Taking matters into their own hands

Organization teaches students personal finance, business management
Published on January 15, 2012
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Kristen Britton admits that, heading into veterinary college, she, like many of her fellow students, was naive about the business side of the profession. What mattered to them was learning technical skills and practicing good medicine.

Three years later, she's learned those things are only part of what makes a veterinarian successful. The rest comes from a knowledge of personal finance and business management.

"It doesn't matter if you're an associate or business owner, you need to have those skills, going into the profession. That's something that was previously lacking (in the veterinary curriculum), and we're trying to make up for it now," said Britton, a third-year student at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

The "we" she is referring to are members of the Veterinary Business Management Association, a student-run organization aimed at educating members on how to get hired, become a successful associate, and own or buy a practice. Students get a crash course in money matters as diverse as Roth IRAs, exchange-traded funds, and loan repayment and consolidation.

The VBMA has chapters at all 28 U.S. veterinary schools and colleges, two each in Australia and the Caribbean, and one in England. There are more than 3,000 members, which is an impressive feat, considering the association just went national in 2003.

Dr. Meghan Stalker Wood had created the VBMA at the University of Pennsylvania a few years earlier as a way to provide real-world skills missing from what was being taught in the classroom.

"We want to take the passion a lot of students have and build on that and make them successful in their career as far as the business aspect goes," said Britton, the 2012 national president of the VBMA. "Even just knowing where your salary comes from, how much the cost of spays is, and how much that is going to cost your business if you give that away is important. If you put all that together and you're financially sound about your career, then you can make a great living at it, and you don't have to be a poor veterinarian."

We want to take the passion a lot of students have and build on that and make them successful in their career as far as the business aspect goes.

Kristen Britton, 2012 national president, Veterinary Business Management Association

One piece of advice the VBMA wants to instill in members is that they should evaluate whether going into an internship is in their best interest. Britton said part of the problem is that some veterinary students lack confidence in their abilities to practice medicine right out of school. They often pursue internships even if they don't plan to do a residency afterward.

"We say you do have all the skills you need to practice, and if you have a great mentor and go out there, you can do this without doing an internship," she said.

Each chapter hosts a certain number of lectures and events every year with invited guest speakers who are veterinarians, business consultants, or other experts in their field.

And just this past August, the VBMA rolled out a national certification program to standardize the offerings among chapters. Certification typically takes two years to earn. Silver certification requires 15 hours and gold certification at least 30 hours of education, broken up among topics in finance, practice ownership, business management, employee management, and career path and preparation.

Already, more than half the chapters have signed up.

Going one step further, two of the largest VBMA chapters—UPenn and Washington State—also offer their own capstone experience for members.

Kathleen Hall, WSU's VBMA vice president, said the capstone experience is intended to tie together skills that members learn from the VBMA. Popular options have been to write a business plan or put together a self-marketing plan. The latter involves developing a resume, writing a letter of intent, reviewing five clinics where the member would like to work and explaining why, discussing one's core values, and explaining how these clinics fulfill them.

"It's something you'd have to do, anyway, when looking for a job. You also interview practice owners and find out common interview questions and talk about how you want to answer those, and how you would follow up on an interview," Hall said.

Once completed, the capstone projects are sent to business professionals and veterinarians with a rubric for them to grade the VBMA members on.

"It proves to yourself you learned something and it's something you'll use in the future, so (you might as well) do it now when people review it for you," Hall said.

Simply making practice owners aware of what the VBMA and its certification means is the association's biggest challenge at this point, Britton said.

"Our members may not have all our technical veterinary skills refined yet, but we know how to build a website and balance the books and how to be a contributing member of the veterinary team," she said. "We can help you grow your business."

Visit www.vbma.biz for more information about the Veterinary Business Management Association.