Dr. Tom Bankstahl, CEO at Veterinary United, joined us for this inspiring conversation about his aspirations for a long-term veterinary-owned group and keeping a safe space for veterinary medicine.
Tom also runs us through how he implements his People First policy, how he is creating spaces for people to grow as people as well as professionals.
Welcome to Consolidate That! Ivan, great to see you again, super excited to have a wonderful guest this week so why don’t you introduce Tom to everyone?
Very excited to introduce our guest today and I’m not going to pronounce his last name because I’m going to butcher it and I didn’t ask prior to the episode so Tom, what is your last name?
Last name is Bankstahl.
Bankstahl, all right. Tom is a visionary, servant leader, chief executive officer at Veterinary United. Throughout his career, he has been a lecturer, writer, consultant, associate veterinarian practice owner and team leader. Starting with the veterinary ownership in 1999, he currently leads a practice group of 15 practices in four boarding daycare grooming centers, there were 250 employees in Southeastern Michigan. Tom, welcome to the show, thank you for finding the time.
Thank you, it’s always a pleasure and I’ve always enjoyed your podcast. Looking forward to spending some time with you guys today.
Thank you for being a listener and I want to open up with the sort of first thing that excites me about this conversation. You’re a big proponent of people first and last three years, Ryan and I spent sort of trying to consult different groups on how to put people first and the purpose and all of those things and I feel like we slightly failed at that.
What we see with the groups that are not private equity-backed, that they have actually, a little bit of a different focus and they do grow with that. Can you open up with that and tell us a little more about how do you run your organization, how do you put people first in it?
Absolutely. I’ll start with no failure, only feedback, right? There was no fail, Ivan, on that. I think people is about understanding people, right? I think that we have to start there, right? If we can help people understand people, that’s our first stop. That kind of really led me on that path of understanding people and so that led me into NLP. NLP is kind of a fun, neurolinguistic programming, everybody looks at you square-eyed when you say that but it’s really about helping understand how people think, right?
The pen is not the pen, so everybody has their perspective and their view and you know, I think we have to pause a minute, be present and think about that from a perspective standpoint but you know, in my opinion, everything is about people, right?
If we can help each other learn how to communicate, one of our big things as an example on the floor, when we’re in frustration, helping people understand there’s two pathways from that, right? One is curiosity, how do we go there? Asking great how and what questions, helping people explore and be present and be curious. The other one is negative emotional state, right? Which is anger, shame, guilt, fear and those are good, that’s fine. I mean, states of states, right?
I think it’s more important we understand the feelings and work through them. I’ll sidetrack that for one second so you guys can pull me back but I think we’re coaching veterinarians to compartmentalize emotion and I’m not a big fan of that, right? Because I think what goes in must come out, right? Whether it’s today, whether it’s next week, next month, next year or never.
I just think we need to acknowledge emotion, right? Work through emotion. E, motion, energy in motion. You need to ride through those emotions and emotional states and so, helping people to understand that feelings are healthy, acknowledging them, talking about them, I think that that’s important. I also think helping people to understand people, right? One of the things we do at Vet United, we go through predictive index, kind of in our screening, right? Helps us understand values and beliefs.
We also do something called canine colors and so our teams kind of break into four primary colors so blues are our fillers, greens are our thinkers, oranges are our creative chaotic, if you want to figure something out ask an orange. And golds are detail-oriented. And so, we didn’t want that just to be a screening process and so how do we take everything we do to people, and what can we do with that for impact?
We actually have what we call culture bracelets across all our locations, and when we bring our team on, they all wear their color of the bracelets. It’s also got kind of our core values or an impact statement. If you’re walking on the floor with the team, you know your team, right? You might be working with a blue team, definitely want to ask them how they feel about it, maybe share a coffee. If you got a gold team, you better not be late because they expect you at 9:01 not at 9:00.
I think the more we can help people understand and understand each other and value each other, I think that’s really important. I guess, last to that statement, remember that you know, if we’re working on results, those are the things but they’re not the people, right?
