Drop out of college, fill the shelves at Walgreens, and become president of America’s largest vet chain

Rags to Rich is a unique story in the United States. It’s the American dream to start from humble beginnings, work hard, fight adversity and make something of yourself. Brian Garish embodies this philosophy. However, his version is a bit different. Garish went from stocking shelves at Walgreens to serving as president of Banfield Pet Hospital, the largest chain of pet hospitals in the United States.

He started his career stocking shelves at the local Walgreens drugstore while in high school. Garish dropped out of college after just six months at the age of 18. It was a difficult time. Back home with his parents, he felt lost with no direction. As he explains, “At the time, I didn’t see the point of sitting in class to hear about business. I wanted to get the job done.” A pharmacy chain mentor suggested that Garish focus on hard work and advancement within the organization, especially since he had no other alternative.

Garish gave him everything he had. Over time, he received the equivalent of an MBA by asking questions, observing what worked or failed in stores, imitating the actions of successful employees, and honing his interpersonal skills, all the while continuing to climb the corporate ladder.

The upward path taken by Garish led him to think and act differently when it comes to leadership. The experience of starting on one of the lowest rungs and working your way up taught him humility and empathy. He understands the importance of hard work with low pay.

After serving about 12 years as a director at Walgreens, then spending more than 10 years transitioning from district and regional manager to regional vice president roles at CVS Health, Garish is now president of Banfield Pet Hospital, the leading provider Preventive Care Industry, a division of Mars Inc. His top priority at the company is to create a high-performing, inclusive culture for more than 19,000 associates at more than 1,000 hospitals across the country.

Her practical experience in retail has taught her empathy. He actively listened to what customers and staff members wanted and needed during his days running the store. It made him think differently. For example, vets and workers wore dull scrubs that only came in two boring colors. In his Joking with Brian series, a company-wide invitation to connect employees with their CEO on Instagram, Garish listened to his team and ditched mundane scrubs, announcing it in an Instagram dance video.

In an effort to show their appreciation for his hard-working team, Garish and Banfield proudly launched BANDtogether, a series of cross-industry discussions to generate ideas and action, in response to three societal challenges.

BANDtogether: the empowerment initiative

  • Improve education: Investing in equitable education is an effective tool for business success and can have a transformative effect on people’s lives. Leaders must help break down barriers to education, so associates can realize their full potential.
  • Improve mental health: 83% of US employees have experienced negative emotions associated with poor mental health in the past year. By eliminating stigma and tackling mental health head-on, organizations have the opportunity to positively impact not just the workplace, but society as a whole.
  • Empowerment of women: Since the pandemic took hold, more than 2 million women have left the labor market. This is a clear signal that we must collectively do better to address the challenges facing this essential population. With 86% of its workforce female, Banfield is uniquely invested in supporting and empowering women in the workplace.

People who want to become veterinarians do so for love. Compared to other health professionals, such as doctors and surgeons, the salary is relatively low. However, the veterinary training required is expensive. Veterinarians have the highest student debt ratio of any profession. Garish said of this issue, “You have people who become vets, who just want to make the world a better place for pets, and they are attached to that burden. We’re proud to be among the 4% of companies that actually pay off student debt. The program has contributed approximately $15 million to pay off debt for veterinary professionals, while helping to refinance more than $16 million in student loans.

Being a veterinarian or working in the pet care industry has its ups and downs. At one point, a family with young children brings in their newly adopted pup for a wellness visit, and then the next patient the vet sees has to be put down. This and other heartbreaking patient visits can damage the psyche of a medical profession.

Garish pointed to a sobering statistic: “One in six veterinarians contemplates suicide at least once, which in the industry they call compassion fatigue. We wondered what we could do about it, so we hired a mental health professional on staff, as well as started pilot mental health programs. Banfield has launched the first suicide prevention training designed specifically for veterinary professionals, as part of its holistic commitment to health and wellness. The training is also accessible free of charge to the entire veterinary profession.

In the interview, Garish offered sage advice drawn from the wisdom he has accumulated over decades of working in retail environments. He believes you should listen to the people closest to your consumer, not just those in your company’s headquarters. Strategy is wasted without empathy. Offering hope, help and optimism is more powerful than any education or knowledge.

You control the culture, what matters, whether you’re the janitor or the CEO. Build trust through two-way dialogue. Garish advocates looking for ideas outside of your profession. He recognizes that he does not have all the answers and he does not pretend.

It also calls for a fun-oriented workplace with a vibrant open floor plan, a plush gym and cafeteria, and plenty of toys and games for employees and the furry friends they bring into the office.

His efforts are effective. Since becoming chairman in 2017, Banfield has achieved the lowest revenue in its history, while simultaneously posting mid-double-digit year-over-year growth. Under his tenure, Banfield, a multi-billion dollar organization, skyrocketed more than 50%.

Garish eventually returned to college. Instead of earning a business degree and an MBA, he again took an untraditional turn by earning a philosophy degree from Indiana University. He sits on several nonprofit boards, including Metropolitan Family Services, the Columbia River Economic Development Council, and the Banfield Foundation. In his spare time, Garish spends time with his two cats, Ashin and Kenji.

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