Decision Dialogues Ep 19 - Cathy Gurman

On Episode 19 of Decision Dialogues, Victoria Consoles and Mark Willoughby are joined by Dr. Cathy Gurman, who co-runs Westwood Family Chiropractic with her husband, Dr. Jett Gurman. Cathy discusses her experience starting a practice directly out of chiropractic school, shares insights on how she balances her business, her patients, and her family life, and highlights the importance of knowing when and where to seek help.

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Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby, and I’m a Principal, Wealth Manager and the Chief Operating Officer of Modera Wealth Management LLC. Today my colleague Victoria Consoles, a Senior Planning Associate from our Boston office, and I will be chatting with Dr. Cathy Gurman. Dr. Cathy Gurman and her husband, Dr. Jett Gurman, have a large family-based chiropractic care practice in Westwood, New Jersey. They started their business in downtown Westwood, which is actually a few blocks from our Modera Westwood office, over three decades ago. Welcome everyone to the show. And I’ll hand it over to Victoria.

Thanks, Mark. And welcome, Cathy. I know you know some of our colleagues in the New Jersey office and they’re familiar with your practice. Could you kind of get started and just let us know how you got into owning your own business?

Thanks for having me, first of all. It’s very exciting. Well, I went to chiropractic school in 1980 in Marietta, Georgia, where I met my husband. When we graduated in 1983, we moved back to New Jersey, which is the area I was from and decided to open our own chiropractic practice. In the profession of chiropractic, you actually do not need to do an internship after school or residency. So you’re a free agent, able to go work for another office or to do an internship. You can just open as soon as you get your—you have to sit for your New Jersey license or whatever state you’re in. We did that in 1983, 84. And then we opened our own private practice in 1985. Right in Westwood, New Jersey. So that’s how we started right in private business.

That’s great. So you started right from the beginning. Were you prepared to open your own business right out of school?

Well, we thought we were but we learned a lot along the way. And of course, three decades later, I’ve had lots of chances to look back. And lots of things have happened. I’ve talked about this in seminars. Now in our profession, there’s a lot of talk about this, that I’m sure it happens in other professions as well. But we were totally not taught in chiropractic school, how to run a business—so many things—how to hire a staff or team, how to pay them, how to do your taxes. You actually have to pay quarterly taxes when you own your own business. Millions of things, and not just financial, but just the structure of running an office. 

Before I left for chiropractic school, I worked for a doctor in Manhattan. So I had some—I kind of modeled what I knew from him. My husband hadn’t had any of that experience. And really in our profession, what happened back then is you just talk to your colleagues and your friends, the ones who were out a little longer that had already been in practice, you’d maybe use their account or use their setup. There were also lots of management groups that we stayed away from because they didn’t have great reputations at the time. It’s not what we wanted. In the early 80s, you could just walk into a bank and get a loan as a small business owner, as two doctors. You know, we literally went into the bank in Westwood. And they gave us whatever the amount was that we needed to set up. So we were set up in that way.

So you got the loan, and then you went right into opening your own practice. Did you have patients right away? Did you know that there was a market for this in Westwood, New Jersey? And is that where your office has always been?

Well, it is. I mean, I grew up about four towns over. So we looked to find a location. We wanted to be not super out of the city. Originally, we wanted to go to Manhattan and then we changed that idea. We were just really, really and still are passionate about chiropractic and what we do. So it didn’t really matter where we were going to open, we knew we would be fine. And no, we did not have any patients to start. But we knew that was the case going in. So we found our space, it needed a little construction. And then we literally just did what you do as a business owner. You know, we just started pounding the pavement, meeting people, doing outside lectures, meeting our neighbors. Back then there was no social media. So it was ads in the paper. We marketed, you know. It didn’t take long for things to start building. We were always financially sound, we built quickly. But we made mistakes along the way for sure.

What’s one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made going through this? And then I want to talk about afterwards, success too. But to get into a little bit of what it’s like working with your husband as well.

