“We like to say that emergency is our middle name,” said Dr. David Bessler, CEO of Veterinary Emergency Group (VEG), a network of emergency-only veterinary hospitals. “It’s all we do. So we do it best,” goes the rest of the slogan. Indeed, VEG describes itself as the only company in the U.S. focused exclusively on veterinary emergencies. “Our entire essence is about dealing with uncertainty: Is my pet sick? Is it going to live?,” said Bessler. And VEG, pronounced like “wedge,” is a success story. What started as a single hospital in White Plains, N.Y., is now a group of 19 facilities across the U.S.
Bessler spoke about VEG’s unique character at From Day One’s recent conference on creating a culture of purpose amid uncertainty. In a conversation with Ursula Llabres, head of client success for Workplace From Facebook, Bessler told how he scaled his community-based culture across hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic. “My company is a manifestation of my values,” the CEO said. “I’m an emergency veterinarian–I think that's probably the most important thing for me, for our company, and for our employees. As for core values, there’s four of them: togetherness, openness, heroic helping, and meaningful moments.”
In pre-pandemic times, togetherness manifested itself by involving pet owners in every step of the emergency and allowing them to be near their ailing pets. “True openness is actual participation,” Bessler said. “And so unlike every other company that's out there, our big differentiator is this operational transparency, where we invite people into participating in their pet's emergency.” All of the customers are in the emergency room at the same time, watching one other's emergencies. “Somebody's pet might die–another customer will come over and give them a hug. Another might hold an oxygen tube next to a family pet’s nose, helping with those emergencies,” Bessler said. The benefit of this approach is increased trust and faith that everybody is doing what they can, and a sense of control at a time of great distress.
When Covid-19 hit, VEG had to perform an emergency makeover of its own procedures, making a radical shift to curbside service. “It seemed like the pandemic was specifically designed to attack our company and our differentiation. We're the place where we don't separate people from their pets. Everybody's together all the time,” Bessler said. For VEG, it was an existential crisis. “We thought we were gonna have to shut down because there'd be no business because nobody would be leaving their houses.”
Something very different happened. With so many people being housebound, there was a rush to buy pets, especially dogs. “Americans kept trying to fill voids with canine companions,” as one account put it. “Nobody knew business would be booming and we'd be overwhelmed,” said Bessler. At VEG, employees worked with customers to invent new ways of keeping faith to their promise of transparency. “We invited them to help us make protocols for what we would do, how we would respond with curbside service. And through that participation, our people felt in control.”
Having survived and thrived during the pandemic, VEG plans to continue its robust expansion. “There needs to be a VEG everywhere there are a bunch of people that have pets, and those pets get into shenanigans,” said Bessler. How to maintain the company’s unique culture across a larger corporation? One way that Bessler makes sure every employee has a voice is through technology. Using the communications tool Workplace From Facebook, which includes features like Workplace Chat, helps him to stay connected with people on the frontlines. Employees are encouraged to post stories of life-saving procedures and share them on the company’s communication channel. Workplace comes in handy: One of VEG’s nurses based in Fort Worth, Texas, which was in the middle of a massive power outage, recently posted a picture of their busy waiting room, with a fellow employee sitting on the floor and actively tending to a patient. This is one of the moments of “heroic helping,” one of the company’s four core values, which Bessler says are inspirational for the 800 employees all over the country.
Bessler sees technology as a great conduit for storytelling, which is the cornerstone of company culture. “You have technology, embrace it, don't fight it,” he said. “I know a lot of people that have run veterinary companies and they're battling cell phones. They're like, ‘I don't want my people to have their phones on them all the time. It distracts them from work.’ We encourage our people to have their phones, so that if they take a picture, it’s super easy for them to post it on our Workplace. They don't have to sit down at a computer.”
Wise use of technology also allows employees to share company-wide ideas. In normal times, for example, customers are welcome to sleep next to their pet’s cage if the pet has to stay overnight. This inspired a thoughtful idea: one of the nurses suggested providing a freshen-up kit with a toothbrush and other toiletries–and even posted a prototype online. “A lot of times our culture travels from the front lines out to the edge corners, we have these great ideas, and we produce these for everybody,” Bessler said.
As a counterpoint to the seriousness of its mission, VEG embraces a playful spirit in a lot of its lingo. The employees are called “VEGgies.” A T-shirt designed for new hires reads, “I am a fresh VEGgie, prepare me.” With emergency work being incredibly taxing for employees, not to mention for the owners of pets in peril, Bessler believes that his job is “to make everybody else’s life as good as it can be.”
Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.