I think so often, we go to the people and evaluate the people where in reality, if we’re not getting the results, we’re not focused on results and then move your results, right? Don’t make it personal. When we make it personal, then we make it about judgments and judging through values and beliefs. Yeah, I guess those are a couple of opening thoughts, right? We’ll go from there, throw that back.
I’m just unpacking everything. I’m still on neural-linguistic programming, that’s where my brain first started spinning around. Will you just explain, that’s not a term that I’m familiar with. Would you explain that just in high level and then man, there’s a ton of other things for us to go into there but yeah, start with that because I think that might be, hopefully a term other people haven’t heard as well.
Yeah, I think neural write refers to kind of the brain or the mind and kind of how we process through our five senses. Linguistic is the language and verbal or nonverbal communication we use. Then kind of how we use that and develop our strategies or the programs that we’re going to do with that information, right?
If you flip it, right? You can look at people that are you know, if they’re doing really well, what are they doing, right? How do you model, that, right? Probably one of the most famous NLP directive people is going to be like Tony Robbins. I mean, he uses some of those techniques. Really, when you come down to that, it’s really about that, right?
What are the strategies that you use, that lead you into getting the results that you want and then understanding how you get there, right? For me, that’s kind of how I unpack that a little bit and it also really gets into also acknowledging how you connect to people in those different levels, right? One of the tendencies, the map is not the territory, that’s kind of the same principle of the pen is not the pen.
A sunrise is different to everybody, right? Because you’ve connected that with experiences and with feelings and visually. NLP kind of takes you into that and there’s some other pieces to that, right? Matching people consciously and unconsciously and being self-aware of that. Whether it’s techniques or just acknowledging that everybody has built programs.
What you’re seeing in their behaviors come from the words that have been gone in and then connected into feeling and processed and stored. Did they get the results and the strategies that they’re looking for.
That’s very interesting and there’s a couple of things that you said that are radically different from what we’ve seen across the groups that are scaled faster through the private equity backing. The interesting thought that came to mind when you were talking about this is that that’s what they’re lacking, and I think that the scalability of most organization is in the proper culture and the purpose driven.
Then, I don’t think that they do that. So how do you see that in a sort of independent group and can you see that being a driver of scale? I know there is financial and you know, fiscal drivers of scale and it will be interesting to talk how you guys look at that as an independent group. But then also, do you see that that is a higher scalable framework to move people along with you, rather than anything else?
In my opinion, yes, right? I think we talked a little bit about my end goal at the end of the day, what would be successful? We create an environment in which we’ve given our tools to our teams where they can, at the end of the day, choose happy, right?
Outside of whatever happened, they have the tools, the resources, and the understanding to make that choice of emotion to choose happy. I think that, if you can scale that, I personally think that’s the secret sauce, right. If we look at positive psychology, it’s always, don’t use success as your marker to be happy. Be happy and then you develop success.
If we can take teams, and what I try to do is break that down into chunks and then I talk to site leaders weekly and then we have an in-person all day monthly, and part of that is always engaged in that, right? Because where we take our thinking is where we go, right?
Can or can’t, your choice, that’s going to happen. I think sometimes it’s even bringing it for new teams to the very basics, right? We’re not going to go, “Hey, we’re going to coach NLP” We will say, “Everybody’s frustrated and everything is broken,” and we don’t come in and say, “Hey, everything’s a generalization” right? Generalizations aren’t solvable, they get tied up in your brain. No, right?
I mean, some of that is leading by example where you know what specifically is broken, right? Sometimes it’s just everything and just the tonation you use with the teams and so, working them through that and then there’s a couple of keys, right?
We do try to get teams that’s going to ask each other questions. I will focus a little bit on, “Let’s ask each other how and what, right?” Because if you ask “Why” it’s about people’s values and you better be prepared to tap into those, right?
