Dr. Eric Schertel helps develop the MedVet experience at new locations

 

Two years and three months after acquiring a pet emergency center in New Orleans, MedVet Medical & Cancer Centers for Pets increased the location’s revenue tenfold.

But revenue and profits aren’t the driving force behind the change. They are just the effect.

Dr. Eric Schertel, president, says by prioritizing and investing in a culture that delivers an exceptional experience for clients, patients, referral partners and employees, MedVet is building a successful network of emergency and specialty referral veterinary hospitals.

Schertel and his senior vice president of finance keep each other in check to find the middle ground between investing back into the company and making a profit.

“Honestly, I learned a long time ago if you put the client and the referral partner first, you’ll make plenty of money and be successful,” he says. “And as soon as you start focusing on the money, the client and the referral partner disappear.”

New Orleans is probably the most dramatic example of the kind of growth MedVet’s model brings, Schertel says, but the organization hasn’t met a competitor yet that does a better job, even as it continually defines its growth process.

Here’s how MedVet is spreading its culture to all 750 employees that treat more than 60,000 dogs and cats every year.

Set the standard

At the end of 2014, MedVet added two more locations in Lexington, Kentucky, and Mobile, Alabama, to bring its total to eight.

But as MedVet grows, Schertel says geography isn’t the biggest challenge. You can use technology such as video-teleconference systems to help bridge the gap and connect to other locations.

The bigger obstacle is making sure your culture — as well as your mission, vision and core values — develops in the new practice. And that’s something you can’t mandate.

Typically, the company buys an emergency practice and then introduces specialists into the practice to build it out like other MedVet locations. The only exception was in Mandeville, Louisiana, which merged with MedVet.

When you add your own specialty teams and leadership, you can put in people who understand the culture that is already established in your oldest location and who can drive the right value systems.

“We’ve been able to bring in our people or selectively hire specialists that come in and who we can influence right away that either have our values because maybe they were trained by us or shared our values naturally,” he says.

The medical leadership and specialty groups set the standard for the practice.

In addition, you can use a good reputation in your industry to draw the type of hires you need.

A lot of the current leaders in the newer acquisitions or mergers have already experienced MedVet at some point in their training, says Dr. Amy Snyder, creative director of marketing.

“They may have been interns in MedVet Columbus or they may have completed a residency there, and then they’ve gone on to another part of the country, whether that’s the Gulf Coast or East Coast,” she says. “But they’ve never found that (same experience) again. So when there’s an opportunity, they tend to come back.”

Build a support system

As MedVet grows, it’s also building out its organizational and clinical infrastructure, Schertel says.

Each business unit within a hospital needs to support a great employee experience, and you need that infrastructure to support the culture you’re trying to install in new locations.

“It’s not a fire drill. It’s a slow evolving process,” he says.

“We’ve built out this business infrastructure at the expense of our profit margin to anticipate our growth and to help with this clinical integration — knowing that as we get into a market and we deliver this high-quality service that people will come,” Schertel says. “We’ll continue to grow and be profitable.”

For example, he hired a senior vice president of information technology to help improve MedVet’s hospital management systems and interaction with referral partners and clients.

The company also has a senior vice president of development, who was formerly a leadership coach for MedVet. Schertel says she helps develop the middle management team — the clinical managers who direct all of the clinical activity of the nurses, aids and technicians.

Along with the infrastructure build-out, it’s important to train and develop the people you already have.

Even since the board embraced leadership training several years ago, it has filtered down throughout the organization, he says. This has helped the employees understand what it means to be a leader in the organization — not necessarily the leader, but a leader.

Along with that, Snyder says, it’s integral to be open to feedback and be open to listening to the reports of those who work under you. You have to listen to your people and what they need or feel strongly about, in order to develop this kind of a culture.

“Training our whole leadership team to have listening skills, self-awareness and the ability to critically evaluate their own role, and own their own role in the business, I think, has been key to our success,” Schertel says.

Relying on referral partners, employees

In addition to hiring the right people as it expands, MedVet has learned to rely on its referral partners and its own employees.

If you formally focus on the relationships that make you successful, you can capitalize on the competitive advantage they bring.

Schertel says less than 10 percent of patients come directly to MedVet without a referral, so they are careful to do only exactly what a patient needs before sending the animal back. That can be providing emergency support after hours and on weekends in support of community doctors or specific specialized care.

“We rely on our relationship with our referral partners to be successful. We steer entirely clear of their form of practice, which is more of a general health style of practice,” he says.

About eight or 10 years ago, the organization realized this relationship was a significant differentiator and started systematically focusing on it.

“We’re always welcome in a market, particularly when you’re focused on a trusting relationship with those local veterinarians that support exceptional service for clients; you immediately are embraced by the community,” he says. “I can’t say it will work for us every time, but it’s worked for us up to this point.”

And as part of its strategic planning process last year, where it identified its vision for the future, MedVet formally added its employees to the list of relationships it focuses on.

Snyder says another lesson they’ve learned is that aligning under a medical leadership so veterinarians drive the leadership across all locations helps the employees feel represented at the table, which is important for employee morale and retention.

This is different from other companies who are acquiring and growing veterinary networks, Snyder says, where an operations or finance person leads the business.

As a result, even though veterinary medicine has a high turnover rate for technical staff, MedVet hasn’t experienced that.

In fact, Schertel says the Dayton location had 20 employees when MedVet bought the practice, and 19 of those are still employed by the company two and a half years later.

“That’s a testament to the hard work and engagement that we have with our employees,” he says.

 

Takeaways:

  • Culture spreads through leadership that drives your values.
  • Build up your infrastructure to better integrate acquisitions.
  • Focus on the relationships that make you successful.

 

The Schertel File:

Name: Dr. Eric Schertel
Title: President
Company: MedVet Medical & Cancer Centers for Pets

Born: North Edwards, southern California
Education: Bachelor’s degree in zoology, doctor of veterinary medicine in cardiopulmonary physiology, University of California, Davis

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I bused dishes at a local diner and had a paper route in North Edwards, which required 10 miles of riding on a Stingray bicycle.

But probably the most influential experience for me was going off to junior college. I had a 1.86 grade average my first semester and quit because of it.

I went and worked for U.S. Borax. I was on the wrong end of a shovel for a good nine months. That really taught me that I needed to go back to school and focus on getting an education that would lead me somewhere.

What pets do you have now? We have two dogs — my dog and my wife’s dog — Cody and Jessie.

Historically, we’ve had three cats ever since we came out in a couple of cars from California in 1987. We traveled out with three cats, and we’ve always had three cats. We’re down to one right now, Gracie. She’s 18 and she’s the princess of the house. My wife tells me when she’s gone we’ll have to get three more.

How has your leadership style evolved? It’s evolved pretty dramatically. I’m a surgeon by training and have no business or leadership background.

I inherited the managing partner role at MedVet about six months after I joined as a partner. My mentor who helped bring me to Ohio had a heart attack and dropped out of the system for a while. (The good news is not permanently — I just saw him the other day.)

I was trying to lead the practice and be a surgeon at the same time, and it really pulled me apart on occasion. I lead like a hammer looking for a nail, and since then I learned that that’s not the best way.

It took us a long way, but in the end when you get to be this size of organization, you’ve got to develop some new skills. So, I’ve got one or two new skills.