M. Bradley Calobrace, MD, FACS, was ready to celebrate. His successful 10-year-old practice, Calobrace Plastic Surgery Center in Louisville, Kentucky, had just relocated to beautiful, spacious new quarters complete with a surgical center, cosmetic breast center, two-level medspa, and luxurious day spa with atrium, terrace and reflective pool. To help run the posh 16,000-square-foot facility, he added an associate plastic surgeon and dozens of new employees-going from a staff of 16 to 50 almost overnight.
Life was good.
The year was 2007.
You know what happened next: a little snafu better known as a global economic crisis shattered the stock market, demolished the housing market, and lead to soaring unemployment. “For a few months it was pretty darn scary,” admits Dr. Calobrace. “All I could think was, ‘What a horrible time to grow my practice.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to featured financial ruin: Dr. Calobrace’s practice got busier. “Yes, surgery bookings went down, because people waited to have expensive facelifts,” he says. “But Botox and Sculptra and other nonsurgical appointments went up. The stars just aligned for us, and we got through it.”
“Though I don’t suggest anyone else try that path,” he hastens to add.
“Stars successfully aligning” seems to be the story of Dr. Calobrace’s practice-at least on the surface. But dig a little deeper, and it turns out that the neat arrangement of astral bodies actually involves only a smattering of good lunch, which is underlain with a lot of hard work and a savvy business sense.
Born To Be a Doctor
As a child, Dr. Calobrace-who grew up in a working-class, blue-collar family from Indiana-didn’t seem destined for a successful career as a plastic surgeon. “When I was in college in the early 80’s, I didn’t even know what plastic surgery was,” he admits.
But if plastic surgery was a mystery, the medical field always help appeal to him. Even as a small boy he was fascinated by the secrets and knowledge held in a thick medical book that his mother pulled out of a drawer whenever someone in the family feel ill. “I got the fever to be a doctor in 2nd or 3rd grade,” he says. “And to this day, I still am in awe of every doctor I meet. It’s such a heroic career.”
During his third year of medical school, a nutrition professor, whose sister was undergoing reconstructive surgery after a car accident, suggested he look into the plastic surgery. “It’s a perfect fit for you,” she urged.
So when it was time to choose a specialty for his surgical rotation he followed her advice. It was an instant fit. “I found plastics to be extremely satisfying. I am creative and artistic, and I understand aesthetics. I always did well with special orientation. And I love anatomy of the entire body-face, head, neck, chest, legs, feet, hands.”
New Doc in Town
After completing residencies in general surgery and plastic surgery at the University of Southern California (USC), plus a two-year cosmetic and breast surgery fellowship, Dr. Calobrace headed to Louisville in 1997 to hand his shingle. “I was looking to establish my practice in the Midwest to be closer to home, closer to family,” he says.
But it wasn’t easy being the young new doc in town. “It’s hard to get referrals when you start from scratch,” he says. “I didn’t step into a machine that was already created. I didn’t know anybody. I felt like I was on an island by myself. The first couple of years were very painful.”
In setting up his new office, he tried something that was different and daring for the mid-1990’s, especially for Louisville. He added a medspa to his small practice, offering then-innovative services such as Botox, collagen fillers, microdermabrasion, endermologie, microdermaplaning, laser hair removal and glycolic peels.
“I really am a history lesson in medi-spas,” he jokes.
“Here I was, the new guy in town, and people were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s using Botulinum toxins!”
Still, he persevered, refusing to let the naysayers get to him. “If you are watching your colleagues, then you are not leading,” he says. “So I never pay attention to what anyone else is doing. I only care about what I do. If you want to be a leader, you have to stay in the forefront of technology and education, figure out how to be great and lead by example.”
But there was method-and considerable foresight-to his seeming medspa madness. “I realized that cosmetic surgery is like a retail practice. People pay their own hard earned cash to see you. So it has to run different from other medical practices,” Dr. Calobrace says.
His goal, he says, was to “elevate the patient experience, with a beautiful office, beautiful setting and pleasant staff. I want patients to have a great experience and feel safe. Patients are the ones who make our success; we are here to serve them.” That may seem like a no-brainer, but in the ’90s, most plastic surgeons hadn’t embraced the notion of a consumer-driven practice. Patients loved the idea and put their trust in the youthful new doctor. He was on his way.
Dr. Calobrace’s medspa has expanded to become the CaloSpa Rejuvenation Center, which includes a luxe day spa offering mani/pedis, facials and massage as well as a growing assortment of medspa devices, procedures and products.
From Newsletters to New Media
The medspa also became a marketing tool for the plastic surgery practice. “It kept patients in my web, and allowed me to keep serving them,” Dr. Calobrace says. “Marketing the spa is an indirect way to market the plastic surgery practice. Because I came to Louisville after spending seven years training in L.A., I saw the value of marketing early on.”
Spending 2.5% of his gross revenue on marketing, Dr. Calobrace uses a variety of techniques, including a magazine-style newsletter that is direct-mailed to his client list of 40,000; pamphlets announcing specials; and open house events, typically attended by up to 1,500 people. Radio and TV ads? “Almost never,” he says. “We did a billboard just once.”
Lately, his practice has focused its marketing efforts on digital marketing and social media-connecting with potential and existing patients through the Internet and building a presence via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, a search-engine-optimized website and email blasts. “It’s how people communicate today,” he says.
He admits, though, that social media isn’t his personal strength, so he hired marketing employees to handle that. “I went to high school in the 70s! This is not my forte; it’s not my passion; it’s not my brain set. This is why it’s important to hire good people. But everything goes through my desk; I am involved in every aspect of this practice.”
Still, he tries to not spend too much time and energy worrying about “the next marketing gimmick.” As he calls it. “I can’t get neurotic about it. It has to be secondary to being a great surgeon. Ninety-nine percent of my patients come through word of mouth-and that has nothing to do with how much I search-optimize my website,” he says.
Dr. Calobrace has found that community involvement and philanthropy reap greater rewards than advertising and other marketing efforts. So he started taking some marketing dollars and diverting them to sponsor local and national organizations, including silent auctions, AIDS Walk, Gilda’s Club, and other worthy causes. So no matter what, something good is coming out of that money.
“I am doing well and I feel blessed. It’s important to find a way to give back,” he adds, quoting a passage from the bible to emphasize his point: “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked.”
Nothing Replaces Excellence
Now 50 years old, with 55 employees and a partner in his practice, Dr. Calobrace looks back at the road he’s traveled over the past 17 years and reflects on how much easier his life would be if he were still practicing in a 3,000-square-foot office with just 10 employees.
But he also knows that he wouldn’t be satisfied with a small, less stressful practice. “I am a person who has to be challenged,” he says. “If it ain’t tough, I’m not having fun. It I get too comfortable, I look around for what I can do next. That is what I live and breathe; it’s in my blood. I have passion and vision, so I put in the time and effort to build a brand and make it work. But with success, comes sacrifice. If you ask my employees, ‘Who in this practice works hardest?’ they will tell you that I do.”
That’s the message he tries to convey to new doctors: None of this came easy. “You need to understand how long it has taken me to get where I am. I started small, and as my practice grew, so did I. You can’t do it in a weekend,” Dr. Calobrace says.
“Everyone wants to open a medi-spa today and be in the cosmetic marketing and make a bunch more money. But it you go into it with that idea, you will be in trouble,” he adds. “Spend more time figuring out how to be great; work hard; act like a leader. Nothing replaces excellence.”