Editor’s note: Veronica Hanley caught our eye as a 2015 dvm360/VHMA Practice Manager of the Year finalist, and she kept our interest when this receptionist-turned-practice-manager became sole owner of a veterinary hospital. As businesspeople begin to dictate the direction of veterinary medicine in corporate chains, and fewer doctors look to own, could receptionists, technicians and practice managers fill a void for a small but meaningful percentage of the nation’s hospitals? Hanley thinks so …
Q. Tell us about yourself—where you went to school, what you thought you wanted to do with your life.
I went to Brown University and majored in anthropology and business. I really thought I was going to spend the rest of my life in the nonprofit sector or the Bureau of Land Management outdoors, with the animals, studying human culture. I did not expect this!
How did you wind up at a veterinary practice? And when did you fall in love with it?
I was in marketing and advertising for a long time. That was the first real job I could find out of college after the recession. After moving to Tucson with my husband so he could pursue his PhD, I continued with that but knew I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life. I decided to go back to my passion for animal nonprofits and the outdoors, but because I’d been in the private sector for so long, nonprofits didn't want to hire me. Some suggested I get some experience with animals in some way.
Volunteering wasn't an option because the bills needed to be paid, so I applied as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic. I immediately fell in love with the work of tending to domesticated animals, and I realized I wanted to push the public to care more about wildlife through their own care with pets. After I was promoted to manager a few years later, I went to conferences, worked long hours reading magazines, got a master's degree in sustainability in animal organizations and worked hard to grow my career. I didn't know that practice ownership was in the future then either.
What triggered the thought, “I could own this"? Where was your biggest resistance? Who were your biggest supporters?
When I attended a Fetch dvm360 conference in San Diego (then CVC), I really had the intention of going there to learn more and grow my career. But when I sat in some of the practice management sessions, I noticed that I had answers to some of the other people’s questions. When I raised my hand to share, three of them asked for my email address so that they could get pointers from me. I thought it was a fluke. Then at another session, I realized the speaker was suggesting things I’d already been doing. It frustrated me a bit that I only learned a little from the conference, and I was scared I wasn't going to be challenged anymore. Then it hit me that I could try to own my own practice.
My greatest resistance came from myself. A lot of people I spoke to were surprised I didn’t own a hospital already and were surprised I was fighting the idea.
My greatest support came from my husband, who’s my personal life adviser. He told me I wouldn't be happy trying to save wildlife and nature unless I had my own business.
Was there ever a point where you thought, “I’ve made a huge mistake”? How did you push past it?
I'm not going to lie and say that every day I get up like Wonder Woman, conquer my fears and charge forward. It’s scary owning a hospital, and I doubt myself like every other human being who takes a risk. So far I've only made one big mistake—I didn’t know what to say when I first walked in to meet my new team. I was terrified what they thought of me. So after that awkward first meeting, I darted out that day to get the office a "Thanks for sticking this out and dealing with a new boss" gift—a new Keurig coffee machine. I wanted them to know that I was on their side. When they seemed relaxed after that, I relaxed too. Will Smith said it one time, "The greatest things in life are on the other side of maximum fear." I have that quote tattooed on my back to remind me.
When you hear others say, “I could never own,” how do you respond?
That’s the problem! I rarely hear "own" come out of people's mouths. If you have the knowledge and the willpower, you should do it. When I hear, "I could never … " from someone in any area of veterinary medicine, I ask them, "Why?" They'll tell me why and give an answer that always translates to "I'm scared." Then I give them pointers on where they can start learning to gain more knowledge and lessen their fear.
You started as a receptionist. We often hear the receptionist is the most important, yet the most undervalued and underpaid, member of the team. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s sad but true. When I was a receptionist, clients would call and I would do everything I could to work them into the schedule. Very often, as the clients came out of the room, I would hear them tell the doctor, "Thank you so much for getting me in." At first, I didn't mind it, but after one year, it started to make me feel undervalued.
Underpaid member of the team? You bet. But, I believe all of this starts with the receptionists. Receptionists need to be just as passionate about the field and their jobs as technicians, doctors and practice managers are. Don't treat the job as a paycheck, because then it’ll be all about the money to your boss as well. Treat it as a career.
My advice? If you’re a veterinary receptionist, make sure you're actually doing it to learn about the field and grow in the field, because it is tough. Ask your boss how you can grow your career. Ask your managers how they can help you. Tell them you want to grow. And if that isn't an option where you are, move on and grow it yourself.
How do you expect practice ownership to change in the next 10 years? Do you feel the threat from corporate practice?
Yes, I feel the threat from corporations. Corporations are thriving because private practice ownership is down—among doctors. If you’re out there and you have the financing and little student loans, and you’re not a doctor, do it. Own if you can. Don’t give up. What about the people who love the field but don't have the medical degree? That’s you.