Talking teamwork with AAHA President Margot Vahrenwald, DVM
It only takes a few minutes of talking to 2022–23 AAHA Board President Margot Vahrenwald, DVM, to find out that she’s a foodie. On the day she spoke to NEWStat, she’d just heard that one of her favorite restaurants is planning to move from downtown Denver to her neighborhood of Park Hill.
“It’s one of my favorite places, but we sort of get lazy and only go to things that are within a three-minute drive,” she said.
Dr. Margot, as she’s called, is well known within that three-minute radius as the owner of Park Hill Veterinary Medical Center, which she founded in 2011. Her journey to vet med started in New Mexico and included an early career in public affairs and public relations in Washington, DC, where she did PR for everything from bees to prune powder.
She also worked in DC restaurants—where she got lessons in teamwork as a hostess at the original Austin Grill, a legend of the local dining scene. “The chef who worked there at the time was fantastic. It just was a great team. I was a hostess, so I was running around, doing everything from seating people to bussing tables,” she said.
But it was another local spot that would truly change her life. Determined that she wanted a career change, she walked to the nearest veterinary practice and asked for a job … any job … even though she had no veterinary experience.
She started at Friendship Hospital for Animals as a receptionist. This turned into going back to school for her DVM, and eventually opening her own practice in Colorado. Her belief in AAHA only grew after accreditation, and she joined the AAHA Board of Directors in 2018. Having worked as a veterinary receptionist herself, Dr. Margot’s approach is one of humility and friendliness, which extends to how she views her team.
“I’ve made lots of errors as a human, because we all make mistakes,” she said, “but I always tell my team: There's no one person who's more important in this building than anybody else. Everybody helps create the business because I can't do my job as a doctor if I don't have somebody helping clients at the front desk. I can't do my job as a doctor if I don't have assistants and certified veterinary technicians who can help with patients that allow me to leverage my time and use their expertise. Everything really is interconnected.”
Read on for more from Dr. Margot about how she got here and what she envisions for the future of AAHA.
NEWStat: Your story isn’t the usual way that people become a veterinarian. You did a lot of other things before that.
Margot Vahrenwald: I grew up for the most part in northern New Mexico in a funky town called Los Alamos, which is the home of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was the Manhattan Project during World War II, so it makes for an interesting place to grow up. But I loved animals and we always had horses and cats and dogs and all of that. And I was like, ‘Oh, I could be a veterinarian!’ but chemistry was not so kind to me in high school, and so then I thought, ‘Well, what else could I do?’
I liked writing and marketing, so my undergraduate and master's degrees are in communications, and I worked in public relations and public affairs in DC when I graduated college. But in DC everything starts rolling into politics and dealing with Capitol Hill or special interest groups. Finally, after about five years, I was like, this isn't really what I want to be doing.
I went up the street to Friendship Hospital for Animals, which has been a long-time AAHA-accredited practice, and I literally walked in with my resume and gave it to the hospital administrator and said, 'I'd like to do something. I know I have no veterinary background, but I could certainly start as a receptionist.’
… I worked there for maybe just under a year and then had to go take all the prerequisite classes. Because when you're a journalism major, you don't take much in the way of science. And then I actually applied and got Friendship as a private practice internship. So I went back and did my internship there and then stayed as a staff doctor for a while. By then I'd picked up a husband and he didn't want to stay on the East Coast forever. Then we came back to Denver.
NEWStat: For those of us who maybe aren't as familiar with Washington DC and have no idea what public relations and affairs are like there, what did your work entail?
MV: This will tell you how much that it was back in the Dark Ages—it was everything from organizing press tours for people, like one was the Chemical Manufacturers Association. I was doing things like cold-calling radio stations … and coordinating with media. I would help write press releases or do special events like book parties for an author. Sometimes it was going up on the Hill for the California Prune Association, you know, listening to regulatory hearings about different ingredients like prune powder.
NEWStat: Do any events stand out?
MV: One of my favorites was helping to set up a special press conference for the National Association of Beekeepers and Honey Manufacturers. We did it in Union Station in DC not long after that had been rescued from being a derelict train station ... We got to have this press conference and this beautiful room that had been a waiting room for the wealthy when Union Station first opened many, many years ago. It was just neat because our little favors for the attendees were bags that had a beautiful little mug that had Winnie the Pooh on it, and then different flavored honey sticks. The job involved everything from really intense situations, monitoring hearings and things like that, all the way up to these fun events like the bee press conference.
NEWStat: And now you can use all that PR and media knowledge for marketing your practice! What's one of the biggest challenges facing vet med right now?
