Exit interview: The NAVC’s Tom Bohn
He helped transform the North American Veterinary Community from a 22-person organization into one that greatly expanded its workforce, budget and mission. Now he’s taking his drive, talent and ideas elsewhere.
Tom Bohn, CAE, MBA, joined the North American Veterinary Community, publisher of Today’s Veterinary Business, as CEO in January 2013. This past fall he announced his resignation and subsequent move from Orlando, Florida, to Chicago, where he will serve as CEO of the Association for Corporate Growth.
Today’s Veterinary Business: Before you were hired at the NAVC, you were CEO of another nonprofit organization, the Institute of Financial Operations, and executive vice president of the Institute of Internal Auditors. What did you discover about the veterinary profession that you didn’t know at the time?
Bohn: From the outside looking in, it always looked so positive. People think, “Oh, they’re working with puppies and kittens,” and that type of thing. But given the amount of stress, personal turmoil and compassion fatigue, and really all the difficult issues that veterinarians face from running their businesses, I didn’t realize how absolutely brutal it all was.
How would you describe the state of the veterinary industry?
It’s going through a period of rapid change, and no one is quite sure where it’s going to settle. Just look at things like consolidation, telehealth and the number of people who are not looking to vet school and instead are tilting toward human medicine because of the income they can produce doing that instead. It’s changing so rapidly that I’m not sure anyone can say definitively what it’s going to look like in 10 years.
And then on top of that, the veterinary industry, unlike a lot of other industries, does not really have a strong centralized voice to help navigate all that. It’s going to be interesting to see who can step up. The NAVC has done a big piece of that, but I’m not sure that NAVC can do it alone.
At least in the United States, the American Veterinary Medical Association would take on that responsibility, right?
The AVMA is filled with really good people whose intent is absolutely strong, but their governance structure truly precludes them from moving as rapidly as everything moves today. I have incredible respect for [AVMA CEO] Janet Donlin, and I think she’s done an amazing job in the time she’s been there. The AVMA’s biggest challenge has nothing to do with the talent on their team. It has everything to do with their governance structure, and until they get their hands around fixing that, they’re not going to be able to do the things that I know they’re absolutely capable of doing, and most association industry consultants agree.
How important is good governance to an association’s overall success?
Well, if you look at what some of the leading association experts say, it’s critically important. In fact, in the book “Race to Relevance,” they deem it one of the five radical changes that need to be in place for associations to survive today. And the focus is on small, nimble boards that truly reflect where the profession is going, not where it’s been. That’s critical for any organization today.
You’re known for embracing disruption. Why is disruption a good thing?
I like to use examples of different groups that have gone through significant changes and turmoil. You look at the newspaper industry, which has been completely devastated. The same thing has happened to network TV and advertising in general. To me, disruption is not a matter of “Do you like it?” or “Do you not like it?” If we don’t embrace disruption in a way that makes sense and allows organizations to go along on the ride, it’s going to leave a lot of people behind. Disruption is happening in associations, where a lot of them are a mere shadow of what they were just five, six, seven years ago. Comfort is not good for anyone, any individual or any business.
After arriving at the NAVC, you took responsibility for a number of initiatives. One was the Veterinary Innovation Council. Why is VIC important?
It’s the leading voice and force behind the veterinary telehealth initiative, and we’ve seen tremendous progress. The amount of support and resources pouring into it have been incredible. And now VIC is looking at heightening the value and use of veterinary nurses and creating the veterinary nurse practitioner position. Those are game-changing, disruptive and necessary. You’re not seeing anyone else do it. You didn’t see anyone talking about telehealth much when VIC started and now it’s the topic du jour.
The NAVC launched three certification programs under your leadership: Human Animal Bond, Pet Nutrition Coach and Veterinary Business Leader. Why did the NAVC get involved in certification programs and why are they important?
Learning itself is changing very rapidly. If you look at the younger folk, they like certificates of achievement and recognition, a beginning point and an end point to their learning journey. Certification offers that. It also offers the opportunity for practitioners to differentiate themselves to clients and say, “These things are important to me,” whether it’s pet nutrition or human-animal bond. It’s a way for the practitioner to say, “I understand what you’re dealing with. I took the time to learn about it so that I can provide your pet with the absolute best care.”
Another thing you helped launch is the Retriever job app. Why do it?