When you ask that question, make it good or be value-driven. I think that just – some of those basic tools of helping people, I mean, it’s great working at the new hospital and seeing the “aha moment” when everybody’s like, you know, “This is broken and nobody does this and everything is this” and I was like, “Holy Moley” and my brain that used 15 generalizations in three sentences, nobody fixes that.
That is a recipe for generalized frustration, right? If they don’t have the tools to go somewhere with that or step into being grateful or doing something different, they’re just going to be chronically frustrated, right?
I think those are really important when we talk about scale, we’re actually up to 18 hospitals now. Yeah, how do you amplify that, right? I mean, is it working? Yes, how do you amplify it? Is that just in site leaders and the leaders. Can we do a better job with tools.
I’ll share of a kind of a funny joke right, I’m being transparent. I’m signed up for a positive psychology certificate program, it starts in January and my chief operating officer is like, “Dr. B. do you have four hours a week we could carve out when we’re doing all these other stuff?” You know, for me though, it’s what makes it different, right? Her suggestion, I trained him too well, right? Well, hey, how can we do that differently?
What if, we hired a positive psychology coach at Vet United, right? We’re actually looking into doing that. I feel that for us, we were going to focus on and again, where you put your focus, your thinking and your energy, therefore you go.
For us, we’re making that a priority because it’s not about choosing optimistic or choosing happy, it’s truly helping people break through some significant barriers. If you take that one thing about generalization or sometimes you take that one thing that you know, there’s no failure, only feedback, right? We didn’t get the results we want, how are we going to change the strategy. It’s not about results and strategy and not about a team that’s broken, or somebody that’s not doing their job.
I really try to take the person part out. And kind of another tenant that’s always resonated with me is, every person does the best they can with the resources they have in the moment that they make that decision. That’s a stopper, right? Boom, right?
When I think that that’s really imperative and it gives a deeper level of understanding and empathy, and it helps us shift into, “Hey, we’re not getting the results, how will we change our strategy?”
For me, I think, if my goal at the end of all of this, years and years to come, is, an employee-owned company, that at the end of the day everybody chooses happy then we have to make that a focus, right? I mean, the scalability perfect every day, absolutely not. What about teams where it’s you’ve got the resistance and you’ve got people that live in generalizations and deletions, and maybe a little bit of that shame and blame culture.
Steering them sometimes is a little bit trickier, right? The higher a leadership, the more coaching is engaged, they know what to do, right? If you go into a blue team, you’re going to ask people how they feel about it, right? If you’re going into a green team, we’re asking them what they think about.
It’s just being appreciative I think and in that, you’re valuing the other person to a different level, right? We’re all human beings, I think that’s the leveling field. It doesn’t matter, day one or day 22 years, DVM or new client ambassador, I think we’re all beings. So if we can put that in as a leveling field and be compassionate and tap into that present EQ state, and then help train the tools to keep people curious, I think that’s pretty powerful.
How we scale that is you know, is always a work in progress but I think as long as we keep that as our primary goal and that’s in front of us, then everything we do kind of filters through that piece.
Kind of on what you were saying, how do you scale that? I want to just let everyone know. Anyone that hasn’t met Tom before, the amount of energy he has is always there. He is full energy all the time and you would think that that’s difficult to scale, right? You can have a really energetic and lively leader and executive running the team, but to get that across, first off, your whole executive team and then filter that all the way from the top through all of your doctors, through all the technicians to the front desk and everything.
I saw it when I met your executive team, everyone’s very energetic and excited about what you’re doing. How do you think that you can scale the energy that you’re putting out there right now and this positive thinking, to every single person as you’re at 18 clinics? It’s a lot easier to just say, “Well, that’s Dr. Bankstahl, he comes by, he gets us really excited but then when he leaves, you know, we go back to the status quo.” What do you think is the scalability factor of trying to keep that going?
Yeah, I think some of it is tools and leadership, right? I think that picking the right leaders, this might sound a little optimistic but I think that when you put that kind of energy out there, and that is truly your passion and that is truly where you’re going and that’s truly how you feel, you’re going to change veterinary medicine, right?
