Episode 51 – Take Care of Your Employees So They Will Take Care of Your Clients featuring Dr. Mike Pownall

From workplace culture to salary structure to having time to ride your own horse, Dr. Mike Pownall joins me to discuss all of the important aspects of creating a workplace where veterinarians want to be. You don’t want to miss any of the gems that he shares after having grown a practice with his wife, Dr. Melissa McKee, over the past 20 years.

More about Mike Pownall, DVM, MBA
Prior to becoming a veterinarian, Dr. Mike Pownall worked as a farrier for seven years. His interest in equine lameness led him to attend the Ontario Veterinary College, graduating in 2001.In 2002 he and his wife, Dr. Melissa McKee, started McKee-Pownall Equine Services. Their organization is represented by 3 equine veterinary clinics with 17 vets and 40 support staff spread across the Greater Toronto Area and one practice in Wellington, Florida.

He is also a partner with Oculus Insights offering business management services and education to veterinarians throughout the world.
Dr. Pownall received his MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University in Ontario, and was the class valedictorian. He presents internationally on business strategy, human resources, pricing, and marketing for veterinarians. He also contributes to numerous
journals on business management topics.
Dr. Pownall has a blog, podcast and webinar series on veterinary business management at http://www.veterinarybusinessmatters.com and you can learn more about Oculus Insights at http://www.oculusinsights.net.

