Join me as I speak with Dr. Daniel Stobie, DVM, DACVS, the Chief of Staff and founder of NorthStar Vets, a specialty veterinary hospital with 3 locations in New Jersey. Dr. Stobie shares with us how he started NorthStar Vets, the growth of the hospital and how his management team supports the doctors and staff. Dr. Stobie also talks about the defined core values of the hospital and how they strive to create a collaborative culture. He describes how the hospital responds to the needs of the employees, such as by creating a student debt repayment program where NorthStar makes monthly payments to help reduce the employees student debt.
Laura: Today, I'm speaking with Dr. Dan Stobie, who is the chief of staff of NorthStar Vets , which has two locations in Robbinsville, New Jersey and Maple Shade, New Jersey. Dr. Stobie went to veterinary school at the University of Missouri, then completed an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at the Angel Memorial Hospital in Boston and then completed a surgical residency at the University of Minnesota. After his residency Dr. Stobie headed surgical service at AMC for two years and then joined e specialty hospital in New Jersey as a staff surgeon. In 2000 he formed Veterinary Surgical and Diagnostic Specialist, which was a mobile, surgical and ultrasound practice. This grew into what we know today as NorthStar Vets, which is a nationally recognized full service, veterinary emergency trauma and specialty center providing 24/7 care. It remains a privately owned hospital with its own unique culture. The hospital has over fifty five veterinarians and a large staff of technicians to support this team. NorthStar boasts a higher than average support staff to doctor ratio and is respected throughout the country as one of the best for referring veterinarian satisfaction. So, Dr. Stobie, thank you so much for speaking with me today on this podcast.
Dr Stobie: You're welcome.
Laura: Many veterinarians enjoy learning about their colleagues career paths and their current hospitals. And for the younger doctors, it can be a source of guidance and inspiration. So my first question would be, did you always know you wanted to be a veterinary surgeon and to own a large specialty hospital?
Dr Stobie: No, I did not. I just wanted to be a small animal veterinarian. And when I went to veterinary school, I didn't even know that there were specialties in veterinary medicine that I could be a specialist. But I was always intrigued by surgery when I worked for the veterinarians that I worked for in high school and college. And so when I found out I could do just surgery, that was very appealing to me and I decided to pursue that as a career.
Laura: So how did it transition from a mobile surgery ultrasound practice to a facility?
Dr Stobie: I had worked at a couple of different practices before I started my own. And I realized that there were things about how I wanted to practice and treat clients and patients a certain way that I felt. I guess I eventually had to break off on my own to do things the way I felt they should be done and how I wanted to practice. So at the time, I still was paying back student loans. I didn't have a lot of money because I did put myself through college and vet school, so I was not able to open a freestanding building. So to get started as a surgeon to start a mobile practice was the cheapest entry point for me. So I just bought a lot of surgical equipment and an autoclave. I actually had it in the garage of my house and I went around to the general practices in the area and did surgery for them. I also did a master's degree in radiology and anesthesia. So I did have some ultrasound experience and that was a big market demand for that. So I had a portable ultrasound machine. So that's kind of how I got started doing those two things for the general practitioners in my area.
Laura: And for how many years did you do that?
Dr Stobie: I did that for about three years. And as I was doing that, I realized that I wasn't using a lot of my, I was only using about 20 percent of my training as a surgeon because there's only certain things you can do on the road and in other people's practice. So some of the more advanced procedures, like total hip replacements or portasystemic shunt ligations or some of the more critical patients that needed round the clock care. I was not able to do those procedures and I did, you know, I was young enough for my career that I didn't want to give that up. So that's when I found a local emergency clinic that let me lease space from them part time. And since they had the emergency service there, I was able to do day practice out of there during the day and had their doctors and staff be able to watch my cases on the overnight. After being there, that emergency clinic got bought by a corporation and they basically gave me three months to vacate the premises. So I have only three months to find a building and get it fitted out so that to have my move my practice to. So that was a little bit of an anxiety producing time. And I found this very tiny building kind of in the middle of nowhere that was very cheap. And I leased it and we built it out. And that's where the practice started from, was a 4000 square foot building.
Laura: And how many employees did you start with?
Dr Stobie: It was just myself and I had about four or five technicians and one or two receptionists.
Laura: And what was the specialist that you hired?
