Banfield Pet Hospital President Brian Garish on leadership and cultivating company culture

Banfield Pet Hospital President Brian Garish began his career stocking shelves, sweeping floors, mopping, bathrooms, and cashiering. Dropping out of college after one semester, Garish was able to rise through the ranks at firsts Walgreens and then CVS. Now, as the leader of the largest veterinary practice in the world, he’s on a mission to lead the industry in issues across the board and create the best company culture possible.

Ladders caught up with Garish to find out how Banfield is leading the industry around issues like student debt and mental health, as well as how he uses Instagram to create an engaged workforce.

What are you most excited about at Banfield right now?

“I’m most excited about a couple of things. First is we have the best retention in the history of our company, and that means our associates are voting with their feet by staying. And so that’s been really a big focus…it’s a reflection of our culture. So my top priority has been culture.

The second priority, equally as important, is our strategic direction of the company. But strategy without empathy is a wasted idea, and if you don’t have the right culture, people won’t stay. At Banfield and the industry, these professionals and associates love pets. And this is why they’re here. So to be able to have a big focus on culture, and a big focus on people and making it a better world for people so they can make a better world for pets.

The other thing I’m really proud of is that as an organization that we’re really focused on societal wellbeing. And a lot of the initiatives, projects, and plans are centered around, how do we make a better world? How do we become a beacon for how a company ought to behave? And we have numerous examples of where we’re tackling issues in society that are issues for our people. And we’re taking a stand for how a company ought to behave with respect to helping people. And then we’re helping people, and as a result, we’re impacting more pets.”

Can you give us some examples of that?

“One example would be around student debt. So student debt is a big issue in this country, depending on the statistic that you read, anywhere from 1.4 to 1.6 trillion dollars of student debt. It’s been crippling for so many people.

Well, it’s an issue in this country, it’s an issue in our industry because veterinarians have the highest student debt to income ratio of anyone. It creates a lot of issues for veterinarians. It creates issues mentally around, I have financial burdens, and that ties into our health and wellbeing journey.

So if I quickly mention that we have a health and wellbeing journey that’s focused on a healthy mind, healthy finances, healthy body, healthy career, and healthy community. And that health and wellbeing journey are things that we want to understand, issues in society, issues that our people are experiencing. And how do we have the responsibility to help them?

So again, student debt is an issue in this country. It’s an issue in this industry. We created a student debt repayment program. So we’re one of only 4% of companies to do that.

Another issue in this country is suicide and mental health. Is it an issue in our industry? Yes. Well, how? One in six veterinarians seriously contemplates suicide at some point. It’s one of the highest professions. One in 10 veterinarians actually has some big mental health issues as well that they’re dealing with.

So understanding that it’s an issue in society, it’s an issue in our industry, what’s our responsibility to our people? So we partnered with the AVMA American Veterinary Medical Association. We’ve created really the first of its kind in our industry, around a program for suicide and mental health prevention. It’s called ASK: assess, support, and know. We created this program because mental health is a huge issue, and it’s sad. As a business, we have a responsibility to do something for our people. We’ve created this not just for our people, but we’re going to give this to the industry, and hopefully be that beacon for other businesses to say, ‘this is a responsibility.’

One of the things that we’re doing around this training, if I step back, we have over a thousand hospitals, over 19,000 associates, across 42 states. And it’s tough when you have a dispersed workforce. So how do you communicate and how do you really connect?

The training is designed to one, break the stigma that it’s not okay to talk about. Two, training our associates to be able to create the environment, so we can talk about if we’re having issues, or I can recognize if something’s happening may be in your life, and receive the training to be able to have the conversation.

So the statistic was one in six veterinarians. So between now and 1/6 of 2020, we’re going to close all of our hospitals for two hours to conduct this training s that every single associate can have this training to be able to identify and properly have a conversation.”

How does Banfield aim to lead the industry?