Ways to contact Dr. Pownall

Linked In
McKee-Pownall Equine Services

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Stacey Cordivano 0:07 Hey there, it’s Dr. Stacey Cordivano. I want veterinarians to learn to be happier, healthier, wealthier and more grateful for the life that we’ve created. On this podcast I will speak with outside of the box thinkers to hear new ideas on ways to improve our day to day life. Welcome to The Whole Veterinarian. Stacey Cordivano 0:35 My guest today is Dr. Mike Pownall. Dr. Pownall was a farrier for seven years prior to entering vet school. He graduated in 2001 from the Ontario veterinary college and in 2002, he and his wife Dr. Melissa McKee started McKee Pownall equine services. Their organization is currently represented by three equine vet clinics 17 vets 40, support staff spread across the Greater Toronto Area and one practice in Wellington, Florida. He is also a partner with Oculus Insights, offering business management services and education to veterinarians throughout the world. Dr. Pownall received his MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University in Ontario and was the class valedictorian. He presents internationally on numerous business topics and also contributes to journals on business management topics. He has a blog, podcast and webinar series on veterinary business management at VeterinaryBusinessMatters.com. And you can learn more about Oculus insights at OculusInsights.net. Mike says that while he’s involved in many areas of the veterinary industry, the center of it all is a strong desire to help veterinarians and other members of the animal healthcare industry improve their businesses. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Stacey Cordivano 1:53 Hi, Mike, thanks so much for sitting down to chat with me today. How are you? Mike Pownall 1:57 I am doing well. It’s such a pleasure. I’m flattered to be invited. Stacey Cordivano 2:01 Yeah, I know that you have a lot of irons in the fire, but you are still a managing veterinarian for your practice. And I want to expose listeners to some practices that are doing things a little bit differently. And I have heard that you are doing that. So I’m curious today, if we can dig into a little bit about your mindset on how you’ve set up and manage your practice and things that are working for you. Given the current landscape of Equine vet net. Mike Pownall 2:33 Let’s jump in excited to talk about it. Stacey Cordivano 2:35 So when did you start the practice? Mike Pownall 2:37 So my wife and I started the practice in March of 2002. We’re just about to celebrate our 20th anniversary. Stacey Cordivano 2:44 So awesome. Mike Pownall 2:45 And we started the practice just outside of Toronto, Ontario, when everybody said don’t open a practice, there’s so much competition. But as I’m sure we’ll get into later on, we sort of had a unique take on things. And 20 years later, or three locations in Toronto, we have a seasonal one in Florida, and we have 16 full time vets and we’re starting an internship this year, and we have about gonna say 40 support stuff. Stacey Cordivano 3:11 Wow. Okay, yeah, that you are managing a lot of people. And we talked about this briefly, but you said that you started out with a bit of a different mindset. So can you elaborate on that for me? Mike Pownall 3:23 Yeah. So when I went to school, I was, you know, I was a mature student. So I was 38. When I graduated, my wife, she’s in her late 20s, too. And but you know, when we were in school, so this is we’re talking, let’s say late 90s, early 2000s. A couple of things we recognize in school, and it was that the generation that was graduating, whether it was male or female, it doesn’t matter, the whole idea of being a vet and working 24/7 on call all the time, single road warrior, that was a thing of the past, like it will just know. And we saw the newer generation was more collaborative. They wanted more out of life than just working. And so he said, when we’re going to start a practice, those are the things we need to take take in mind, like those are critical. And so right off the bat, when we started our practice, you know, fairly audaciously thinking, we want this to grow into a bigger practice. Because if we can be a bigger practice, that means more vets to share on call. And that means, you know, we can work regular hours, like we’re going to be a nine to five or eight to five practice. We want our veterinarians to be able to actually have a life with horses, because you know, the joke always was if you like horses, and you’re Invesco, you’re going to smile and all of that and we’re like, That’s crap. So that was a mindset from the very beginning. Let’s have a practice that is attractive to the newer generation of vets and be very mindful that people want time off. The other thing too. Being a Canada maternity leave is a year it was a year at the time it’s a bit longer where we are now. And so with 85% of the graduates being female, we need to have a family friendly practice, and we can do that only by being bigger. So we always have excess capacity. So if somebody is on maternity leave, we’re not struggling. Stacey Cordivano 5:09 Got it. I mean, that is progressive for the early 2000s. I mean, I feel like we’re still catching up to that idea today Mike Pownall 5:18 Really, you need to have a successful practice, you need to have something where people want to work. So veterinarians can deliver veterinary care, you need great support staff, we wanted to have a practice, that’s big too. So we can give opportunities for support staff, so they didn’t have a, you know, an artificially low ceiling on their career development. So if somebody wanted to move beyond being a vet assistant or a receptionist, by growing, we can identify keen people and create opportunities for them. Stacey Cordivano 5:49 Okay, so besides the number of people, what are some things that you have done to stay progressive or to keep people happy in their day to day work life? Mike Pownall 6:00 Yeah, I can think of two, three things. So the first was initially like everybody else, all the vets were