Dr Stobie: I hired another surgeon part time. And we had a dermatologist that started working for us part time. And then after being in there about a month, we hired three emergency doctors to do the overnights. And then it just kind of grew from there. By the time we left that building, which was eight years later, we had about 100 people working at 4000 square feet with one bathroom. So that was a tight quarters.
Laura: And is that when you moved into your current facility?
Dr Stobie: Yes. So then during that time, we, you know the practice grew very quickly in about a year and a half we had outgrown the space, so we started looking for property to build a bigger hospital. And by the time we found the land, got the approvals, built the building, at least in our state, that's not a quick process. It took about six years from start to finish. And we moved into our thirty three thousand square foot, our main hospital building. We moved in there in 2011. And then at two thousand fifteen, we opened our satellite office at Maple Shade. And now we're getting ready to open our third location, which is a 10,000 square foot building in Brick, New Jersey, which is on the Jersey Shore and that'll be open on March 30th of this year.
Laura: Seo you mentioned when you were first talking and you were in mobile practice and there were some things you wanted to do differently. Have you incorporated those into your mission statement or overall philosophy for NorthStar?
Dr Stobie: Definitely. I mean, our mission statement is to improve the quality of life for our clients, our patients and our staff. And so everything we do kind of revolves around around that. We wanted to be good for all three of those and our referring vets.
Laura: Is that something that all of your employees espouse?
Dr Stobie: Yeah, we have our mission, our core values, our vision statement, and we go over those pretty regularly at every staff meeting. We'll usually present something on one of the core values. We try to keep that as a front of mind awareness for all the employees because it is important in all of our decision making really is based on those principles.
Laura: And when you're interviewing candidates for either a specialist position or a technician position, are there certain traits you were looking for?
Dr Stobie: Yep, we definitely go over the core values. And when I first started the practice, I used to select solely based on ability and credentials and not so much on people skills or personality. But now I having gone full circle it's just the opposite. We select really more for somebody who's a team player and a good fit and is going to be kind and helpful to the rest of the staff. I say now that we can usually train somebody to be a good technician or a good doctor, but we cannot train somebody to be a nice person. So my focus has shifted more towards the personality and less so based on the credentials.
Laura: What does a typical day look like in your hospital?
Dr Stobie: We only do specialty and emergency work, we don't do any general practice. So all of our doctors are either board certified and a specialty of veterinary medicine or we have experienced intern trained emergency veterinarians. And we round as a group every morning at 8 o'clock, go through all the cases in the hospital, take any transfers from the emergency service from the overnight, and then we will either usually start seeing appointments or doing procedures at about 9:30 in the morning. And you know, we work on that all day. And then as a group again, we round at 6:00 p.m. with the overnight doctor that's coming on duty. So they know about all the cases in the hospital.
Laura: So that's when the patients are transferred.
Dr Stobie: Yup.
Laura: And what have you found over the years to be your biggest challenges of hospital ownership?
Dr Stobie: I would say probably what everybody says. I mean, the biggest challenge is probably in the management of people. I think everybody's biggest challenges are the human resource side of things. You know, your staff is your most valuable asset but it's also the thing that probably gives you the most headaches and demands the most amount of your time. So that I would say is the biggest challenge.
Laura: Do you have a human resources department?
Dr Stobie: We do. We have a human resources manager and then an assistant that keeps track of staff development and training and where they're at in the, you know, in their progression as an employee here.
Laura: And I noticed in some of your literature that you mention student debt repayment as one of your benefits. When did you initiate that?
