Father and son team Jim (left) and Tom Thurman operate The Animal Center in Alliance, Neb., finding ways to work as colleagues while functioning as a family.
Father and son team Jim (left) and Tom Thurman operate The Animal Center in Alliance, Neb., finding ways to work as colleagues while functioning as a family.

People say “you can choose your friends, but not your family.” We could turn that expression around though and say “you can choose to be friends with your family.” That step could be especially important if you also choose to work with family every day in veterinary practice.

That was a choice Jim Furman, DVM, MS, and his son Tom Furman, DVM, MS, made 11 years ago when Tom returned to join the family practice, the Animal Center, in Alliance, Neb.

Along with the father and son relationship, the women in the family also play key roles in the practice. Tom’s mother, Penny Furman, has managed the clinic office for years, handling billing, payroll and scheduling. Now Tom’s wife Stephanie Furman, who has a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition and has managed a research feedlot, also works in the office and assists in all those tasks. All four enjoy socializing together in their off time, even after working together all day.

Jim says his parents worked together in a non-veterinary business, and he watched their mutual support help the business grow, so he grew up believing family members could work together successfully. He also understands the value of mentors in professional life. Soon after he completed vet school in 1976, he purchased a local practice from a veterinarian who was ready to retire. That veterinarian helped mentor him for several years before Jim moved on and, with his wife, built the Animal Center clinic. That experience helped drive his later recommendation for Tom to go out and learn from experienced mentors before returning to the practice.

Tom says he was raised in the practice, helping out with walking dogs, cleaning kennels and watching procedures, beginning when he was about 5 years old. The family home was, and still is, adjacent to the clinic, and the practice always was a family affair. Today, Tom’s children — Jim’s grandchildren — are being raised the same way as Tom and his siblings, spending time around the clinic, taking care of dogs, cleaning facilities and helping out with other chores.

Tom says his two siblings also were interested and involved in the practice, but he was the one who decided early on he wanted to become a veterinarian. He became increasingly involved with the practice during high school, accompanying his father on after-school calls and assisting with surgeries.

Tom went on to complete the pre-vet program at the University of Nebraska and earn his DVM degree at Kansas State University. “With dad’s encouragement and my family’s support I went on to complete a master’s degree in epidemiology and statistical medicine from UNL in 2014,” he adds.   

Experience first

Upon graduation in 2004, Tom felt he was ready to return home and join the family practice. His father, though, had a different idea. Jim knew that most young veterinarians do not stay with their first employer long and often change practices several times before settling in for the long term. He wanted Tom to experience a variety of veterinary practices and services, and learn from a variety of established veterinarians, before making a decision about joining the family practice. With the help of University of Nebraska veterinarian Dee Griffin, he developed a list of potential mentors around the U.S. and Canada.

Using that list, Tom planned a year of traveling and pursuing short internships with those mentors. He spent time in a large small-animal practice in Las Vegas, worked with a group of feedyard consultants in Canada, learned equine medicine in Colorado, practiced palpating cows at an Oklahoma sale barn and learned about bovine reproduction in South Dakota.

Over the course of that year, Tom says he learned a great deal from multiple mentors; gained exposure to and experience in a variety of practices, environments and animal species; gained a great deal of confidence; and developed a different, broader view of veterinary medicine and mixed-animal practice.

Throughout that internship year, Tom says his father stressed that he should not feel obligated to return to the family practice. If, during his travels, he found an employment opportunity he wanted to pursue, he should pursue it. “I told him if he found another opportunity, to take it,” Jim says, adding that he was anxious for Tom to join the practice but wanted it to be his decision. But, Tom says, while his experiences helped him develop skills and broaden his outlook, he was more determined than ever to apply those skills back home in Nebraska. He saw it as an opportunity to sustain and build a rural practice that provides vital services to the community, in an area where retiring veterinarians outnumber new practitioners.

Overcoming challenges

Once in the practice, Tom says he and Jim had numerous conversations regarding the business model, standards of care and other topics. He adds that while Jim was able to approach these topics in an academic, peer-to-peer manner, the two did not always agree, and it took time to define roles and establish a professional relationship distinct from their father-son relationship.

That first year, he says, was challenging and a learning experience for both. The key to success, he says, “is we both wanted it to work.” After that first year, Tom says, the two had established boundaries and learned to effectively communicate, and the practice became more fun.

