Top dog Featured

8:00pm EDT September 26, 2005
Bob Antin is a nice guy, the kind who returns his own phone calls and then apologizes, sincerely, for being hard to reach — not typical behavior for a busy CEO of a publicly held company. That first impression is confirmed with further contact — he always asks how you’re doing, and he waits to hear the answer.

Instantly likable and approachable, and with a ready sense of humor, he disproves the old adage that nice guys finish last. Because as chairman, president and CEO of VCA Antech, the nation’s largest provider of pet health care services, he’s definitely a winner.

The company he co-founded in 1986 with his brother, Arthur, who serves as COO and senior vice president, has doubled in size in the last five years to $674 million in annual revenue. That growth has continued this year, with sales up 25 percent in the first half to a record $393 million and profits up nearly 19 percent to $81.8 million.

Since going public in 2001, VCA Antech’s stock has more than quintupled in value and the company now boasts a market value of nearly $2 billion.

But for Antin, being top dog isn’t just a numbers game.

“Success is about more than the bottom line,” says the 55-year-old entrepreneur. “I also measure how well I’m doing in terms of my relationships. Would the people I work with want to have lunch with me? Do they speak well of me, feel kindly toward me? What’s the feedback from our employees? How do they feel about how I’m doing?”

That’s how nice guys think. But it also reflects something good leaders know.

“Companies run on their people,” Antin says, “not titles and job descriptions. Invest in them.”

That’s been the policy of VCA Antech — originally called Veterinary Centers of America — since its inception.

Building on people
VCA Antech, which acquires and manages veterinary practices, operates in 37 states, with more than 360 freestanding animal care facilities that treat domestic pets on an inpatient and outpatient basis. It also runs 28 clinical laboratories that provide testing and diagnostic services to approximately 15,000 independent animal hospitals.

A third arm of the business is the sale of diagnostic equipment. This network synergy, plus centralized administration and group buying power, enhances the caliber, efficiency and profitability of each site. But the company’s most valuable asset, in Antin’s eyes, is the creative energy of the men and women it employs.

“We’ve tried hard to create an environment that is the opposite of a ‘Yes sir, no ma’am’ corporate culture,” says Antin. “Our management style is open, horizontal and based on mutual respect. Anyone can call my brother or I to talk about what’s on their mind, and they do. Most importantly, we want managers to feel comfortable making decisions. It’s not out of the ordinary to try something new.”

In many cases, standardizing operating systems makes sense, he says, but an inflexible structure that “puts people in a box” and does not allow for individual differences is always counterproductive.

“There’s a lot of talent within this organization,” Antin says. “I welcome other visions of how things should be. I hope the people I work with will challenge me and fight for what they think is right. No one will ever get fired for speaking up.”

This is especially important for a company that’s in the business of buying established entities. An added factor for VCA Antech is that the entities it’s buying — animal hospitals — are usually owned and operated by vets.

“Once they sell to us,” Antin says, “they decide whether they want to stay on, and in most cases, they do. It can be hard at first. Overnight, they lose their identity and their position. But we don’t come in and start rearranging the furniture. We adapt to them rather than the other way around.”

There are 1,400 doctors on the company’s payroll, and while many are happy to turn over the administrative responsibilities — and headaches — to the parent company, there is some fear among practitioners that they’ll lose their autonomy when VCA Antech takes over.

“Initially, vets worry that we’ll interfere with how they practice medicine,” Antin says. “This was especially true in the early years. We had to earn their trust, convince them we were on their side and demonstrate that we had something to give them.”

The company provides equipment, expertise and training; runs the hospitals; handles employee benefit programs; pays the bills; and implements systemwide policies and procedures for quality assurance. What it does not do, says Antin, is tell vets how to do their jobs.

“We understood from the start that veterinary medicine is a hands-on art and not something to be managed,” he says. “Individuals in this field are passionate about what they do. Our policy is to leave doctors free to work in their own way, as they see fit. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful.”

Seizing an opportunity
Some of that success is also attributable to seeing — and seizing — an opportunity. Bob and Arthur Antin had pioneered the development of outpatient surgery centers for human health care, and when the company they founded, AlternaCare Corp., merged with another firm in the mid-’80s, the brothers began looking for a new focus and found it in pets.

“People love their pets,” says Antin, whose household includes his dog, Buster, his wife and three kids. “When they get sick, owners want them to have the best care possible and are willing to pay out of their own pockets for it. Arthur and I thought we could use our experience in human heath care and apply it to the practice of veterinary medicine.

“We put together a plan with input from two vets who owned the largest animal hospital on the West Coast. Our goal was to upgrade every aspect of the profession and the quality of care available to consumers.”

They bought their first hospital with a group of private investors and took the company public in 1991 before it was bought out by equity firm Leonard Green & Partners LP in 2000 and returned to private ownership. In 2001, VCA Antech went public again, and two years ago, Leonard Green sold its stake in Antech. Throughout all these transitions, Bob Antin has remained in the driver’s seat.

“Suddenly I found myself in a position analogous to our doctors’. One day I was the boss, the next day I was working for somebody else,” Antin says. “But the new owners were management geniuses, and I learned a great deal from them. The more freedom you give people, the better they work.”

With that freedom, the company has grown and its mission has expanded to include continuing education and advanced specialty training.

“Historically, that didn’t exist in this field,” Antin says. “Today’s vets want postgraduate training. We established our own internship program and have driven changes within the industry by increasing what vets are paid and providing access to new treatments, new tools and new diagnostic techniques. This has prompted a shift from general medicine to the development of various veterinary specialties that parallel those in human health care.

“One of our doctors just did an endoscopic procedure on a lion. We’ve also created more of a career path within the profession for nonvets.”

Today the company has 9,800 full- and part-time employees, including 1,400 doctors in its hospital division and 80 interns. Another 180 people work at corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. And regarding those employees, Antin defines his role as one of guide, mentor, communicator, listener and resident encourager.

“In graduate school, they taught me how read a financial report,” Antin says. “That’s helpful. But of all the skills needed to run a business, none is more essential than the ability to get along with people.”

Baseball Hall of Famer Leo Durocher coined that expression about nice guys finishing last. But pitcher Sand Koufax disagreed.

“Nice guys can win,” Koufax said, “if they’re nice guys with a lot of talent.”

And it’s Antin’s talent for playing well with others — learned, he says, at home and growing up on the streets of New York City — that’s helped him make VCA Antech a leader of the pack. How to reach: VCA Antech, (310) 571-6500 or http://www.vcaantech.com