Because if we can change it on the front end, make people feel self-valued and self-empowered you know my goal is that, whether they stay with us now or go somewhere different, if I can touch their life personally and professionally in that, that drives my passion. And you start to attract people to that.
You know, our new director of operations is like that, the guy has just much energy as I do all day long, right? He’s like, “Woo!” and you guys, you know, I came here for that, right? That’s what I came here for. We just brought on a new director of medical learning and you know, Dr. Girk, he’s a great guy and you know he is a board-certified neurologist, right? I mean, he stepped out of neurology because he wants to do what we’re doing full-time with teams and make an impact in veterinary medicine.
I think if you raise the level of energy and I think if that’s truly your passion, your goals and I think people understand that. You know, I always have this weird thing about people over business, business over people, right? I obviously have to run a business to have people, but if you really are passionate about your people and you really want to affect change for your people and that resonates, I think you start to attract people to the organization or to the team that have that same energy, right?
I think Ryan, there is a few people maybe that don’t come along and then that’s okay, maybe they’re not in the right time and the space to make that movement but I do think that you attract the energy that you put out and so I think that over time, that builds into a leadership team and could build momentum rather than actually detracting for them.
You know, I can see, I haven’t met your executive team, I can picture what they look like at least from the energy perspective. I am getting that from you now at least I can tell that you’re probably drinking the same coffee.
Right and lots of it.
One thing, and you know it’s interesting because it’s always you said, business over people and people over business. It is an interesting thing that we sort of preach is the when you’re managing, don’t manage people. Manage the process. Then don’t look at people as it’s dependent on them, but then what you said in this sort of our preparation though, it’s about moving people to move the process.
I think those two things are very well connected, so if you empower people, if you let them to do things that they want to do and you create the communication structure around it, then you can truly manage process without thinking about feelings and everything else. Because people are sort of self-organized around that. It would be interesting to pivot a little bit of our conversation, and talk business.
As an independent group, what is the opportunity to grow, and what does that organic growth driven by? Because you can’t just go out and spend another 50 or $100 million acquiring practices, you need to grow organically. When someone is thinking to continue that way, a lot of that started that way and they’re adding another practice, another practice, another and then they’re on this sort of momentum.
Do we take money and run with everybody or do we grow organically? I’m sure that crossed your mind. I’m sure you’ve been asked by many groups to be acquired. What is that sort of growth opportunity as an independent practice versus backed by institutional investors?
Absolutely, so yeah, I think there’s a few pieces to that to build that out. For me really, it’s about being passionate about people and making that change as always having that vision in front, and just holding a space, right? Like yeah, we’ve been asked and all of these different pieces but it’s really finding that alignment in what we want to do and what we’re passionate about.
We’re kind of – I always tell people, I mean I love the corporate groups, I love independent practices. I think we’re all in the same highway just different lanes and we can learn from each other. But for me it’s about kind of holding that space for complete individual care and veterinary-driven decision making. I think from the business side, I guessed about, you talked about my own personal frustrations, right?
Frustrations and then curiosity, you know, I know there’s people that know, right? As you’re growing, sometimes you don’t have the venture capital pieces or the financial investment sometimes to bring in people that have already done 200 practices. When we’re going from 18 to 22, you know, they kind of already have seen around the corner, right? I guess my frustration is, sometimes we’ll figure it out. We have great people but there is probably some people I already know, so from a scalability resource piece I think sometimes that’s key.
Obviously you talked about lots in your show on doctor recruitment. I think that they have some more leveraged resources there. I think still as an independent practice group, you still have to keep up but you know, I think you just have to offer something unique there.
From the business perspective, I think for me, if again, from a scalability and looking through the business stuff, I still always lead and I might sound naïve, but you know, that we can make a change in vision, right? That this could be a long-term veterinary-owned game and keeping a safe space for veterinary medicine and for people to grow as people and to grow as professionals has always been a driver for mine forever.