“I think through societal wellbeing. So, how do we want to lead the industry? We are focused on the intersection of pet health, human health, and societal wellbeing. That is with a belief, we can improve human health through pet health. By having a strong focus on societal wellbeing, we want to become a leader, not just in the veterinary industry, but in all of business for how do you really understand those societal issues? And not just have a statement about it, but actually do something about it…really being good socially around the responsibility that we have.

So those are some examples. I’ll just give you another quick example. We have a Banfield foundation. What would you expect the Banfield foundation to do? Yes, give services in a disaster situation, work with humane societies and shelters, provide some free services. We do all that, which was what you’d expect. We really challenged our team to say, ‘What are the bigger things in society that impact pets, that our foundation can really put a spotlight on a societal issue, and make some societal change?’

So the team came back, and I was really proud because they uncovered something. It’s sad, unfortunately. So there’s over 10 million reported cases of domestic abuse in this country and 89% of abusers threatened to kill, harm, or maim a pet.

So imagine being in an abusive situation, the pet that you love, that human-animal bond that we have with our pets, and that just unconditional love that a pet gives us… now is being threatened. You finally have the courage to leave. And often where people go when they experience this, they go to a shelter.

Less than 10% of shelters are equipped to take care of pets and 49% of abuse victims go back to an abusive situation because they’re scared for their pet safety. We should not be ever in a situation where people have to pick their safety or their pet safety. We should be able to have the right conditions, environment, and candidly, laws, to prevent people from having to make that decision.

So we created a safer together initiative. The safer together initiative is really around making shelters pet-friendly. So when people have the situation, when they seek refuge, they can actually bring their pet and protect their pets as well.”

Being the leader of the largest veterinary practice in the world is a very unique position. How would you say your role differs from that of other company heads?

“I don’t think it differs, because I think the responsibility of every leader of an organization is to create the right culture, to create the conditions where people can be their best, and be their authentic self at work. And you create a strategic direction for people to really bring that to life.

I think what’s important for any leader is to listen and have a conversation with people. And when you can have a two-way conversation with people, by hearing their voice, you allow their voice to help shape the strategic direction of the company. So no matter what your size is, I think that’s important for all leaders to do.”

It’s obvious company culture is very important to you. Can you talk about yours a bit?

“So how I like to describe our culture, it’s really about listening and engaging. So if I step back just really quickly, I started my career at Walgreens. I was 16 years old, stocking shelves, sweeping floors, mopping, bathrooms, cashiering. You name it, I did it.

After high school, I went to college for one semester and I dropped out. And then I was scared. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. And I had a strong mentor take me under his wing, and really showed the potential that I had, and brought it out of me.

And I’m so thankful for all that he did. But that experience was so important. It guided me on who I am today. Because I was scared. I had no idea what I was going to do. And I felt like I had to prove that I was worthy of this job. And I had to just work harder to get where I needed to get.

So having those experiences of working my way up through the company, I know what it feels like when my voice was heard when my voice wasn’t heard. So having experienced that, it always shaped me to who I am of, those closest to the customer have the best insights and have the best advice on what’s working or what’s not working. So when I think about culture, to your question, it’s, how can I connect with the most number of associates in a truly authentic and open way, where I can really hear their voice, but I can also engage with them?

So I use Instagram. So I use social media. Social media is so powerful today, and people are essentially living lives on social media. I am meeting them where they are, creating a platform to engage with them and to talk with them. So on Instagram, this is my handle, Brian_Garish. Any of our associates can follow me…obviously, anyone can follow.

We launched something last year called banter with Brian, and it was an opportunity just to answer questions. I used the sticker format, and said, ask me any questions. And now I get over 500 questions a month. And so over the course of the year, I received over 6,000 questions.

And so, I share that example because to me that’s about how I can listen at scale. Yes, we have over 19,000 associates and I haven’t talked to everyone, but creating the conditions in which people can reach out in a safe way, without retaliation, is so important.

