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Q&A With Ron Dehaven, AVMA’s Departing CEO

A review of his career, and his hopes for the American Veterinary Medical Association and the future of the veterinary industry.

Dr. Ron DeHaven testifies in Washington, D.C., in support of anti-soring legislation.

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Two days before the start of the 2016 NAVC conference—the nation’s biggest veterinary gathering—American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the U.S. profession’s largest membership group, delivered a surprise. 

The news: Ron DeHaven, DVM, MBA, is retiring as CEO and executive vice president of the Schaumburg, Ill.-based American Veterinary Medical Association.

Dr. DeHaven, 64, sat down in Orlando, Fla., with Veterinary Practice News to talk about his decision, AVMA and his career, which included jobs with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

A successor is expected to be named around the time of AVMA’s annual convention, which is set for early August in San Antonio.

Veterinary Practice News: Was your decision to step down a sudden one or have you been planning this for a while? 

DeHaven: We’ve been planning this for a long time. Because of my previous career with USDA, I left a daughter in California. She now has two sons. We moved from there to Maryland, so I left a son in the D.C. area. He has two daughters. For five years the plan has been [to buy] a small house in California and then a small house in Maryland. We would travel back and forth. We actually bought the California house last April. 

Where? 

About 25 miles straight east of Sacramento, up in the foothills.

The AVMA notice stated that you plan to spend a lot of time with your family. 

It’s funny because when I was with the government, when you leave a job because you want to spend more time with family it’s because you got canned, right? But in this case it really is true. I might do a little bit of consulting, but I’m not looking for another full-time gig.

When you see people at likely your last official meeting, the AVMA convention in August, should they say, “Congratulations on your retirement, I’ll see you next year” or is it “Congratulations, and I might never see you again?” 

I sent out personal emails to 50 or 60 people who I have close contact with in the profession, and I would say 90 percent of the responses have been, “Congratulations, I look forward to working with you for the next seven months,” and a few saying, “We’ll continue to see you if and when the consulting role comes about.”

What kind of consulting work do you envision? 

I haven’t given it any thought and probably won’t for a while, but I spent 28 years in the government—10 of it in D.C. at a pretty senior level—so it could be the veterinary profession, or it could be more Washington, D.C., political activities. It could be a combination of the two.

Above, Dr. Melissa Bain receives the 2016 Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year award during the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in January. With Bain are Dr. Ron DeHaven and Dr. John Brooks, chairman of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation board.

AVMA Photos

Above, Dr. Melissa Bain receives the 2016 Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year award during the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in January. With Bain are Dr. Ron DeHaven and Dr. John Brooks, chairman of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation board.

You started at AVMA in August 2007. How has the organization changed under your leadership? 

What we’re seeing with most nonprofit organizations that have membership that spans many generations is we’ve got to continue to change if we’re going to be relevant. Veterinarians aren’t going to be members purely out of loyalty to the profession, which has been the case in the past. So we’re really working on focusing more on what the members are telling us they need, want and expect, where in the past we just did our thing. What I feel good about is that we’re in a better position. The members have told us that, first and foremost, they want AVMA to advocate for them, and that means lobby for and against legislation. It means taking positions on technical issues for the profession and promoting those to the public. It means protecting them when there is legislation or media campaigns or things in the public eye that could limit their ability to practice or limit the credibility of the profession. So, first and foremost, advocate for the profession.

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We’ve always had good insurance products, and I think they continue to get better. We have built up a tremendous veterinary career center. When the economy was really bad, it was all about the economics of the profession, and we were largely absent in that arena. So we have established a Veterinary Economics Division. We now have four Ph.D. economists.

Will you continue as chairman of the Partners for Healthy Pets campaign? 

We still need to have that discussion, but my sense is that as we transition Partners for Healthy Pets into a more sustainable maintenance mode, it’s going to require a lot more leadership and hands-on involvement by AVMA. While I’m certainly willing to be involved going forward, it’s going to be more of the staff leadership in AVMA that’s going to carry that forward.

You earned your DVM from Purdue University. What was your first job out of college? 

I accepted an Army ROTC scholarship as a senior in high school, so that paid for four years of college. My first job was in the Army Veterinary Corps, so four years’ active duty at Fort Carson, Colo., and then 18 years as a Reservist while I was working for USDA.

And then to AVMA. Three jobs overall? AVMA. Three jobs overall? 

Pretty much three careers, that’s about right. When I was in vet school, I wanted to be a companion animal practitioner. What ended up happening was, while I was in the Army, I moonlighted in a couple of different small animal practices. But after four years in the Army I was married, had a kid, couldn’t afford to buy a practice, couldn’t afford to support my family with what I could make as an associate and, in the meantime, I’d gotten to know the local USDA veterinary medical officer. So I inquired about the opportunities and the next thing I know we were moving from Colorado to Kentucky, where I was a field veterinarian for USDA.

Dr. Ron DeHaven, right, with his extended family at the AVMA convention in Denver in 2014. At left is his wife, Nancy.

