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July 29, 2021

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Jones is new leader of the pack at Vancouver-based WellHaven Pet Health

Chain of animal hospitals sees demand for services surge

By , Columbian business reporter
4 Photos
Vet assistant Kristin Skalbeck, left, lends a hand as Dr. Troy Schlines treats four-legged patient Buster, 6, for an ear infection at WellHaven Mill Plain on Monday. The company has experienced a surge in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vet assistant Kristin Skalbeck, left, lends a hand as Dr. Troy Schlines treats four-legged patient Buster, 6, for an ear infection at WellHaven Mill Plain on Monday. The company has experienced a surge in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Vancouver-based WellHaven Pet Health has a new CEO, and she’s stepping into the role at a time when the 3-year-old company is experiencing unprecedented demand at its chain of animal hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was explosive during this time,” said Jenni Jones, who officially took the reins in April. “Either people had a pet already and they adopted a second one, or it was the first time that people were working from home and they wanted that companionship.”

The result has been an emptying of animal shelters and a surge in patient traffic at animal clinics and hospitals nationwide as customers bring in their new pets for evaluation.

“WellHaven is booming. The whole profession is booming,” said Bob Lester, chief medical officer at WellHaven. “The pandemic — perversely, we’ve been one of those industries that has benefited from it in some ways.”

Jones previously served for more than two years as WellHaven’s chief operating officer. WellHaven founder and former CEO John Bork will remain in an advisory role on the company’s board of directors.

Business career

Jones began her career in the U.S. Army, then moved into a management role in the food industry. She entered the health care sector in 2005, becoming senior vice president of operations at Minute Clinic, a chain of health care retail clinics staffed by nurse practitioners. Pharmacy chain CVS acquired the brand in 2006.

Subsequent career moves took her into the dentistry field. She served as chief operating officer at Midwest Dental for seven years, then joined WellHaven in 2018. Bork sought out Jones with an eye toward setting up his eventual successor, according to Lester.

“The idea all along when she came on early was at some point she’d step into the CEO role,” he said, “and that point is now, so it’s been pretty seamless.”

Jones currently lives in Minnesota, which along with Colorado is one of WellHaven’s two big current markets outside of the Pacific Northwest.

Veterinary medicine is a different environment than clinics or dental offices, but Jones said she was drawn to the role in part because there are parallels between the three professions and the kinds of growth strategies that can guide them.

“You can just see that genuine understanding of health care needs and really wanting to meet those needs,” she said. “And that just doesn’t waver.”

She said she saw WellHaven as a prime candidate to disrupt the veterinary industry in the same way that Minute Clinic disrupted the health care model. During her time both at Minute Clinic and Midwest Dental, Jones sought to expand the reach and capacity of health services by empowering nurses and technicians and expanding the scope of their traditional duties.

She’s pursued the same strategy at WellHaven, referring to it as “total team delivery.” It’s an approach that dovetails the goals that Bork and Lester laid out during WellHaven’s early months, such as focusing greater attention on nursing and technical staff who sometimes struggle to build long-term careers in the industry.

Local decision-making

Jones said she also wants to maintain WellHaven’s strategy of local empowerment, giving both newly created hospitals and existing affiliated hospitals a wide range of autonomy to operate and develop their teams.

“Each hospital has its own subculture, and we want that intact,” she said.

It’s tough to maintain a balance between supporting providers and maintaining their autonomy, Jones said, but it’s a model that allows for the greatest degree of professional and leadership growth.

“I think you see it more in health care,” she said. “I think that’s how providers want to work.”

It’s an especially important balance to strike right now, because the veterinary industry was already grappling with issues of burnout and “compassion fatigue” even before the pandemic, and the increase in demand for animal services ramped the pressure up even further.

The localized approach also played out in the company’s COVID-19 response, she said. The hospitals were essential services and stayed open, but they all needed to switch to curbside and telemedicine service models. WellHaven’s corporate office worked to provide technical resources for the transition, she said, but left it up to individual hospitals to determine their new operating processes.

WellHaven’s leadership includes many people who have built their careers in veterinary medicine, Lester said, so Jones’ background in other business and health care sectors stands out from the crowd.

“That different perspective brings so much value,” he said, pointing to the expanded role of nurses and technicians as a key factor that has helped WellHaven keep up with the rise in demand for services during the pandemic.

WellHaven has seen consistent growth over its first three years, and Jones and Lester both said they expected that trend to continue, especially due to the more widespread pet ownership prompted by the pandemic.

The goal isn’t necessarily to grow as fast as possible, however. The organization remains primarily focused on its existing hospitals and markets for the time being, according to both Jones and Lester.

Staff availability is a limiting factor, Jones said — there are only so many new doctors and technicians entering the field and demand is at an all-time high. One of her goals as CEO will be to focus on creating pathways for the next generation of people entering the veterinary field, she said.