Dr Stobie: I initiated that last January as January of twenty nineteen. I had noticed that with the younger doctors coming out that the student loan issue was such a huge stress and burden for them. And I didn't really understand the magnitude of it until I did a survey of our doctors and out of the, you know, forty five plus doctors that we have here, I would say about 30 of them filled it out. And I would assume it's the younger doctors that still have student debt. And I was just blown away by not only the amount of total debt they have, but the monthly payments and the years of repayment and the interest rates that they had. And I felt like it was, you know, it was occupying so much of their brain time and causing so much stress for them during the day that we had to kind of tackle it kind of head on. So I'm also using it as a recruitment and retention tool because it's been challenging to hire new specialists and getting them to stay. And we're in a state that doesn't have a veterinary school that makes it a little bit more challenging, I think. So the way we do it is we, after a year of employment, and we also wanted certain goals of the hospital to be achieved if we were going to offer this benefit. So if after a year of employment, if they meet the criteria to get the benefit and I'll go over that in a second, we pay a hundred dollars a month directly to their student loan provider and that amount goes up every year that they're employed. So the first year, it's a hundred dollars a month. Second year, it's $200 a month. Third year, it's $300 a month. And so on, up to, it kind of caps out at 10 years when they get a thousand dollars a month paid directly to their student loan provider. You know, some of the things that I was not happy about it's it doesn't lower their monthly payment, but it lowers their principal. So I was hoping it would lower their monthly payments, take some of that stress off. But it doesn't. But it brings their principal down much more quickly so that they're not paying it for as long. It is taxable to the employee and to us, which I was disappointed about. But there's no way around that right now it's considered income and hopefully I've been on some committees with the AVMA that they're trying to lobby to change that. And hopefully that will get changed. Like other benefits, like health insurance or or a 401k that are not considered income, but even just paying a hundred dollars a month toward somebody's student loan takes off about two and a half years of repayment on average. So a lot of the younger doctors have this thing that if they pay the minimum amount, it'll be forgiven and they won't they won't have to pay it after so many years. But what they don't realize is that even if their loan is forgiven. So if somebody if the government forgives, you know, let's say a two hundred fifty thousand dollar loan, they're still that's considered income and they're gonna get taxed on that. And they're still gonna have to pay $80,000 in taxes approximately. Then they're going to save for that. So, yeah, we're encouraging them to pay their loans down. And we're helping them do that. And what I found was it definitely relieved a lot of their stress, some of the things that we wanted was they had to be an employee in good standing, have a good review, we obviously are a referral practice so we want them to attend referring vet events and establish relationships with them. So there's a certain number of those that they have to attend to get the benefit, they have to mentor some of the visiting students, they have to work full time. They have to make their production. So those were the criteria that we established for them to qualify for the benefit and a majority of them did. And it's been a very positive thing. It definitely feels like the stress in the hospital or their concern is, is, you know, that cloud that was weighing on them has been lifted. And we also have not had to spend, one of the other requirements was they had to cover their service and another staff members absence. Cause I'd rather give the money to them than pay per diem and our per diem costs have gone down significantly. So the benefit is really kind of covered. That helped save the practice money and improve the culture, which I'm happy about so far.
Laura: So it's a win win.
Dr Stobie: So far it's been, it has been a win win. There has not been any downside to it. So we are continuing it again this year and hope to continue it indefinitely.
Laura: I see this benefit was some of my clients, but I think it's still on the early side. It's a tremendous benefit.
Dr Stobie: I agree. And I know other practices that, you know, if they stay a certain number years, then they pay it all out at once in one lump sum payment. But what I have seen is that people kind of stay even if they're not happy. And they do it just to get that money at the end and as soon as they get it, they leave. And I did not want that for us, which is why we have it, you know, pay it out during the course of the year, monthly, directly to their student loan provider. And that way, if they do, if they're not happy or they choose to leave, then, you know, there's not this lump sum that we're paying and then the person's gone and it gives them incentive to see, I mean, a lot of them have commented that when they get their student loan bills, they see that money, their principal coming down much more quickly than it was before. And I think that that's a good motivator incentive for them.
Laura: Absolutely. I would think so.
Dr Stobie: Yeah.
Laura: So, we've talked about your hospital culture espousing the core values, this benefit. What else do you do there to engage your technicians, your specialists?
Dr Stobie: We have events during the year to get everybody together, you know, that are not necessarily educational, but more for fun to try to get everybody together as a group and spend time together outside of work. We also have different contests during the year to, you know, like Halloween and we have a pumpkin carving, pumpkin decorating contest that the different departments participate in. Some friendly competition. And then we auction those off to clients for money that goes to the foundation that helps people that can't afford veterinary care. We do the same thing with holiday wreath decorating around the winter holidays. So we do different things like that that I think promotes, you know, a fun environment as well, instead of it just being, you know, all work and education and medicine.
Laura: Are there specific charities that NorthStar supports?
Dr Stobie: Well, we work with a lot of obviously rescue groups and shelters and things like that. We have our own internal foundation that was started by the staff during the recession many years ago because so many animals are being euthanized at fixable problems because people couldn't afford to get them taken care of and it was a real, it's very demoralizing for the staff. Got them all very depressed because they were working so hard and coming to work every day and not being able to take care of these animals. So that was started by them many years ago and it's still going on. And it allows people to get grants for pets that have, you know, fixable problems where the client just can't afford to do it. And there's some, again, criteria that has to be met. Showing financial need with income tax statement or a disability statement or Social Security statement. And if they qualify for a grant, it usually gives the person enough that they can get their aid. They don't give them all the money because they want the client to have some some skin in the game and some responsibility. But it usually is enough that they can get the pet taken care of.