And I catalog these thoughts. I work with our executive team, or just our functions on, here are the questions that are coming in. How do we communicate this stronger? What’s our stance on this? What do we need to change? And we make a lot of changes based on the feedback. So that just creates that culture of openness, transparency, and I just want to show up in a fun, authentic way.”

Is there anyone question that stuck out to you?

“Oh, there’s a lot of questions. We’ve changed a lot of policies based on questions. So whether that’s our dress code, we changed our dress code, and I made the announcement on Instagram. And what’s interesting, we look at open rates of emails… an open rate on a great email can be 18%. I think one of our best ever was 30%.

And I made an announcement on changing our policy, just based on the conversation of, can we do this, or why aren’t we able to do this any longer? It’s been hugely successful. At the time, I don’t remember the follower count. It’s irrelevant, but it’s only relevant in the context of the percentage of engagement. If I did a video, maybe I only had 400 likes, or views, or something like that. I did this video with someone dancing and announcing the change of our scrub policy. It had 2,500 views. It was six times than anything else. It’s feels like hugely successful.

The best questions I like too, that I personally like, are just personal questions that people ask. I get a lot of questions on advice, books read, best leadership advice, but then also what do you to do when you’re not working? Where do you like to visit? Things of that nature. And why do I like that? Because it’s a way for them to see me as not just a person in Banfield. They get to see my personal side as well.

Everything you read now, it seems like people are just really starving for that authentic, transparent, compassionate leadership and they want to know who the leader is, not who they are at work, but who are they as outside of work? Sometimes we’re just only identified with the work that we do, versus we have another side. So it’s nice to be able to share the other side.”

I’m sure your Instagram followers already know, but I’m curious, do you have any pets?

“I have two kittens, Ashen and Kenji. I’m laughing because I post about them a lot. They’re nine months old now, nine months in four days.

Ashen is a big kitten. He has a fascination with ice. And so he now knows where ice comes from on the refrigerator. So I have a daughter and my daughter… I don’t ever use ice. I just drink warm water. My daughter loves ice. So he understands ice comes from this machine, so he now goes up and can almost push the ice button. So I just posted out the story and that generated a lot of fun enthusiasm from everybody.

My other little kitten had a broken leg and it was terrible. So he just got his cast off. And so he’s now starting his rehabilitation process. But yeah, I have two kittens and they’re pretty adorable.”

What would you say has been the most surprising aspect of this role?

“I’m inspired by our veterinarians in our teams. I came from a pharmacy, and I’ve spent a lot of time in different healthcare organizations, not working in them, but working side by side, and understanding the nuances, or the similarities between organizations. All healthcare professionals are very purpose-driven.

Veterinarians just have this unbelievable connection and calling in life. I completely underestimated it. With resounding consistency, I’m just amazed at how many people have a similar story…I received a pet when I was 9, and I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. And whether it’s 9, 7, 10, 13, there’s this unbelievable compassion and desire to make a difference in pets’ lives.

I think one of the veterinarians that summed it up,  probably most memorable was, ‘I knew I had a calling to help, but I wanted to help something that couldn’t help itself.’ And if you think about it, pets really can’t help themselves. They’re dependent on us. And that relationship that we have with pets, that unconditional love that they provide, and then that love we provide back to them. In terms of just obviously loving them, but then also caring for them in ways that helps them is important. They can’t do that without us.”

So you mentioned that people often ask you for leadership advice. So, as you moved up throughout your career, how did you learn to delegate?

“How did I learn to delegate? Well having the best people, and when you step out of the way and seeing them actually do it better than how you would do it, or how you even though, was the best lesson ever learned.

I remember having been a store manager and then becoming a district manager. I had my way of doing it in a store. And I remember conducting a meeting, and just getting agreement on where we’re going. But in my mind, I knew exactly how it should look. And I went to the first few stores, and it wasn’t right. And I was not happy, probably disappointed. And I’m like, ‘Oh no, it’s not right. So here’s how you got to do it.’ And they said, ‘Okay good, I’ll do it that way.’ And I was probably at two or three stores.

