There's Only One: An Interview with Former ACP Executive Director Bruce Sanders

Bruce Sanders, CAE and former executive director of the American College of Phlebology (ACP), left his post last month, but don’t expect that he is just sitting around—he’ll be hosting lively gatherings in his palm tree lined backyard and preparing five-star recipes including his favorite, marinated steak.

Perhaps he will get to know some downtime as he relaxes next to his waterfall or prunes in his hot tub and focuses on making memorable moments with his 89-year-old mother, two children and four grandchildren. Such a position to be in is much deserved for a Colorado native who is one of three boys and has worked since the age of 15 years. Starting his working life behind the lines in a cafeteria-style restaurant, Sanders later worked his way into the banking, telecommunications, and computer software industries.

By 1994, he forged his way into the North American Society of Phlebology, now known as the American College of Phlebology. As Sanders’ friend and colleague Helane Fronek notes: “The field of phlebology has undergone dramatic change and growth over the past two decades. Research has brought new understanding and technologies that revolutionized the evaluation and treatment of patients with venous disorders. Through all this change, there have been few constants. One of these has been Bruce Sanders.”

Displaying remarkable finesse and kindness, and what Fronek calls “genius,” Sanders created solutions during times of turbulence and exhibited poise while dealing with a wide array of members, vendors, and industry partners. His respect for people was across the line. “He frequently stated that he felt no staff position was more or less important than any other,” said ACP Executive Assistant Mary Haro of her former boss. “All employees are equally important to the organization.”

While the success of the ACP has been due to the combined efforts of many people, it was Sanders’ commitment and talents that made the most of those efforts. Sanders leaves a thriving organization, an excellent staff, and very large shoes to fill. After 20-plus years as executive director, “it will be hard to find someone to fill his spot,” added Haro. “And I wouldn’t expect that anyone could replace him – because there’s only one Bruce Sanders!”

Join us as we pick the mind of a man who will surely be missed.

VM: You first found your way to the North American Society of Phlebology (today called the American College of Phlebology) in 1994. How did you wind up there?

BS: I usually say it was quite by accident, and in some ways it was. I had a very good friend who was an executive director and worked for a subdivision of the American Academy of Dermatology. I was working for a software firm and was a corporate trainer and instructor. My company had been bought up, and our entire staff was laid off. The new company came in and took over, and that was the end of it. I was looking for work. He happened to have some part-time work and asked me to come in to help them out with some of their computer work, setting up registrations and stuff like that. That’s how I initially got started.

That was two or three days a week. Then two or three days a week turned into four to five days a week. Then it was full time employment. Before I knew it, I was made an account representative. One of my first clients was the North American Society of Phlebology (NASP).

We had a division that was an association management firm, so it was a for-profit division of the American Academy of Dermatology. We managed probably 18 to 20 smaller organizations, non-profits, that were related to dermatology at the time. In fact, Bob Weiss and Mitch Goldman, who were very active and involved in the NASP board of directors, sought out our services to manage the organization. That’s exactly what happened.

VM: The history of ACP and the venous disease treatment specialty overall is one of dramatic growth. What role has ACP played and how far has the specialty come?

BS: I think a great deal. They’ve contributed immensely to the growth of the specialty, and they’ve done that in several different ways. Part of that was specialty recognition by the AMA. That was our doing and our pursuit. The inclusion of allied health professionals in our organization like nurses and ultrasound and PAs.

I think that expansion was extremely important and worthwhile. It gave us an opportunity to provide even better avenues of education and more in-depth education. I think we have absolutely been a leader in education, not only with the expansion of appealing to the practitioner from position to allied health, but also in creating a learning management system that is very dynamic and houses just hundreds of courses now. We created the certification exam in phlebology and turned it over to the American Board of Lymphatic Medicine (ABVLM).

We were the founders of that organization. We have created a data registry that is now building data. It’s the ACP PRO Venous Registry, which consists of patient-reported outcomes. I believe that’s going to change the face of the field in terms of providing really good data for research. It will hopefully be used to improve or help with reimbursement issues. We were the first organization in the venous community to create a foundation that could raise funds so that we could do more research and create entities like the certification and the learning management systems.

“While the success of the ACP has been due to the combined efforts of many people, it was Sanders’ commitment and talents that made the most of those efforts. Sanders leaves a thriving organization, an excellent staff, and very large shoes to fill.”

I think we’ve done an exemplary job in growing the field, and I think the ACP really can take credit for all of those things. We were the first and only ones doing that. What are some of the things that you wish were already accomplished in the vein space but are not yet?