As long as I’m kicking, I feel good. I think I got a lot of years, you know, I just want to grow in that space and share that with people, right? You know, take the best of me right now so you don’t want another doctor to be able to just take the best of me.
Yeah and I really respect. Interesting, we’ve essentially talked, I shouldn’t say worked with but talk to probably a couple dozen consolidators, and I don’t know if you want someone who did 200 hospitals before, because in most groups that grew that fast, they a) had different thesis than you do, b) they had different philosophy and a very different motivation.
A lot of these groups, those that land grab, as the only term I can use, is basically all about you know, acquiring as many practices as we can as fast. There’s nothing wrong with that but as long as you articulate those thesis upfront to the people that you’re buying practices from maybe that’s okay. But you know in general, I think that as we look at consolidation in different verticals, it’s usually –
You know, we usually, the executive team does it once or maybe someone that has done it twice and it’s not necessarily that it was all glorious and there’s a lot to replicate, and so seeing around the corner, I’m not sure if everybody has that skill. Consolidation, from what we found out, is sort of a once-in-a-lifetime experience or maybe twice, and then there’s not a whole lot of material to learn from. It’s maybe grown organically as a team as also there is benefit to that.
You touched a little bit on the talent acquisition and that is obviously the biggest problem right now in our domain. We talked to hospitals, it’s just a disaster how many your hospitals are closing, how many, you know, it’s just really bad. Having this culture, having this drive, having this purpose behind your organization, do you find that that gives you a little bit of an upper hand in terms of hiring ability?
I think so, right? We actually just – we have a doc that’s interviewing out here from California. I think if we can get in front of them and they get to actually meet us. Because you’re meeting with our C-squad, when you come out, I mean we’re taking you out to dinner. I mean, we’re going to lunch, you’re meeting the leadership team that you’re actually going to be interacting with and getting to meet locations and docs.
I think getting people in front of us and knowing that is an advantage, right? I think that that’s definitely something that’s an advantage. We just got to get them in front, right? I mean, it’s just you know, I think they were talking about seven out of ten ads, or things aren’t even clicked on once, right? You know, how do you get that three out ten, right? How do you put what we believe? How do you put passion in an ad?
That is kind of that reformatting piece of how we do that. For us, I am doing some video cuts now and trying to do maybe some different things about how to talk about us and get the message out, rather than just maybe ads or words, right? Because I think ads and words are great but it doesn’t have the impact or the feeling behind what we truly are passionate about.
But the other thing I’d talked to my teams and our site leaders, I mean we had a whole one day, right? I said scrap everything you know, everything, I want you to rethink your entire vet team, right? How are we going to re-leverage the entire vet team, all of them? Veterinary sport team, client ambassadors, you know, licensed vet techs, the VAs, docs, like how are we going to do it? They came up with some phenomenal ideas and you know truly empowering our LVTs and our VAs in their own lane has been amazing, right?
I mean, you know from a – even our production standpoint, right? We ran a little pile in, I mean our stronger LVTs can do three to $4,000 on their own in production in a column so I mean, that’s pretty impressive. I mean, for a two or three doctor practice that could have a real day-to-day impact, right? Actually that’s kind of attracting, we’re getting some technicians that are coming out of this specialty a little burned out but they like the empowerment part of that, right?
I mean obviously, in accordance with state law and all the pieces, but when you fully empower them and – putting it back on teams and engaging them, I think that reminds me of when your podcast about continuous improvement. But you know, I think that re-engaging the teams and that was super exciting. And you know the other thing it gave them is control, right? I think COVID has caused this whole lack of maybe we don’t have control over our personal lives, where we can go, what sports we can go.
Putting it back into them, helping them reinvent with some results in mind or a goal in mind was really quite powerful. I think that you know, re-leveraging the team on that side through recruitment and then allowing our message to kind of resonate and grow, right? You know again, having that doc come over at a specialty because he believes in what we do, and it is not just words on the wall, has already kind of manifested. We’ve had a few more doctors calling because they’ve seen him move and see the message.