Jim acknowledges there were some “bumps in the road” for the first year, and credits his wife with mediating disputes and providing a calming influence.

The two work together in consulting with their larger feedyard and cow–calf clients, and Tom says those clients feel comfortable with a gradual transition from the older to younger generation.

Over the past 11 years, Tom has pursued change and growth in the practice, encouraging his father to adopt newer technologies such as digital X-Ray equipment, ultrasound and a paperless system for records and billing. Jim, he says, has shown willingness to change and accept new technologies, but only when someone can demonstrate the change will benefit the practice. He is methodical in making decisions, Tom says, and doesn’t just jump on the latest bandwagon. Tom says he has come to appreciate that approach and plans to continue that approach as he takes on more management responsibilities in the practice. “We’ve worked to find a balance,” he says, between wanting to modernize with new equipment and services, and the need to objectively evaluate how potential investments will benefit the practice and its clients.

Jim says Tom has helped what seemed like a “mature practice” to evolve, modernize and position itself for ongoing success.

Successfully working together as a family, Tom says, requires faith, respect, love, the desire to succeed and a lot of communication.

Communicating with family farmer clients

Tom notes that among the ranching and cattle-feeding families in the area, he has seen many where generational transitions create challenges. In some of these cases, sons or daughters return to the family operation following school but find their parents or grandparents are reluctant to involve them in decisions, listen to their ideas or share any management responsibilities. The older generation, he says, might not appreciate new ideas, while the younger family members might not respect proven methods, leading to conflict.

Jim witnessed the same phenomenon when he moved back to his home town to begin veterinary practice. Young people he knew were returning to their family farms and ranches, where they were put to work but given few real responsibilities. In the early 1990s, he began organizing “Cowboy Colleges” intended for younger people. He brought in experts on numerous subjects including range management, animal health, reproduction cattle feeding and other topics. A primary goal, he says, was to provide young producers with knowledge, ideas and tools that could help them become more involved in management decisions on their family’s operations. For younger members of a family business to succeed, he says, they need to feel they have some ownership in the business and the way it operates.

Tom believes his experience in practicing with his father helps him communicate with clients who experience those challenges.

Jim says he takes great pride in having a son follow in his footsteps and is pleased they worked things out early to make the relationship work, so they could enjoy their years practicing together. “I thought I wanted to retire at 55,” he says, “but now I’m still enjoying the work and want to stay involved.” Even once he scales back on actively practicing, he anticipates helping out around the clinic and spending time talking with clients.

 

Sidebar

Teamwork works for married veterinarian couple

In another type of family-as-coworker relationship, Jake Geis, DVM, and his wife Carolyn Geis, DVM, have practiced together for the past year at the Tyndall Veterinary Clinic, a mixed-animal practice in Tyndall, S.D.

Jake says the arrangement works well, as both parties realized early they needed to “put on a different hat” while working, treating each other as coworkers while communicating and cooperating professionally. They work different cases and frequently do on-farm work, so both say they generally stay out of each other’s way.

During down time at the clinic, their conversations often include discussions of cases and “big picture” thoughts on veterinary practice. At home, however, they have a rule that works well: no more than 10 minutes of work talk. (They’ve also learned that when dining with other family or friends, conversations about surgeries or abscess treatments do not always play well with non-veterinarians.)

On the job, the two know each other’s strengths and draw on them when questions or difficult cases arise. “For example,” Jake says, “Carolyn is a better small-animal surgeon than I’ll probably ever be.”

At work, Carolyn says, the two need to understand each other’s boundaries, practice conflict-resolution skills and sometimes just agree to disagree. She adds that having a close confidant in the workplace provides benefits both professionally and emotionally.

Jake has worked at the clinic for three years and Carolyn for one. They met while in vet school at Iowa State, where Jake was two years ahead. After Jake graduated, they married and he went to work at the Tyndall Clinic while Carolyn returned to school for two more years. When she graduated, an open position at the clinic gave her an opportunity to join the practice. The couple believes those two years of long-distance marriage helps them better appreciate their time together now — on and off the job.

Jake and Carolyn also maintain a blog, at thecowdocs.com, writing and displaying pictures to teach the general public about animal agriculture and their day-to-day work as veterinarians.

See this and other articles on calf-ranch health, dairy reproduction, beef cow nutrition and more in the March-April digital edition of Bovine Veterinarian.