compensated on production. And we really wanted to have a culture of collaboration. We wanted the practice to grow, we wanted young vets to be able to join the practice and not feel rushed into, you know, jumping into seeing clients, what have you. And so really, the mindset was, we want the practice to grow, not necessarily individuals, so we’re very much of a groupthink practice. So about, I’m gonna say 10 years ago, maybe more, I had noticed that our culture was starting to fray. And I see this in a lot of practices that pay purely on production, and that everybody was so worried about making money and taking care of their clients at the beginning, territorial, you know, we weren’t offering the best client care. And we’d have a vet whose client had a horse that was calling, but they were 45 minutes away, and we’d have a vet available, who was five minutes away, and the vet who was the primary owner of the client, we’re like, I’ll get there, I’ll get there, I’ll get there. And they were working crazy long hours. And it was just like I said, our culture started to really suck. It’s a bunch of islands competing against each other. So I went to all the vets and I said, I’m not loving our culture. It’s not what we set out to be, what does everybody else think? And everybody kind of agreed, I said, I want to go to salary, I want the practice to grow. And I want nobody to worry about, oh, I got to work this, I’m going to do that to make money, you’re going to make money. You’re great people, your hard workers, I don’t I don’t worry about that. But I want to be able to bring on a young vet, and I want to be able to go to a vet and say can you mentor this person, you take the extra time? Can you you know, take some time off to some client education, do some the that training, and I said, what I’ll do is we don’t know where we’re going as Uncharted Waters, I will pay you what you made last year on production, plus, you know, cost of living wage increase. And let’s take it from there. And everybody’s like, alright, and you know, a lot of people say, Well, Mike, why don’t they they’re not incentivized to work, because they’re not getting paid commission. I’m like, money is not the only thing that motivates people. And so I can tell you that since we’ve done that, we have grown 9%, at least every year, and all of our vets are on salary. And since then our culture is so much more harmonious as collaborative. veterinarians will take the time to help train new vets take the time to train technicians, we just are a team of working with each other, not against each other. Stacey Cordivano 8:36 That’s great. So you got no pushback from that suggestion from anyone? Mike Pownall 8:40 No, because I said, I mean, you’re gonna You all worked your tail off last year. Yeah. And you’ve made X amount of dollars, I’ll pay you that. Because I believe in you as people that just because your your compensation system has changed. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be approaching your clients any different. I mean, you just you hire right, the right people and good people, they weren’t not gonna change. Stacey Cordivano 8:59 And then have you guys ever implemented any sort of profit sharing system or anything like that? Mike Pownall 9:04 Yeah, yeah. And so the other thing we’ve done is we do a profit sharing for all staff, everybody. Great, and we take 10% of our profit, and we split it up equally amongst all staff. Awesome. We did that once a year. But now we’ve changed it to doing it quarterly. Because you know, if you do it once a year with having it your financials done, it’s so far removed from the activity of doing it, so we do it every quarter. Stacey Cordivano 9:26 Great. Yeah, that’s a great idea to Okay, and then another Mike Pownall 9:30 Yeah, so I did my executive MBA and in 2013 to 2015. You know, one of the advantages of graduating when you’re older is you know, you’re a little wiser about life. The other problem is, is when you make mistakes, you have less time to correct them. And I as we were growing, I made some mistakes. I said I need to be smarter. So when I did my executive MBA, and I started shifting what I you know, I read less equine vet journals afterwards and more business journals. And I remember reading when I first graduated really a A profound article from MIT Sloan, the business school at MIT, on employee engagement surveys and the value of having highly engaged employees, highly engaged with businesses or have high increase revenue, increased profitability, lower staff turnover, increased client loyalty, and they were discussing it in context of large corporations that but I’m like this can apply to my business. And so we did that. So we did our first employee engagement survey in the spring of 2016. And you know, your practices your baby, and then when you get scores back, and we ended up our score was 77, which is really high. But you know, a type personalities really, why isn’t it 90, and you just take it to heart, the one thing that we picked out of it is that our vets were the lowest score, what I’ve learned since and what the work I do of Oculus, we’ve done dozens of these across the world. It’s rare to have both vets and support staff high together, it’s either one or the other. So in our case that year, that’s where low, the really what it was the vets retired, they’re burnt out. And so you know, being in the northeast, our busy time of the year is, let’s say March till, like June, it’s nuts. And we’re still pretty steady until November. But up until doing that employee engagement survey, by the time June came along, everybody was pretty crusty bad moods, a lot of tears, you come into the office some days, and at the end of the day, there was some tears, just a lot of unhappy people. Going back to our initial premise, when you started the practice of you’ve got to take care of your staff and make sure that they’re on board, I just said we got to do something different. And so I proposed to all the vets, I said, you know, you’re working five days a week, you’re on call one and four. That’s our goal. But it’s it’s not enough. Because you