MV: If you look at veterinary practices as a whole—within practices like mine, we're supposed to be mini experts on everything, but there's only so much encyclopedia power up here [in your brain] so it's really trying to focus on the things that are going to make the best difference for pets in terms of long-term health. One example of that is dentistry. I always am telling people: ‘You know, the more you do home oral care as well as regular, professional veterinary dentistry, you're going to have a pet who's healthier and lives longer because keeping their mouth healthy is part of keeping the whole pet healthy.’
NEWStat: Who is AAHA in your own words?
MV: It's pillars of guidance for asking ‘How can I practice the best medicine? How can I run the best business?’ Having been exposed to Friendship [Hospital for Animals in Washington DC] when we went through accreditation while I was there as a staff doctor, we had great practice accreditation specialists at that time. My boss said, ‘It's like having somebody that keeps your car functioning at peak. They look under the hood. They help you fix the things that might be getting wobbly or loose and show you better ways to do different things.’ And I always liked that analogy.
NEWStat: How has AAHA helped you be the best you can be?
MV: [AAHA accreditation] has taught me to be a better boss. Particularly at the time when I was graduating from vet school, there was zero real business education. But it was the era when a lot of people still went out and just threw out their shingle and opened their first practice. There's more I think in the curriculums now, but still not enough to really understand. I wish they'd taught us psychology and HR classes.
I was talking with some team members who've been with me a long time and basically, they said, ‘You're improving with age.’ … But for the first five to six years that I was open, I was terrified that I was messing everything up. And that didn't always mean that I was the perfect boss. I was stressed about things, so it made them think maybe I was upset with them, but most of it was internally directed. Like all of us do.
I really credit AAHA with helping me evolve in the industry. Being on the board has been a great pleasure. Recently at Connexity in Nashville, one of my board colleagues said, ‘I love hanging out with this group.’ Because, unlike other groups that we as veterinarians or business owners have, on the AAHA Board, we don't sit and talk about the nitty-gritty of a case or even sometimes of our practice. But we're looking at what is AAHA developing that helps all the practices that are members—and even beyond—through the guidelines and things like that. Each person on the board has taught me so much by sharing their opinions and experiences.
NEWStat: What will AAHA look like in 10 years?
MV: I hope in 10 years that people continue to find AAHA relevant in helping them be the best veterinarian they can be, the best employee that they could be. I’m excited for upcoming tools like [AAHA’s] certificate program, where every team member will be able to gain some expertise. Particularly for hourly team members in our space, it's these things AAHA can provide to help them get new knowledge and skills under their belt that are of immediate value to their practice, which of course raises how they feel about the work they're doing—hopefully in a positive way.
And I would hope that AAHA continues to be a trendsetter in practice culture. How do you try and run a business that supports each and every individual that works for the practice?
NEWStat: AAHA is calling 2023 ‘The Year of the Team.’ What's the best nonveterinary team that you've ever been on?
MV: There's been a couple nonveterinary teams. One of the best was when I worked for two young men who had met at UT-Austin, and they opened a restaurant [in Washington DC]. I worked at the original restaurant called the Austin Grill … The chef at the time was fantastic. It just was a great team, and I was a hostess, so I was running around, doing everything from seating people to bussing tables. It just had that sort of camaraderie where we had fun. We were goofy. They had the best playlist of any restaurant I'd ever been in: Great music that kept you up while you were on your feet all night.
NEWStat: What's your favorite team celebration food?
MV: Mine is probably Chick-fil-A, but that's my addiction. The staff gets really excited when different vendors provide team lunch—we get pizza sometimes, but we try and get away from it. Panera is fantastic food or Snarfs is a local sandwich shop that makes amazing sandwiches if we can convince the vendor to cover it. … But when it's Chick-fil-A, you know I'm happy.
NEWStat: OK, last question: Who was the first animal you ever loved?
MV: There's been a lot. The very first would have been the equivalent of my parents’ first child. They got a Rottweiler puppy just before my mom learned she was pregnant with me. Teddy lived to be 14, and he took care of me. When I was growing up, our first house in New Mexico was a pretty traditional adobe one story. My dad built a guest house so my grandparents would have a place to stay. And in between we had this kind of concrete patio that led up to where the stairs and the porch were for this little casita. I got roller skates, but there was a low stucco wall, and Teddy would always run between me and the wall to keep me from falling on it because it was a really sharp, pokey adobe at that time.
NEWStat: That's so sweet. Teddy the rottweiler.
MV: Yeah. He was great. We moved to Las Vegas not long after that and our house had a pool. It was so hot that literally I probably spent most of the summer on the bottom of the pool, playing mermaid. And every time I would come up for air, he would be sitting there waiting for me.
Learn more about the AAHA Board of Directors in this recent interview with Garth Jordan, MBA, CSM, CSPO.