clark tells the story of Springfield Remanufacturing, you can hear the enthusiasm in his voice. It's a David and Goliath story; the teammates are David and the very real prospect of failure is Goliath.

"We try in our company to make sure everybody has a stake in the outcome," he says. "We try to take care of the four primary stakeholders. The pets need to do well. The clients must feel they're treated well. Then we take care of the team. You need to pay them well, they need to have benefits, you need to keep them happy, and you need to keep them involved. Of course the veterinarians have to do well. We pay them 20 percent of their production plus bonuses. And the practice owners have to do well; they're the investors with money at risk.

"We have a meeting every week, and we share the numbers. The idea is like capturing lightning in a bottle," Dr. Clark says.