I suspect what I would say is the vein space needs more understanding in the medical community, as well as the general public, about venous disease. There is also a need for some general knowledge and understanding, who and where to get treatment. If anything, I’d like to see that be a lot further along.

We really have tried and worked hard to make sure we get the word out, but as you well know, being in the communication industry, it’s not easy, especially as big as the medical field is.

VM: What are some of the barriers to having more widespread understanding?

BS: I wish that I had the answer because I think if I had the answer, we’d be doing it. I think there’s a couple of things that have really changed the face of communicating, and that is through social media. It has been an amazing, wonderful thing for any organization that’s looking to expand their exposure and people’s understanding, but even at that, there’s so much out there. I think that’s what makes it especially challenging.

It’s something that’s always being contemplated by the board and the various volunteers that work within the ACP. I look at individual practices that are out there competing for patients and how hard they work at getting the word out about their particular office and their services. Multiply that by a whole organization, and we’re all kind of looking for the same thing.

VM: The communication tools have certainly changed a lot in 20 years.

BS: They have, definitely. I can remember back in the day, when I first started, I got involved with the North American Society of Phlebology. They would run articles in various magazines, especially women’s magazines. Years afterward, I would still get contacted by journalists who said, “Hey, I was looking at this old issue of Women’s Day,” or whatever. “I noticed that you guys are specialists in vein care.”

It was amazing how much was out there but didn’t really saturate the market, if you know what I mean.

“I used to always admire people in professions who say, ‘I can’t believe I get paid for this. This is really fun, and I just love what I do.’ When I look back on my career, that’s really what this has been.”

VM: It’s a huge population of people who experience vein disease. A lot of people to reach.

BS: It really is. I think as social media and media itself expands and changes that those are always great opportunities to use.

VM: Over your almost 22-year career at ACP, what is the most difficult issue you’ve dealt with during your tenure?

BS: I used to always admire people in professions who say, “I can’t believe I get paid for this. This is really fun, and I just love what I do.” When I look back on my career, that’s really what this has been. I don’t know that there’s been any one thing that I would see as being the most difficult issue that I had to deal with.

There’s always challenges, especially working with a non-profit organization that has a continually rotating board of directors. Every two years, we have a new president to work with. That’s challenging, but it’s not a bad challenge. It’s actually a fun challenge and something I’ve always felt very fortunate to be a part of. It’s something that gave me an opportunity to learn a lot about different management and leadership styles.

One of the most wonderful parts about the ACP is its diversity in terms of the medical specialties that come to the table. They’re not all vascular surgeons, and they’re not all dermatologists. We have a little bit of everything. That kind of perspective brings amazing discussions to the board table, discussions that show their different perspectives and make it really exciting and fun.

I think, if anything, the most difficult thing would have probably been the transition that the North American Society of Phlebology had to make from Encinitas to Chicago, because that’s where we were located at the time. I think that was probably a difficult time. It wasn’t so much for me, but for the organization it was difficult, because it meant closing the headquarters’ office and having to adjust to new staff and a different way of doing things. I suspect for the organization that was a little more difficult, but it wasn’t insurmountable and turned out really great.

VM: Marlin Schul, who suggested this story, also sent in a couple questions. One of his questions was, “What made San Leandro an ideal location for the ACP headquarters?”

BS: That’s an excellent question. In 1995/1996 the organization hired me as a management firm. It was me, myself, and I. It was a staff of one, but understand that at that time, we only had around 500 members. It was a small organization and not on the level it is today.

I was living in Chicago at the time. At one point I kind of decided that I had been in Chicago for 17 years. I was very tired of the cold, and I wanted to move to a warmer climate. I asked the board if they would have any problems if I relocated the office to the West Coast. They said, “Absolutely not, we don’t have a problem with that.” Especially since it wasn’t going to cost them anything.

That’s what I did. I relocated my home to the West Coast and ended up settling in Oakland. I actually rented space at that point and hired two employees. The location was not a bad one. I think most people would admit that Oakland has a very bad reputation, but it was not in a bad area of Oakland at all. We had a train that went right next to our building, so Amtrak and the freight trains would come through on an hourly basis. It was very distracting for the work environment and very difficult to be on conference calls.

When our lease was up, we were up to nine or 10 employees, we decided we really needed to find some space that wasn’t quite as noisy. We took a map and drew a 10-mile radius around where we were so we weren’t making any employee go too far out of his way, and we found office space in San Leandro. That’s how we ended up here.

VM: What are you most proud of in your two decades there?

BS: I’m proud of a lot. I really am. First off, I’m extremely proud and very grateful to have been given an opportunity to be in this position and to work with the organization. I’m probably most proud of having made it through 23 years of working with such an exceptional group of leaders. I look back on my career and think about how when I first started, the organization was very young and at about 400 members compared to now having over 2,000 members.