We always talk about the VMX conference as the place where the veterinary community comes together and connects. Retriever is a really good way to connect people in a job seeker’s market. Practice owners are desperate to find folks and the traditional ways of doing that — job boards, online, the old tools you see associations using — are dated. Retriever is kind of a dating service for finding jobs. There are 12,000 people in the system. Retriever’s a year in and we’ve been really impressed with the results.
What is the most significant change you brought to the NAVC?
The entrepreneurial, open-minded, fun-spirited culture, and the high level of professionals we’ve attracted to the team. The reality is, all I’ve done is create a platform for people to succeed. That’s all I do.
From where do your best ideas come?
Looking at the for-profit sector, things like Amazon and Netflix. I mean, the NAVC’s Spark TV was born out of the whole idea of Cheddar TV, which is a startup online news channel. I was at a meeting with the founding CEO, who also founded BuzzFeed, and said, “We need the same type of thing to celebrate and talk about the veterinary community.” And they launched Spark. It’s a big success, and it’s now being emulated by other associations.
What’s the biggest risk you took at the NAVC?
Canceling the contracts at the Gaylord and Marriott hotels and moving the annual conference, now VMX, to the Orange County Convention Center. We wound up being sued and had to pay money. It was the best decision we ever made as an organization. It was stressful and hard and one of the bravest, smartest things our team did.
When you became CEO in 2013, the NAVC had a $11.5 million annual budget. Today it’s about $27.5 million. Where does a not-for-profit organization find that kind of money?
It started with growth of the annual conference and the NAVC’s media division. Also, it comes from a combination of sponsorships, user fees and registrations — those types of things. But the NAVC is also very different in the sense that we’ve done three acquisitions. You don’t see not-for-profit associations doing acquisitions very often, so we kind of turned that whole concept upside down and said, “We’re no different than any other business that has to do things differently and quickly and outperform before someone else does it.
When you started, the NAVC had 22 employees. How many now?
We’re at 83. It’s been quite a trajectory of folks. But the thing I’m probably most proud of is that those original 22, by and large, are still here with us today.
The words often used at the NAVC are “team” and “teamwork.” What’s the most difficult part of building a successful team?
It’s being very honest and realistic about people’s capabilities and the fact that oftentimes they’re not on the right seat in the bus, and getting them to understand they need to move to a different seat or get off the bus. Lots of times, people tend to have the absolute talent necessary but not the right attitude. I’ll take attitude and positivity over specific skills any day.
How do you deal with failure?
I come from a very blue-collar family that never forgot where we started, what we did and how we got there. Failure is literally in my DNA. I fail every day. But then you get back up and keep pushing on. If you’re not failing, you’re not achieving. We tried an event in Portland, Oregon, that was a complete dud, but we learned a lot about it and got better at handling such things.
What’s the most important thing people should know about you?
When I take on a role, whether it’s at the NAVC or the Association for Corporate Growth, I put my heart and soul into it. It becomes an extension of what and who I am. And I drive that to a point where I don’t think I can contribute at the same level anymore. And that’s really what happened at the end of the day with the NAVC. It was nothing more than “I think it’s time to step off the train and board one where I can be more effective.”
After nearly seven years at the NAVC, what do you want to be known for?
Probably two things: That he brought a great culture to his team and cared about his team, and that he tried to make a difference to the veterinarian profession. I am a huge fanboy of all things veterinary.
Ken Niedziela is editor of Today’s Veterinary Business.
Under Tom Bohn’s leadership, the North American Veterinary Community:
- Increased attendance at VMX by 28%, turning the annual event into one of the world’s top 15 global medical conferences.
- Created the NAVC’s publishing platform and the digital TV channel Spark. The NAVC has become the veterinary industry’s largest publisher, reaching more than 180,000 journal subscribers and 1.9 million video views.
- Developed and launched the NAVC’s e-learning platform VetFolio and expanded the overall number of continuing education hours from 100,000 a year to 329,000 hours.
- Built and fostered a work culture and environment that led to the NAVC being recognized by the Orlando Sentinel as one of the top workplaces for the past three years and one of the Best Companies to Work For in Florida by Florida Trend.
- Launched the NAVC’s Industry Services Division, which provides association and professional conference management for the veterinary profession.
- Started the NAVC’s certification service, which currently focuses on the human-animal bond, pet nutrition and veterinary business leaders.
- Established the Veterinary Industry Council and PetsPAC, raising more than $2 million in corporate support for animal and pet care issues.