Well, I mean, I’ve thought about this a lot. I mean, I’d say the biggest mistake is just not knowing what we were doing financially. My dad was a CPA, so he took care of that end of it. Literally, I wish that someone had sat down with me and said, this is how you do your payroll, because my father just kind of took care of it for me and then I learned along the way. I just wish I knew—I didn’t know how to pay taxes. I didn’t know anything. No one really, we just learned as we went along. So that was one thing. Our rent was going so high in our first location, we really didn’t know how to negotiate with the landlord. So we ended up leaving the building, which we didn’t need to. He was just raising it a ridiculous amount, and we couldn’t keep up, you know, enough of our in that point. So we left and we moved to another location, which has actually turned out to be much better. But I just wish I had managed things better and just been a better business person in general. 

I mean, we look back now, we think, wow, a lot of our friends bought the building they practice in. It would have been nice to own a building right now. But we won’t. Not that that was a mistake, I just feel that I was very naive in running a business. I knew how to take care of my patients. I knew that end of it. There’s a whole other part. And I think there are a lot of professionals that have that problem. There was a speaker that used to come to our school, and he had this whole program. He worked with dentists and doctors and he said, you know, you start making a lot of money in the beginning and you have no idea how to save it or spend it or pay back your student loans. It can get out of hand. There was just no guidance.

Is that different now, in terms of those coming out of chiropractic schools now? Are people learning from the challenges that others have faced along the way?

Well, there’s a few things that are different. First of all, no one’s getting a loan to open a business now, not just COVID, just everything—it just doesn’t happen. These kids, because they are kids compared to me, are coming out with $200,000 of student loan debt, probably just professional. And I’m sure that happens in every area. That’s a lot. So a lot of them, I think more than half of them opt to work for another doctor for a while. There are pitfalls there, too. There are a lot of these big clinics in various parts of the country where they’ll just hire these young kids and just work them like crazy. And they’re never really making enough money to go out on their own, but they may learn something. So you know, we’re now looking for someone to come in and help us that we want to teach the whole business to. 

So there’s more of that going on, you just have to make sure you’re learning from the right person. We are involved with a coaching group now for the past 12 years. They put in play in one of the chiropractic schools and probably in others, this program called G10, where it’s graduate and pay off your debt in 10 years. So they’re teaching students in their last year of school every aspect, and not just the business end, but how to speak to your patients, what to do on the first day, their second day, because that’s part of it too, so that they’re successful. How to market themselves. I was just on a panel last week where I had to listen to someone who was graduating with her marketing plan. It’s happening, it’s way late for it. And it’s happening slowly. Because, you know, schools make money and they just get them in and out. But I think some of the precedents—you should want your people to succeed.

Yeah, exactly. And you mentioned that you have someone coming in to help now in your business. So is that part of a continuity plan?

Well we’re just started the process of looking for another doctor. Yeah, we need another person, because we’re that busy right now. But also, we’re thinking down the road when we want to semi retire, or just to have another person there so we can have some time off—just looking down the road a little bit more. Even if that person spins off and opens their own practice, that’s like a nice gift. You know, I want my practice, I want to give what I’ve built—that person to be able to open their own practice, and eventually get someone that my practice will keep going even, you know, if and when we decide to retire.

That makes sense. And you’ve talked about some of the challenges along the way. But I want to hear about, you know, some of your accomplishments—so you’ve been working with your husband this entire time, and I know you have a couple of kids. How’d your schedule work during that? And you know, you’ve definitely grown your business. You’ve come such a long way that I want to hear about what the road was like there to get to where you are now.

Well, I mean, in the beginning, it was great. And it was fun. And it was easy. And then we had three kids in five years. And we were already a little bit on the older side, we’d already been practicing for a while and I really stepped out of practice for a good eight or nine years, I think. Looking back and the young women I coach now, I think I might have opted for a different plan or maybe been more conscious about it. Just like with the finance, we just did what our friends did, or what was next. So I stayed home with my three kids, and I did everything like that, you know, sports and everything, and then my husband was able to handle the practice fine. I think sometimes if I stayed in, we might have grown more during those years, I don’t know, might have just helped him out a little. 

But then when they got older, I went back and went back part time. And that’s one of the things I love about my career is that I could make my own hours. So it would be months, I would just work mornings. And then for months, I would work Saturdays and then one of my kids would have soccer for the fall. So I would take Saturday’s off and it really worked great. When they were all in school then I had specific office hours in the morning, even would see patients out of our home when I was home in the afternoon with the kids. So that worked really well for us. It was just kind of like a side gig. 