AVMA Photos

Dr. Ron DeHaven, right, with his extended family at the AVMA convention in Denver in 2014. At left is his wife, Nancy.

Public service runs through your blood. 

Certainly. It really did start with the Army. If somebody had told me at some point, “One, you’re going to work for the government, and two, you’re going to be in Washington and be a Washington bureaucrat,” I would have said, “Boy, you’re absolutely crazy; there’s no way that’s going to happen.” But that is exactly what happened, and I wouldn’t give up my career path for anything in the world.

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One criticism of AVMA leadership and the House of Delegates—you’ve probably heard it, too—is that it’s composed of a lot of older white men. Is that a fair assessment, and what should or could be done about it? 

It is a fair criticism. I would characterize it as it’s not a matter of too many old white men, it’s a matter of not enough women and minorities. If there’s a vacuum, if there’s a void, there’s always going to be white males who are willing to step up to the plate. So what this is about is encouraging underrepresented groups in leadership. Obviously women are not underrepresented in the profession, but they certainly are in leadership roles. So what can we do to encourage women to become more engaged in the leadership of organized veterinary medicine and what can we do to recruit underrepresented groups into the profession?

I’m really proud of a couple of things that we’re doing in that regard. One of our most successful programs has been the Future Leaders program. We just brought in our fifth class. It’s a class of 10 individuals who have shown an interest and an aptitude in leadership within the profession. Those individuals are predominately women. And we’ve had quite a few minorities come through that program. By the time I leave we’ll have 50 of those individuals in the profession, and they’re already presidents of their state associations and very active in various committees and councils at AVMA. I’m proud of that.

We also have the congressional Fellowship Program, where three individuals spend a year working on Capitol Hill. Most of those individuals have been women, and ultimately they are assuming leadership roles in the profession within government circles. So we’re doing a lot there.

We’re partnering with the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative. It’s a separate entity, but they’re largely maintaining and building a partnership with AVMA. We’re supporting them with association management services, we’re supporting them with travel dollars and whatnot.

Things don’t change overnight. It’s going to take a decade to really make an impact, but I think it’s starting to.

Ron Dehaven

aVMA Photos

Dr. Ron DeHaven

Where do you see AVMA in five, 10 years? Will AVMA continue on the course you set

I would very much hope so. We have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy and dollars in the last two years redefining AVMA and what it is we want to be in the future. I’m committed for the next few months to keeping us on that path. Our board is absolutely committed. In fact, we’ve had some discussion that the person we bring in needs to embrace this direction and really take it forward. Let’s be the best at advocating for the profession. Let’s deliver valuable products and services. The third component is maintaining high standards of accreditation so we maintain the value of the degree. Our role in accreditation both for vet schools and vet tech programs is doing just that.

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I asked AVMA’s immediate past president, Ted Cohn, whether your successor has to be a veterinarian. He said the bylaws state that the person must have a DVM, but he is open to maybe a non-veterinarian holding your job. Do you think a non-veterinarian could do it? 

Within the senior staff leadership, it’s critical that there is at least one and preferably a couple of veterinarians. I would only say that if the CEO is not a veterinarian, then he or she would need a deputy who is a veterinarian. We’ve had a lot of discussion around that. From a practical standpoint it would require bylaws changed. The House of Delegates isn’t going to meet again until August.

Starting salaries for veterinarians are about $70,000 a year. Many new vets incur well over $100,000 in student debt. Is the profession sustainable with those kinds of numbers? 

Yes, but to deny that we have challenges would be less than honest. We’ve got some real challenges. One of the things that we’re involved with is working with the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges to address the student debt issue, but it’s more than just student debt. How can we increase starting salaries? One of the tidbits coming out of our Economics Division is that if we can increase starting salaries by just $2,000, that enables a student to service $50,000 more in debt. So let’s try and limit the debt, let’s try and limit tuition, but let’s also try and improve starting salaries. Make that recent graduate more employable, let them be more productive in terms of their output so they can command a better-starting salary. The marketplace, the supply and demand, is going to have some impact on what happens, but we’re trying to proactively address the challenges.

AVMA has about 88,000 members. 

88,122, to be exact.

That leaves about 20,000 U.S. veterinarians who are not AVMA members. What is your message to non-members? Why should they join AVMA? 

We need a strong national voice for the profession. In the big scheme of things, we’re a tiny profession, even when compared to the other medical professions. So if we get splintered, and if we don’t have the strong support of the masses—the large majority of the profession—then we lose that voice. When we’re talking to the media or when we’re talking to the Congress, the fact that we can say we represent about 80 percent of all veterinarians in the country really makes it a powerful message. Less than 50 percent, you lose that power. One of the challenges that we have is that some veterinarians are saying, “I value what AVMA does, but whether I pay my $330 dues or not, they’re going to continue to do that on behalf of the profession.”

We’ve got to promote the fact that every voice counts. It’s much less about their dues dollars than it is about their number counts when it comes to AVMA.

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