Dr. Susan Hackner has led Cornell University Veterinary Specialists (CUVS) in Stamford since it opened in 2011. CUVS is one of the few veterinary hospitals directly connected to a veterinary college; as such, it strives to combine the best of specialty private practice with the best of academia to best serve pets — primarily dogs and cats — their owners, and the profession at large.
A native of South Africa, Hackner received her veterinary degree there before relocating to the U.S. at the age of 25. After completing a residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine followed by a fellowship in Emergency and Critical Care, she became board certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine in 1992, and by the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care in 1994. Prior to starting CUVS, she was Chair of the Department of Critical Care and Emergency Medicine at the Animal Medical Center in New York City.
Hackner met with the Business Journal’s Kevin Zimmerman at the facility’s 880 Canal St. location to discuss her lifelong interest in animals and their wellbeing; the difficulties of carving out downtime; and the key to achieving that elusive work/life balance.
What got you interested in treating animals in the first place?
“I wanted to be a vet since I was three. I always just loved animals. And I love the science and the medicine side of it as well. So being here is really a perfect way to address both sides, as we have a hybrid model where you have the academic background and focus on really cutting-edge education, married with the services we can provide.”
What led you to come to the States?
“It’s really the center of the universe for veterinary services. No other place can compete.”
Do you still go back to South Africa?
“I did on a pretty regular basis for a while, but about four years ago I brought my mother over here, so I get back there less often. I plan to go back next year.”
Do you miss anything about it?
“So many things. The music, the food. And safari — I love doing that. That should be on everyone’s bucket list.”
Did you have any mentors as you made your way through your career?
“Certainly — there have been so many people I consider mentors both in the business and in academia. On the business management side, not so much — I wish there were. The previous dean (at Cornell), Michael Kotlikoff (now provost) is just a brilliant, strategically minded person, very mission-driven, as well as being kind and possessing an incredible amount of integrity.”
What about a personal mentor?
“I learned a lot from my father in many ways. He was inspirational in the way he taught us about having integrity. He’d say you can lose your house, you can lose your money, you can even lose your life — but they can never take away your integrity. That meant a lot to me.
My father was an accountant by training and he’d be laughing his head off if he knew how much business I’m doing now.”
Regarding Cornell — how did you first get involved with them?
“I was at the Animal Medical Center and I was approached by Michael, who was then dean of (Cornell’s) College of Veterinary Medicine, who told me they were looking to open a practice in the New York metropolitan area. Combining an advanced academic approach with a service-oriented practice model was something that was missing in veterinary medicine, and we agreed that this would be a good thing for the profession at large.”
Why did you decide to build the facility in Stamford?
“For all its attributes, Ithaca (New York, where Cornell is located) is pretty isolated — it’s sort of in the middle of nowhere. They wanted to expand into a place where you could expose students and specialty residents to a more robust caseload than you’d normally see in a more rural setting.
They initially considered something in the Westchester County area, but we heard from so many Connecticut vets saying, ‘We could use those guys here,’ that it just seemed to be a great fit — which it has been.”
How many patients do you see a year?
“We saw about 16,000 dogs and cats last fiscal year and we plan on seeing about a 10 percent growth this fiscal year. We’ve grown by 12 to 20 percent each year since we opened.”
Do you see only dogs and cats?
“For the most part. Our emergency facility, which is open 24/7, is where you tend to find other kinds of patients — tortoises, ferrets.”
This is probably a dumb question, but do you have pets of your own?
“I currently have three, which is a low count for me. A dog, Roxy, and two cats, Henry and Ruby. They’re very equal in my affections.”
What’s the best part of your job?
“The impact that we can have on pets and the people who love them. Plus the impact that that has on the people who work here. In many practices you’re not always philosophically aligned with each other, but everyone here — we have 105 now, which should be 109 within a few days — is completely dedicated to this profession. There’s a surgeon here who says, ‘We get to fix cats and dogs all day, people — how great is that?’”
What’s the biggest challenge you face?
“Time. We’re never short of ideas, but there’s not always enough time to put them into practice. It’s a tough profession to be in for all of us — it takes a lot of dedication and it can be hard at times. But we try to keep each other sane and balanced.”
What do you do during your leisure time?
“(Laughing) What leisure time? I’m mostly here, since this is a 24/7 operation. But when I’m not, I try to be on the water, paddling, swimming — or sleeping.”
Assuming that there’s time for you to read, are there any business-related books that you’d recommend?
“Absolutely. There’s one that we give all our employees, ‘Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic’ (by Kent Seltman and Leonard Berry). ‘Crucial Conversations’ and ‘Crucial Accountability’ are also great management books.”
What do you like to read other than business-related material?
“Anything that can take me elsewhere, to a different country or a different time.”
Is there a must-see TV series that you make time for?
“‘House of Cards,’ ‘Homeland.’ I just finished ‘Succession,’ which I really enjoyed.”
Are you able to watch them as they air, or…?
“Oh God, no! (laughs) Until DVR came along I watched no television.”
Is there a particular piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to enter the veterinary field?
“Be very sure of what this kind of life will bring you. You’ll be making sacrifices all your life — I’ve missed every family event, every friend event, every party and fun thing.
Everyone always talks about ‘work-life balance.’ But that balance is affected by how much you love what you do. If you’re entering a profession you love, that creates the balance.”