And then when they were all in high school, then I went back and then what happened with this coaching group we’re with, they have a lot of strategies and they actually took my husband out of the practice for about six months so that he could have a sabbatical. And you know, he visited other offices and he did some back work for me, like back office work, but I took the whole practice over. I was very nervous because I hadn’t done practice work, but it was great and it was so much fun. And I built my team. So it was a good thing. I don’t know what it did, but it split the energy. And then it gave me ownership and that feeling that I could do it. Then he came back part time, I was working more shifts than him. But now it worked that we were split, and then COVID hit. So then we were closed for 6 weeks last March. And then when we re-opened, we said we need to be there together. Because, you know, the protocols took time, the tables need to be cleaned, we have to spread patients out. And then we were inundated with patients and still are. So it’s great. We’re working together again. 

So it sounds like you both have a great balance between each other and your home life too. Now, do you have any rules as to, you know, business stays at work? Or do you talk about business outside of work all the time? 

Yeah, pretty much. It’s challenging. In the beginning, always, one day not that long ago, a couple years, and my kids are in their early 20s. We’re in the car, and we’re talking about the office and arguing. And one of my kids, I said, Hold on, we’re talking about the office. And they said you’re always talking about the office. So there’s that. But when we got with our coaching group, one of their disciplines is, it’s like the seven minute rule when you get home at night. Even if someone’s a spouse staying home, like seven minutes about the business, and then you’re back to personal life. So it’s challenging, we try not to talk about the business part. Chiropractic is our life. So our friends are mostly chiropractors, it’s a chiropractic lifestyle we live. We socialize with our chiropractic friends. So there’s that, you know, and on our off days, sometimes we do have to go to the office, there’s paperwork to do. We’re really much better about it than having that on our plate all the time. I’d have date night on a, you know, on Fridays or a day off and try not to talk about the office. It is.

I can imagine. And so you talked about COVID a minute ago, and I want to touch upon that. So could you tell us a little bit about what it was like for, during those six weeks where you were shut down? What was the business experiencing and you as kind of a business owner? Did you apply for any loans? What type of decisions did you have to make kind of on the fly as we were all going through this unknown territory?

That’s a great question. So in our profession, and probably in every profession, it was like a volcano. Everyone was falling and everyone, you know, everyone thinks they know everything about everything, but they don’t. So there was like our state association with these big conference calls about how to apply for this loan. And then the grant means this and the PPP means this—nobody knew anything really, at that time. One step at a time, you know, we got our ducks in a row, and we were able to get our PPP. I mean, we have a small payroll, we have three people on payroll, so it’s not a lot, but we were able to get it. That came through, we worked with our bank in Westwood, and they were great about that. We got two grants from Bergen County Cares, which was unexpected. Also got HHS money from Medicare for being Medicare providers that came full time. 

So we did and we were able to be fine, I would have never thought that I could close for six weeks and not dip into major savings, just the way the energy worked for us. Don’t forget, we didn’t have payroll expenses because my team all went on unemployment, so there was rent and not insurance, but not a lot of other expenses. We really were fine and we actually in New Jersey were not required to close by the State Department at all. But we didn’t know at the time and we needed to regroup. Our phone was ringing the whole time and we were sneaking in to see patients once in a while because our kids didn’t want us leaving the house. 

Then we went back six weeks later with a shortened staff. And then we just, in a month, we were back to normal and even busier. So we feel very blessed. And you know, not everyone’s had that experience. A lot of our chiropractic friends have, at least the ones that were well established. Now we do know some other people that COVID shut us down for good, you know, they just couldn’t get it together. But I think maybe that’s just the longevity of being in the game and just having a successful business already. And patients that were well educated and just people know us, people were not feeling well from being on their computer all day and various other reasons, just wanting a new way to stay healthy. It’s been like that. But financially we were fine and we still, we don’t know what will happen. You know, we were able to get the grants that we needed.

You said people are still coming in. But do you think business has even increased now that a lot of people are working from home and maybe having more flexible schedules where they can squeeze something like that in, opposed to what used to be the normal day to day?

