The Social CEO

Credit: Brian Garish Instagram
Brian Garish, CEO of Banfield Pet Hospital, cuddles up with a furry friend at the company's Vancouver, Wash.-based headquarters

Banfield Pet Hospital’s leader Brian Garish defies managerial convention, but is his way the future or a flash in the pan?

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The vets’ scrubs only came in two colors, and that was boring, so they reached out to their CEO on Instagram. 

It would have been a strange thing to do at a different company, but it’s exactly how Banfield Pet Hospital Chief Executive Officer Brian Garish likes to operate: open, transparent, without fear or excess formality.

In fact, questions like this are encouraged as part of Garish’s ‘Banter with Brian’ series, a company-wide invitation to connect employees with their CEO over Instagram. Garish ultimately decided to scrap the scrubs altogether, announcing the policy shift not via company-wide email or newsletter, but with a dance video over Instagram.

If announcing policy changes over Instagram sounds like a youthful gimmick, that’s the point. Garish’s social media presence is just one of many policies aimed at satisfying Banfield’s largely millennial workforce. It’s no secret companies struggle to retain millennial employees, which makes Banfield’s record-low rates of turnover all the more impressive, especially considering 75% of their workforce is under 35.

Banfield has all the quirky amenities you’d expect from a fun-centric workplace: a vibrant open-floor plan, a luxurious gym and cafeteria, and plenty of toys and games for both employees and the furry friends they bring to the office. And don’t call them ‘employees’ either, they prefer associate.

But Garish isn’t the only CEO to have an Instagram (although you’d be hard-pressed to find an account more active). Nor is Banfield the only company out there with a puzzle collection.

So what exactly is Garish’s secret? It’s easy to be blinded by the flash. Banfield’s CEO has an infectious positivity, disarming smile and a golden retriever-esque enthusiasm that’s hard to ignore. But for Garish, the bells and whistles are the result of something substantial.

“My main priority is culture,” he says. “If you take care of your people, everything else will follow.”

Listening and responding to thousands of requests over Instagram helped Garish create a kind of call-and-response system with his associates. Garish’s interactions with workers led to a set of company strategies to ensure their associates are set up to prosper. “We have a health and wellbeing strategy with five key components: healthy mind, healthy body, healthy finances, healthy career and healthy community. We do everything we can to build up our associates,” he says.

Accounting for his associates’ wellbeing isn’t just a part of how Garish structures his priorities, it’s his strategy overall. According to him, nothing could be more important. “One out of six veterinarians contemplate suicide on at least one occasion, something they refer to in the industry as compassion fatigue,” he says, “We asked ourselves what we can do about that, so we hired a mental-health professional on staff as well as launching mental-health pilot programs.”

To ensure his associates’ financial fitness, Garish did some sleuthing of his own to figure out how Banfield could cater to his workforce, as well as give himself a more emotional understanding of his associates’ needs.

Veterinarians have the highest student-debt-to-income rate of any profession, he found. “You have people becoming vets, who only want to make the world a better place for pets, and they’re strapped with this burden. We are proud to be one of 4% of companies that are actually paying down student debt.”

Millennials have more than a trillion dollars of student debt on the whole, and it’s easy to see their burden. Banfield offers a monthly contribution of $150 directly toward educational loans. Additionally, the company offers employees refinancing options with supplementary 0.25% interest-rate reduction, as well as a one-time $2,500 payment for each company-led student program in which the vet participates prior to graduation.

RELATED STORY: Student Loan Debt Soars, Employers Pitch In 

While Garish’s approach is certainly innovative, he is all too familiar with the way companies used to do things (and some still do). “I remember being at work and getting told “go there,” “stock that,” “clean here” and having no idea how what I was doing meant anything,” he says. “You just named it and I had to do it. My voice wasn’t heard often, so we weren’t connected to that mission.”

Unique as Garish’s approach may be, this new way of doing business isn’t just about him. It’s part of a larger conversation about the evolving nature of the private sector, one which places mission and culture on par with profit. It is in keeping with the demands of millennials, who tend to value mission, values and flexibility in the workplace over making lots of money.

And speaking of profits, Garish’s people-first approach has its advantages. Banfield, headquartered in Vancouver, Wash., is experiencing growth nearly four times the industry average. The pet hospital, which is owned by confectionery and pet food company Mars, has come a long way since it was founded in Portland in 1955 by veterinarian Warren Wegert. It has since grown to more than 1000 locations across the U.S. Growth has been propelled through its partnership with PetSmart. Banfield provides veterinary services at the pet store’s locations.

Garish’s holistic approach has not only led to low turnover rates for millennials, but to the lowest rate of turnover in company history.

So the question remains, is Garish’s culture-first approach an aberration, or a sign of the times? On that subject, Banfield’s CEO most certainly has an opinion.

“People are starving for transparent, compassionate leadership,” says Garish. “Strategy without empathy is a wasted idea. You can have the best strategy in the world, but if you don’t have your people committed to it and wanting to work on it you’ve wasted your time.”

As much as Garish posts on social media, for all the board games, basketball hoops and cuddly office dogs, Garish’s success with millennials might not have anything to do with fun. Behind his cuddly smile is a deep understanding of what motivates people, and a determination to spend time and money on the people who drive his company forward.

Or maybe it’s just the Instagram account. Maybe that’s what did it.

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