Then I went to this other store, and it wasn’t done right either. It was actually done much better. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s not how I envisioned it.’ And I’ll never forget the store manager. He goes, ‘Is it bad?’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s better than I thought.’ I’ll never forget that because I had to suspend judgment to make sure that I could learn from others, and that others had a better way of doing it. But that returning authority to people…they know what’s expected, and letting them do it, and staying out of their way is important.

But the other lesson I learned from that was when it wasn’t done right, not to tell them. It was to ask better questions or ask more powerful questions, so they can get the insights, or they can work with others to get insights on their own. So it didn’t create a dependency on me, because if they were dependent on me as a leader, that’s not going to be sustainable. I’m not building transferable skills. I’m just creating a cycle of dependency, which wouldn’t be good.”

Has your experience at two major pharmacy brands influenced the way you manage and direct your company culture?

“Yeah, I would say absolutely. Going back to Walgreens, I learned two things early on in my career. The first one was the mentorship and people development. The second one was culture. At ages 16 through 21, culture was amazing. It was a fantastic company. Walgreen’s management team was always one of the top-rated management teams in the country of all businesses. The culture was fantastic. People just didn’t leave, and retention was incredible.

Then they had CEO changes, and they grew so fast and made a lot of leadership changes. And that’s when I really learned, no matter your role as a leader, you’re a leader. And as a leader you’re responsible for the culture that you create because people are looking at you for your leadership. So if you were a store manager, you create the culture of that store, and your team was expecting you to create the right culture. So that really shaped me in terms of culture.

So not to say I didn’t learn any of that at CVS, of course I did. But those early lessons really stuck with me. And when I went to CVS, I got to be on the other side of that, because CVS was a company that grew through acquisition. So I was at Indianapolis at the time, and we purchased… Well, if I step back. Indianapolis was Hook’s Drug Stores, which was purchased by Revco, and Revco was purchased by CVS. So there was this mismatch of really three cultures. When I joined, you had the old Hook’s culture, you had this Revco culture for a couple of years, and then you had CVS culture coming in. And you could see what was great, and where the opportunities were, and how it impacted people.

And then we purchased Osco Drugs. And then we had some Osco Drugs in Indianapolis that we had to acquire, and so now you had a fourth culture. And then when I went to South Carolina, that was an old acquisition, and that was a different culture. New York was a whole other different culture. And then California was an old Longs Drug stores, and in which that culturally was different from CVS, but the acquisition really didn’t take.

So my point for sharing that is I still remember the culture I experience, and said no matter what people are experiencing, or what they have experienced, I’m now here, and it’s my responsibility to create a safe environment and to set direction for where we’re going, and teach and get people aligned on those expectations. And empower them to be able to bring this culture to life, because I can’t fix what has occurred, but I can only create the conditions and expectations for how people ought to be treated going forward.”

What advice would you give to someone interviewing at Banfield?

“That’s a great question. If they’re interviewing at Banfield, I think it would be important. I’m very excited about the shift and change we’re making in culture. We still have a long way to go with it to make sure everyone’s experiencing the right culture, obviously.

So what I love is when people give feedback on ways in which we can improve, and what they like. So it’s always good to hear good things too, right? So I think when they interview…where I was going was almost an onboarding question. When they come on board, how do we make sure we keep that newness alive, and we learn from it?

So let me go down this track for a quick second. I’ll say this, I think it’s important for people in interviewing, not just at Banfield, for any company, to understand what the culture is and what the end state of the culture is. How is that evolving, and how’s that showing up? How can they contribute to that in ways that bring it to life, but also that gives feedback on, yeah, these five things are right on and we love these, this is great, but what about these things here?

Because at some point everyone becomes not new, and they become acclimated and they become part of that culture. The only way you can continuously improve is if people give feedback and use their voice. So I would say for somebody who’s interviewing, in the event, they come on board, how would they continue to perpetuate the culture that we’re trying to strive for? So how could they reinforce the culture that is there, and where we’re still working to evolve it, how could they contribute to that?”