Yes. And we had a lot of commuters you know back in the day. And so we used to be open till 7, then a few years ago, we changed to 6:30. Now since COVID, we just stopped at 6, because we also didn’t want to be in there that many hours with that many people, and now we’re staying at 6, because a lot of people are working from home. So they leave during the home day to come in. Although now we see more and more people going back to work and they want to take care of themselves. And yeah, they’re sitting on Zoom all day and their neck hurts, their back hurts. I mean, that’s not even our main goal is to take care of back pain. We want to elevate people’s health in general and that’s just what’s been coming in. I believe that you know, all the work we’ve done for 35 years—you just have to keep building your name, building what you say is true, and building your practice. So that then you’re established and you have this energy. I don’t think this would be the case if we were in our first year of practice, I don’t know what would have happened. 

You know, Cathy, what strikes me if I go back right to the start, that a lot of our guests have spent time working for other firms, other enterprises, before they make that big decision to start their own business. And yours is very, very different from the other guests that we’ve spoken to. I think you’ve touched on it already. Would you have done anything differently? Would you have worked for a chiropractic firm before starting your own? Do you have any regrets? Or it’s clearly worked out, but would you have done anything differently decision making-wise?

Well, I have no regrets, because that’s where the times were. But if one of my children were going to chiropractic school, which they’re not, although I wish they were, I would have guided them to this group that we’re with now, TLC Coaching. It’s more of a coaching group, because they’re able to put, they learned the hard way, and they’re able to pass on the model that works. And that’s the model that works for us. So I would say maybe working for someone, you know, for a few months. I love having my own business and being my own boss. We were already 30 when we got out, so we weren’t young 22-year-old kids. There was that. I don’t regret it. That would have been helpful if I had more structure. And I definitely do tell people that I mentor now, go with this group, go to a doctor who practices this way. Or if you find another group just to learn, not necessarily, like I just don’t like that idea of, you have to work with some of these young people—they’re working for two or three years just to pay their student loans off. And then they get scared—we just put an ad out for an associate. I’m getting people out of school for 15 years, 20 years, and they’ve been working in 20 different offices running clinics. So that means they’re not stable or able. I love having my own practice, I would never have it any other way.

There was one other question that intrigues me, too, before I hand it back to Victoria. You’re unique in that your husband and yourself have worked together for 30 years. Victoria touched on, how do you separate personal from professional—it’s almost impossible, right? Talk to us about how you and whether you separate the finances of the business from your personal finances. It’s almost inextricable. Is it possible to separate the two?

It’s really tough because we’re doing business as an LLC, so we’re together. Our tax return is joint, you know. It’s a little complicated, frankly. And the way my dad set it up and the way my now accountant—since my dad passed—he doesn’t like the way it was set up. It’s confusing. Who owns the business? Who doesn’t? In the office, who’s the insurance biller? So there’s a lot of that, it just kind of, we’re used to it. And yes, of course, I take care of the finances. We’ve tried every other way. 

So I take care of it now with a lot of help from my accountant. And this is actually a good thing to mention. I mean, because my dad was an accountant, I did everything. So I took care of, you know, there was no computer back then. So every check I wrote had to get categorized by April 14. It was grueling. It’s not my favorite thing to do. Although I used to work for my dad, when I was in high school, I just hated it. And then when he passed away, and I got this accountant, about a year later, they’re like, we have a payroll service. And it saved me so much time on writing payroll, and then paying those quarterly taxes, which I was never prepared for. And then they had a bookkeeper. So now I do almost nothing. And I love it, I can hear my dad, like you’re paying for that. But I see four more people a week and pay for all that, whatever it is, like I feel that I deserve it. 

That’s actually a big lesson that I’ve learned—to allow other people to help. So for someone to do all that, that I didn’t have to hold on to it, I guess it took years of learning to not have to do that. And maybe it was good, because I did learn what needed to be done and what didn’t. 

But I wanted to talk about practicing with my husband and being married and in business together. I think I’d been in the community life and our local paper a few times, we had been about that. Because it can be challenging just on a personal level. But I’ve always said our mission, thank goodness, we feel the same about chiropractic. