Growing Number of Veterinary Students Gain Business Edge with VBMA Membership

For the first time in 15 years of teaching career development – previously practice management – at Colorado State University, Gary Burge, DVM, is working with students who are equally interested in business success as they are in good medicine. Burge, who is the national faculty advisor for the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA), is pleased to see aspiring doctors who recognize the value of strong business skills. “I think they’re going to change the way that practices operate in the future,” said. “They embrace the concept that you can be a good doctor and financially independent.”

Created in 2001 by students at the University of Pennsylvania, the VBMA now has 1,000 members in 16 chapters across the country. The group offers hours of business education on personal and professional finance, communication and management skills, and continues to grow in size as students from veterinary colleges across the country call and request membership information. Professional speakers lecture on profit and loss statements, the difference between accounts payable and receivables and financial security to a student body faced with large debt loads and lofty professional aspirations. VBMA members have been told that veterinarians struggle with business decisions, which affects their ability to acquire wealth, and they want to be different.

“My generation values the balance of work and life, but we realize that we need to make the most out of those [working] hours,” said Meghan Stalker, past national president of the VBMA and a fourth-year student at the University of Pennsylvania.

“That joke, ‘you’re pursuing a career in veterinary medicine where you’ll work harder than the MDs and make a whole lot less,’ always bothered me,” said Andrew Roark, co-president of the University of Florida VBMA chapter. “I love what I do but I should be able to feed my family, get out of debt and make enough money so that I can give back to charitable organizations,” he said. That is one of the reasons he joined the VBMA as a freshman along with 40 other classmates.

VBMA members pay $5 to $10 in annual dues, which entitles them to educational seminars and monthly mailings that include transcripts from sessions, articles of interest and book recommendations. Annual membership for school chapters is $250, which is covered by Hill’s Pet Nutrition, the group’s national sponsor.

In 2004, the University of Florida VBMA chapter attracted 60 paying members in its first operating year, making it the second largest student group on campus, Roark said. He credits that high demand to rising average student debt-loads of $81,999 compared to average associate salaries of $54,000 and the goal of increasing yearly salaries.

“Most veterinarians don’t have any idea how they should set prices,” Roark said. “You can only raise fees for so long, but if you implement better business practices,” there is no limit. Roark has scheduled Herb Cohen, presidential advisor to Presidents Carter and Reagan and author of “You Can Negotiate Anything” to speak to the Florida VBMA chapter next year about compliance issues along with seven other professional speakers.

The group supplements the business education that students get in school; that education adds up to about two weeks, Roark estimates. The University of Pennsylvania VBMA chapter designed a new certificate program with 50 hours of business education that was adopted by the University of Pennsylvania last month. That move, along with the growing roster of students across the country, supports the notion that students are hungry for business knowledge, Stalker said.

“[Our] members enter the workplace with an appreciation for the importance of business knowledge even if they are not in ownership positions,” she said. Describing the benefits of membership, Stalker added, “It’s an investment in yourself that gives you a new set of diagnostic skills. If you understand leadership, being a part of a practice team, how to motivate clients to follow your recommendations, [and know how to] market services and [manage] basic finances you can contribute [to the clinic] on a whole new level.”

VBMA members will also be better prepared to make business recommendations, Stalker said. “We need to understand what things cost, not just identify the need for new equipment. We need to be able to show a cost-benefit analysis to prove that it [the new piece of equipment] would be a sound investment for the practice.”

Toward this goal, VBMA chapters host a series of educational seminars throughout the year that cover client communication, marketing, leadership, personnel management and personal finance. Meetings are hosted monthly or twice per semester, depending on the chapter, to supplement a college’s curriculum.