know, if you look at it, an equine vet, they’ll be talking to their classmates who are as competitive as well. And they may be working 30 to 35 hours a week, making more money. And I was like, you know, I could pay a bit more, we don’t charge an equine as much as some companion animal practices do. But I think that if we worked less hours, we’d be more productive. So I said, Let’s go to a four day work week. Fifth Day, use it, if you’ve got you know, medical records, you gotta catch up on client communication, you sort of know you have that buffer. But if everything is caught up, just Ubu you know, so basically, we reduced our veterinary capacity by 20%. And so every month I’d be looking at, you know, so this started in July of 2026. So every month, I’d look at the sales from the year before, like I was, because I’m like, we’re gonna lose 20%. Like, we’re just our sales are gonna go down, we’re gonna have happier vets. Long story short, our sales were up 13%. So we had 20%, less capacity. But we went up 13%, we did the employee engagement score, the score for the vets went up, I think 7% To like low 80s. And I remember walking into the office in June, and what normally you’d hear tears or just a quiet tense office. There was like joyous laughter coming out of the office one day, and I just sort of sat back and savor it. Like that’s, that’s what it should be about, like, we spend a good part of our waking hours at work, we should have be enjoying being at work, we should enjoy who we’re working with. And we should be able to support the people that we work with in that manner. Yeah. So we’ve stayed with that since then. And you know, what happens? A new vet starts they need to sort of get orientated, but six months, they go to the four day weekend. There you go. Stacey Cordivano 13:22 Yes, I firmly believe in a four day work week. So do you think that your vets were working longer hours on those four days? Or do you think that they were just more productive because they were less burnt out or some Mike Pownall 13:36 more productive, much more productive. I think they’re working less hours. So here’s the thesis that I had is, you know, it’s been a long day, you’re tired. You’re out of you’re out a call and you’ve got a fat tendon, you’re like, Yeah, I could scan it. But I’m tired. I want to get home next time. Next time we go. It’s about 10. To Text time. Yeah. But when all of a sudden we’re like, oh, yeah, I got a day off. But let’s do that. And they spend more time and it’s just everybody became more productive. Now, the same time. To be fair, we got smarter about how we schedule our vets, so they’re not running all over. So that helped for sure. But I believe and what’s been proven year after year is just that the vets have more time, they’re more engaged. I remember about three months after we started this, one of our senior vets emailed me and just said, I want to thank you for going to the four day workweek. I enjoy being a vet again, I’m off on this Friday, and I’m reading journal articles for the first time in years, and I’m actually enjoying it. And another Vet sent a picture of her. All I can see was a picture of her garden and she’s like, this is my day today. Thank you so much. I’m just sitting out having reading a book and just having a drink and life’s fine. Thank you. Stacey Cordivano 14:49 Yeah, that’s great. And then I know that you said you want it to be a very collaborative culture. So within the change in work schedule and change to salary Do people still have primary clients? Or is it more of a shared client base? Mike Pownall 15:05 So we tell our clients that ideally, you know, if you’ve got, you know, sport horse barn or a bunch of lane buses or, you know, breeding mares consistency is best. So you know if that starts with a lameness that that’s going to continue on with the lameness, but when it comes to an emergency, or if it comes to other things, like one of your horses, has hives or something, you should know that every one of our vets is on board, we they communicate well, and you’ll just, you’ll get them and our clients are fine with it. The one thing we do have to be careful on is you know, is that continuity of care for specific cases, or even, we all have those problem horses that are always getting hurt or what have you. So we want to have that too. But we do Net Promoter Score surveys to solicit client feedback. And one of the consistent comments we get is how collaborative the vets are. So whichever if that shows up, they know the case, they are up to speed, they’ve talked to the other vet, we use Slack in our business and our which is sort of like a commercial messaging service. And our veteran and all the time it just went to this fine. I thought that’s what do you think, and he’s sharing X ray showing, you know, ultrasound? So it’s a super collaborative environment. Stacey Cordivano 16:15 Got it. Okay. I just had a question about boundaries, and then did a whole episode on it. What’s your policy on contacting vets on their days off? Or when they’re not on call? And like, how do you guys manage or control that? Mike Pownall 16:28 We try to tell people when you’re off, you’re off, you’re not expected to answer the phone. If we do contact you, it may be related to an emergency that you have information that we don’t know yet. Like, for example, maybe they didn’t get their medical records done on time, whatever, we don’t expect anybody to contact, what ends up happening is, you know, because we have slack. And even though you can put your notifications on or the office, even on days off, that’s are contributing when somebody has a case problem. And I’ve talked to them because we do annual, you know, employee reviews. And I’m like, you know, do you feel obliged. So like, No, I just one of my colleagues is in a challenge, I have the answer, or I have something that’s valuable, I’m happy to contribute that. Okay. And actually, it’s funny. It’s like Ontario, the province of Ontario just instituted a new law that’s going into effect on June, which is a Do Not Disturb after hours for all employees. So if any business I think over