At the time we first got involved with them, the finances were very, very slim and minimal. We’re very financially stable today, so I’m most proud of that. I think at the end of the day, I look at my incredibly talented staff. I’m very proud of the people who have come on board and really have the same kind of level of commitment and dedication to the ACP that I do. I think I’m the most proud of those things.

“Each president that I’ve served under has their own unique talents, and each one of them has brought a very special gift to the table and into the future of the organization.”

VM: You mentioned having the opportunity to work with an exceptional group of leaders. What makes an exceptional leader, physician and individual in your experience?

BS: I really believe it takes commitment. It takes involvement in the organization and vision. Obviously, it helps to be a nice person and to have a great personality, which they all do, so it kind of goes with the territory. If they’re volunteering their time, they’re already somewhat committed.

VM: Are there any specific examples of exemplary leaders that have helped the ACP achieve their goals?

BS: I’ll tell you, and I mean this sincerely, that each president that I’ve served under has their own unique talents, and each one of them has brought a very special gift to the table and into the future of the organization. Yeah, there’s some that, at the time, probably accomplished more and maybe bigger things, but I think each one had a vision and a direction that they knew we needed to go, and they followed that. Each one of them did the position and the organization right. They really did. I’m not going to name names because I do have my favorites but I will never say it in public. That would be suicide.

VM: The vein industry is a blossoming field that is becoming ever more important as people live longer. Do you find it to be a fascinating area of medicine?

BS: Absolutely. The technology and the treatment options have really become amazing compared to what they were when I got involved. It almost baffles your mind to think about how much it has changed and grown.

When I first became involved with ACP there weren’t any of the endovenous radiofrequency treatments that we have today. We didn’t have ultrasound-guided assistance. It’s just amazing. It’s mind-boggling when you think about it. It, to me, begs the question to think what it’s going to be like in the next 20 years.

VM: What do you think it will be like in the next 20 years?

BS: I think the sky’s the limit when you think about it and the new technology that’s coming out. For example, a few months ago I saw some training courses that are actually of surgeries, but it’s all computerized. The doctors learn how to do these surgeries using computers. It just kind of baffles your mind. You think, “Wow, what kind of diagnostic products are there going to be? How much more improved will the treatments be?” I wish I had more of a Steve Jobs kind of mindset because it would be fun to imagine what that’s going to be like.

VM: What do you see as the next iteration of the organization?

BS: That’s a really good question because with all of the changes in the health care environment, I think it could go a number of different ways. It really depends on how things play out with the Affordable Care Act, reimbursement, services that are available through Medicare, and those types of things. I think it’s a little bit uncertain.

It could go a number of different ways, but I really believe that the key to ACP’s success will be kind of twofold with collaboration and through the collection of data.

We’re in a very good position to be doing both right now. In fact, it’s a key component of our strategic plan which, by the way, is on the ACP website if you wanted to get an idea of what we’ve got out there and what we’re looking at.

VM: Do you have any advice for your successor?

BS: Yeah, good luck. No, I’m just kidding.

I would say that the best advice I have is to be a good listener and (this is easier said than done) to be as unbiased as you possibly can. Everybody has an opinion, an idea of how to move this organization forward, and you really need to keep an open mind to those suggestions and ideas.

It’s also critical to have that kind of an open mind in the governance side of it because to bring a board of directors of 15 to 17 people, depending on the board, to consensus is not always an easy thing. You can only do that by remaining open and working with people to help them.

I don’t want to say “compromise,” because I don’t know that that’s the proper term to use, but rather to come to agreement. To understand that it really takes work on everybody’s part to get to the next level.

VM: Do you have any words of advice for our readers who are vein specialists and the physicians themselves?

BS: My advice is get involved. Get involved with the organization and be supportive of the foundation in terms of its need to raise funds to further the field, the advancements in the field and really supporting the ACP. I think involvement is the most important part.

VM: Is there anything you’d like to specifically tell our readers about?

BS: Parting words of wisdom? I’m actually not a quiet and shy guy. I don’t think I could be in this job and be that way, but I’ve always let the board and the leadership be the spokespeople for the group because I feel it’s their organization, not mine. I tend to shy away from that kind of thing. I don’t know if that’s humility or stupidity; I’m sure different people would look at it from different points of view.

My parting words of wisdom are to stick with it. They’re a great organization with great leadership, and I know they’re going to do a good job. I know they’re nervous about my leaving. I’ve kind of been an institution here, and I just want them to know they’re going to be fine. They’ve got a very talented staff and a lot of great volunteers. They don’t know how good they really are.