Laura: That's tremendous and I'm sure that did so much to improve employee morale.
Dr Stobie: Definitely, because, you know, one of the things is, you know, as everybody knows in veterinary medicine, the doctors nor the technicians do it for the money. I mean, people do it really for their love of animals and the people attached to them. And so when they're not able to do that, it's really hard to come to work every day and, you know, just have that day after day. I don't think anybody you know, we always get sad when an animal is euthanized because, you know, their time has come and that's hard enough. But when it's fixable, problems like a puppy with a fracture or, you know, something like that and the animal is just getting euthanized because solely due to economic reasons, that makes it really difficult to. That was really hard on the staff. And so being able to do that really was a big morale booster for everyone.
Laura: Absolutely. And I think the fact that your hospital created that is another benefit on top of it.
Dr Stobie: And it's still it's still in effect. And, you know, the doctors liked that because especially for all the all the departments. But I think emergency's the most worth. Something comes in not referred, off the street. And many of the times, you know, those are usually things that are somewhat catastrophic or even an animal that has a foreign body that's a clearly fixable problem. And it's somebody that doesn't have the resources to do the surgery. And so nobody wants to put an animal to sleep just for financial reasons.
Laura: Right. So looking back, Dr. Stobie, what are some of the proudest moments of your career?
Dr Stobie: I think probably the proudest moment is when our hospital, the building had won the vet economics award for, you know, best referral hospital, which was which was a proud moment. But that's really about just the building and the design of it. And we have all of our facilities are beautiful and well designed. But I think the proudest moment was when we won the AHAA referral practice of the year 2013, because that really speaks more to the medicine and the business and the culture of the practice and winning that as the best referral practice in the country was probably definitely one of the highlights of my career.
Laura: I'm sure that's a tremendous award.
Dr Stobie: And now we've done some clinical trials at the hospital and and seeing our people present those at national meetings of some new and innovative things. That definitely is making me very proud of our staff.
Laura: And so what's on the horizon for NorthStar.
Dr Stobie: That's a good question. Well, we're opening this new satellite office. So that is taking up a lot of time and brainpower at the moment. And we're adding a radiation therapy center. And beyond that, just, you know, we try to focus on just specialty in emergency medicine and not, you know, it can be very easy to try to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. So that's why we don't do general practice or house calls or lots of other avenues, which it can be very tempting to try to get into multiple businesses. But I think focusing on just those few areas that we do really, really well and sticking to that has been the key to our success and not diluting our energy too much, but just being great at at specialty in emergency medicine and not trying to do a million different things like with, you know. Farming diets or supplements or doing house calls or traveling stuff or, because you can, you know, it's very tempting to to get into all these different business models and do them all, but not be good at really any one thing.
Laura: Did you say your radiation therapy, is that at the Robbinsville location?
Dr Stobie: That's going to be added at the Robbinsville location. That's really where, that's the big hospital, its like the hub for everything, where, you know, anything and everything can get done there. The satellite offices offer probably about 80 to 90 percent of the services. But some of the larger things like total hip replacements or MRI. Some of the advanced imaging arthroscopy, those have to be done at the at the large hospital.
Laura: Got it. Well, thank you, Dr. Stobie.
Dr Stobie: Well, I appreciate you asking me to talk to you today.
Laura: Absolutely. I love talking to hospital owners and veterinary specialists and learning about their careers and what they're up to. And again, many of your colleagues really enjoy learning and listening as well.
Dr Stobie: I'm always willing to help other people because I think we can learn a lot from each other and, you know, the years of experience. And I find that, you know, going to, talking to other veterinarians and just hearing how they tackle different problems in their practice or their business has probably been better than any of the lectures that I've ever gone to.
Laura: I would agree from what I hear from my clients. The camaraderie at the other hospital owners, the support they receive.
Dr Stobie: And you know, as a group, we're pretty innovative and and smart group of people. So hearing how another veterinarian tackled or solved a problem. You know, people come up with some very clever and innovative ways and things they use, things that you would never think of. And so learning from their experience is always a great way to implement new ideas.
Laura: Ok, well, great. Thank you so much.
Dr Stobie: No problem. Anytime. Good talking to you.
Laura: You, too. Thank you, Dr. Stobie.