I think that getting in front of them is number one and I think that that’s maybe where some of the larger groups have a larger machine but you know slowly we turn, right? We’re talking to universities, I love to coach so I’ve got mentees at Michigan State, and joining the Michigan State houses and different things. I think once we get the message out and I think that’s just really important and how mentor, coach and onboard and evolve.
I think the other thing unique about us is some of my docs have been here for 22 years. Our core group, we are getting ready to go on our inspire trip to Dominican Republic. We take all of our leadership and docs if they’ve been here for 10 years or more, we throw a couple of wild cards into Dominican Republic to thank them for the time, right? That’s a little unique because they started with me as students, right?
22 years later, I’ve got two of them going for their boarding, one is going for reptile boards, one is going for feline boards. I think if you are open and want to help them develop and evolve, I mean it’s amazing. Dr. Nap went from a guy that does – starts as a vet assistant and he learned all the way through sound tech to do echocardiology, and then he went into essential oils, then he learned all exotic species and then now, he is getting boarded in feline medicine, right?
I think if you support your docs and help them grow. Who wants to be static? You are not only personally but professionally I think that’s the key, right? I think sometimes it’s the multi-kid syndrome, right? I have four children, children too, so I think it’s – those guys that have been with us for 22 years so how do you allocate a little bit more time and show your appreciation for them? You know, we do that kind of through this trip we talked about.
It is also just remembering to take the extra time, right? Even me as the leader, I have to pause and step back and send them all a ping on a Saturday sometimes and be like, “Hey, I didn’t forget about you, so I love and appreciate you. How are you doing?” but I think that’s it, right? As you get bigger and when you love and care for people that much, just making sure the touches you have are real. And because it’s been such a long run for us, 22 years and how it’s all changed, I still feel the same as I do 22 years ago with them, right?
It is just how you kind of expand that and you know, help them see that being part of something bigger is better. We are not getting bigger so that we can sell or doing those pieces, we are getting bigger so that we can do market adjustment salary, that we can do benefits, that we can add maternity leave. Helping them see the benefit of it as well so that it just doesn’t come into, that there is more people or more of it.
That’s great. Well, you know, we always blow through our time here usually when we’re recording, which is always great. We love that because I don’t think anyone wants to listen to an episode where we all just sit here and say “um” for 25 minutes. But, the two questions we ask every guest, the first one is what book or podcast or TED Talk or anything like that would you recommend for people to just sort of glean some of the knowledge that you have?
Absolutely, so from a book, Shawn Achor’s, The Happiness Advantage, I’d read it. I think it’s impactful and powerful. I mean, just understanding how choosing happy can come first before success, and it should, and then what that impact could have to the bottom line and to doctors in general personally and professionally.
Other podcasts other than you guys, so I like Alex Judd’s Pathway for Growth. I think he does a really good job and Craig Groeschel’s Leadership Podcast. Those are probably the two I listen to the most. I think they have good impact items that I peal back. Yeah, so that would be my two suggestions and the book, yep.
Awesome. Well then the final question is, what other guest, who else do you think we should have join us on the show that we can learn more from?
Fantastic and I had two come to mind of course because you know, I’d have to have two, right? I think Marc Nathan is a cool guy. He started Calico Bank and he is also a guy that leads with passion. I mean, I think they built Harbor Vet, and then I think they’re now into sue battle but you know, his passion I’ve seen from day one and his passion for students and student ownership and some of those pieces, I think he’s a cool guy.
If you could rope Alex Judd into the show, he’s a hoot. That’s another guy that I think he’s great. From the powerful of leadership and positive forward movement, I like both of those guys so.
That’s fantastic. Well, Dr. Bankstahl always a pleasure, great to see you again, great to chat with you again and really appreciate that having you on the show.
Thank you for joining us.
Awesome, it was fun. Thanks Ryan, thanks Ivan. Thank you for what you do and putting out those ideas, and bringing people out to help us grow. Choose happy.
Great, thank you.