the 50 employees, you’re not allowed to contact them out of hours. And that’s modeled on some European countries. I think France was the first one to do it. And I was laughing. I’m like, does it make a difference to ours? Because we never, like we just said to people, you’re off, you’re off. Like, don’t answer your phone. Place is burning down? you might hear from us. I mean, why? Why bother them? They’re great. Stacey Cordivano 17:44 Yeah, yeah, I agree. But it’s still out there. Mike Pownall 17:48 I know. I know. But I just like, it’s why do we need to do that? Stacey Cordivano 17:51 Okay, well, I don’t want to keep you too long. But I do want to ask if you had any advice for owners that are struggling to keep veterinarians or if they feel like they’re struggling to create a practice where people enjoy working. Mike Pownall 18:10 I’m just writing an article on that right now. And it’s really what it comes down to, I sort of had an epiphany. I was reading a book, late 2000s, called setting the tables written by Danny Meyer, who founded a group of restaurants in New York City, and in the book is his basic thesis was, you have to take care of your employees first. Only if you take care of them, will they take care of your clients? Well, it was sort of like this big light bulb moment. And from then we shifted that we think of our staff as our first clients. And we do whatever it can to take care of them first. Because I mean, we’ve all been in those businesses, and they’re all talking about we have great customer service, and they have decals and signs all over. And it’s it’s like beyond poor mediocre, it’s like horrible, because nobody really cares. And if they don’t care about where they work with who they work for, why they’re gonna try hard for clients. So we really have this attitude of we take care of each other. So to that end, this is a long answer to a short question. We’re very focused on our core values and purpose. And these are living breathing documents. They dictate everything we do, we hire people that have shared values, we have a core purpose. And it really drives any decision making. We it’s our guiding light. And so we listen to our staff a lot like we do the annual employee engagement surveys. We’re always listening for feedback. And we try to make ourselves as responsive to staff as possible. And I think, you know, when we go through hard times, like we did with COVID, our staff was on board. And we just did some big strategy sessions with all of our staff. And one of the things I asked is What did everybody learn over the last couple of years and pretty well as unanimous that we have a great team, we take care of each other and that helped get us through the pandemic. So we have a very flat hierarchy. There’s no egos you know, I tell all the vets, you can’t do your jobs without the vet assistants and the vet assistants, If you didn’t have a vet, you wouldn’t have a job. And we get along great. And so we drive culture. That is number one. Stacey Cordivano 20:11 Great. I love that. And that’s a great quote from that book. I haven’t heard that one. So perfect. Thank you. I know that you provide a lot of services. So if someone is looking for help in this area, where can they find you or get in touch? Mike Pownall 20:24 So you can reach us, I have another business Oculus Insights, where we do business consulting, advising, and we do a lot of the employee engagement surveys. So you can just reach me at MPownall@Oculusinsights.net or just google me, LinkedIn. Stacey Cordivano 20:41 I’ll put some links in the show notes for sure. Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate the insight. Mike Pownall 20:45 Absolutely. My pleasure. Stacey Cordivano 20:47 Thanks so much for tuning in today. I hope you got some really interesting insight like I did from Dr. Pownall. I so appreciate the time he spent with us. If you will notice, I forgot to ask him my joy question. So I followed up with an email. And he said that something that has brought him joy lately has to be the onset of spring when he’s hearing birds in his backyard begin to sing as the sun rises. He says it’s a welcome sound after a long Canadian winter. I cannot believe it’s taken me 51 episodes to forget that question. And this is me, practicing what I preach and giving myself a little self compassion about forgetting to ask that question. It made me want to redo the whole thing and make him record again, but he is too busy to ask that of him. So I had to just go with it and realize that perfect is not what we’re looking for here. So anyway, next episode is going to be the last of the season four equine series. Although let’s be honest, I’m of course going to incorporate any equine aspects I can into all of my episodes, but next week, I’m going to get together with my co creators of the sustainability in equine practice seminar series. And we’re going to recap the amazing event we just held in Charlotte in March. So if you haven’t heard about it, make sure to tune in in two weeks as we recap it. As always, thank you so much for listening. I so appreciate the time that you spend with me. Stacey Cordivano 22:21 For more information or to sign up for the monthly newsletter. Please check out the newly revamped website at thewholeveterinarian.com You can also connect with me on Instagram @thewholeveterinarian. And lastly, if you have a spare moment, please leave a review on Apple podcasts if you’re enjoying the show. Thank you again so much and I will talk to you soon.

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I’m Stacey

I want veterinarians to become happier, healthier, wealthier and more grateful for this life that we’ve created.

I understand the struggles of a stretched-too-thin veterinarian. I have also learned that with some individual work, there is a brighter side to veterinary medicine. Personal and financial development strategies have helped me find a happier place in my life and in my work. I hope to share resources that will resonate with my fellow veterinarian to allow you to become a more whole person.

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