This article was excerpted from OPEN Book: Leadership. Find more information and resources from OPEN at openforum.com/leadership.
On an unseasonably cool spring morning in Miami, Dr. Sharon MacIvor is reflecting on her status as a pioneer. “I was one of the first sole female veterinary practitioners in South Miami-Dade,” she says proudly, amid the screeches from her Moluccan cockatoo (“he’s so intelligent”), and the purring of her Canadian sphynx Annabel (“hairless cats are perfect if you suffer from allergies”). “But then, I’ve always been very single-minded,” she continues. “I always knew I wanted to work with animals, and I got my first after-school job in a clinic when I was 14.” She also knew that she wanted to be an owner/practitioner. “I’m a Virgo,” she says, laughing, “and I’m somewhat of a perfectionist, so I had to run my own show.” She opened her first facility in the South Dade Shopping Center in 1990. “Once I set my mind to something, I achieve it,” she says. “I have two mottos – never take no for an answer, and if you come up against a closed door, well, that’s just an invitation to try again.”
Dr. MacIvor’s can-do outlook was instilled in her from an early age. It’s no surprise to hear that she grew up in an Ohio homestead-cum-menagerie – “we always had cats and dogs, and I added some chickens, goats, and few peacocks,” she recalls – and her parents served as singular role models. They both pursued pilot’s licenses (“my mom was doing this at 16, back in the 1940s,” marvels MacIvor, “can you imagine?”), and her father became an airline captain while her mother worked as a flight attendant; meanwhile, their idea of a perfect family holiday was to plop the young Sharon into a canoe and paddle 200 miles up the Amazon to inspect a primate research facility.
Science also factored into MacIvor’s worldview from the get-go – she recalls running to the fossil field behind the family home after school every night, searching for dinosaur imprints – so when the opportunity came to combine her two passions, she plunged in headlong. “I got my veterinary medicine degree from Ross University in 1980,” she says, “and I was hired at a local clinic even before my license came through. At night I’d take the emergency calls, and trade shifts to get more information and knowledge.” She grins. “I’ve never been frightened of hard work – in fact, I’m a workaholic if anything.” Two years later, she achieved her dream of presiding over her own practice. “I borrowed the money to open up, and I had no experience of running my own business,” she says. “I was flying by the seat of my pants.”
Dr. MacIvor’s ability to remain undaunted was severely tested when, just two years in, her South Dade facility was completely flattened by Hurricane Andrew. “The National Guard had to dig my animals out,” she recalls. “Luckily, I’d invested in reinforced stainless steel cages to house them in, so they all survived.” Two years later, she was back in business, and has operated out of Dadeland Animal Hospital, on the Old Dixie Highway, ever since. Given the clinic’s proximity to the moneyed enclaves of Coral Gables and South Miami, there’s every chance that the odd Russian Lynx or tiger might turn up in the waiting room alongside the more prosaic clients in for a neutering or de-fleaing; however, the testimonials from patients’ human friends have a uniformly laudatory ring. “I consider Dr. MacIvor the saint of animals,” wrote one reviewer on the hellomiami.com business website. “(Dr. MacIvor) has a tightly-run office,” wrote another on the same site, “along with an awesome staff who really love the animals.”
Dadeland has a workforce of up to 10 people depending on the season, and it’s clear that their boss takes her responsibilities very seriously. “I believe in leadership by representation,” she says. “I have to set a good example. If I ask someone to do something, I want them to know it’s not Cinderella work, it’s something that needs to be done. I mean, I’ve done every job in this clinic myself at one time or another. My very first job was working in kennels, and I’ve cleaned up my share of dog doo-doo.” Along with the stoicism required for the latter task, Dr. MacIvor is seeking a level of warmth and professionalism from her staff that matches, if not exceeds, that found at human medical facilities. “I like to think that we’re a little bit different from other veterinary clinics, in that I want the hotel lobby experience in the front, where you’ll get exacting customer service, and a nurturing positive experience in the back, like you’d get in the ideal pediatrician’s office; a warm, welcoming place with no cold floors, where the staff know how to hold an animal. In short, a loving environment.”
A “technically single” mother herself – she has two daughters, Blake and Bridgett – Dr. MacIvor believes she can set an example for the women on her payroll, particularly those who might find themselves in the same position as her. “If I employ a single mother, I tell her, look, I’m in the same boat,” she says ardently. “There’s no excuse for being a victim; you’re responsible for your own life.” Not surprisingly, she says, most of her charges heed her words. “A lot have gone on to veterinary schools themselves, or to amazing careers. I’ve helped them get scholarships, I’ve tried to give them a leg-up.” She grins. “I believe in investing in people.”
With commendable understatement, Dr. MacIvor describes her days as “pretty full.” She handles the standard multitasking of any businesswoman-parent – taking an afternoon at the gym while her daughter attends a softball session before going back to the office, through “budgeting my money and time, and prioritizing.” Additionally she tries to give back to the community in various ways, from making home visits to elderly or sick clients and their pets to running her own animal rescue facility from her office. “I take in everything from birds hit by cars to abandoned cats, dogs, whatever, and foster them till we get them homes.” She also serves on charity boards and committees, but stresses that a lot of this extracurricular activity is on the QT: “I’m embarrassed by the limelight, so I don’t like to blow my own trumpet. I just think that you’re duty-bound to help out those who need it. That’s how you build up a loyal clientele. I still work with the very first customer I saw on my first day out of veterinary school. ?The kids of some of my original clients are now starting to come to me. It’s important, as a local business, to be anchored in the local community.”
Dr. MacIvor’s business buzzwords – loyalty, professionalism, quality, dedication – are at the forefront of the speeches she makes at the annual Miami-Dade County Schools Career Day. “And I always give the kids the same piece of advice,” she says. “Try to do something you love to do, because then it’s a bonus to be paid for it.” She adds, “It sounds corny, but I believe in the spirit of giving. There’s a lot of job satisfaction in being a vet; it fulfills the basic human need to be needed.”
This positive outlook has, if anything, grown stronger over two decades in the veterinary business, and Dr. MacIvor has no intention of resting on her laurels (it may also help to explain why her revenues are up 30 percent year-over-year in a time of economic distress). “I always like to be on the edge, striking out into new territory,” she says, before elaborating on her plans to promote affordable medicine and open a hotel-resort for animals: “I want to be a leader in those fields, too.” The only question is, who might she hand her business over to? “I don’t have any partners,” she says, “simply because I’ve never found someone who shared the same drive as me. So I’m looking for someone to mentor, who could step up to the plate.” In the background, her cockatoo shrieks triumphantly, as if to emphasize that, under Dr. Sharon MacIvor’s tutelage, her chosen successor will surely be another trailblazer.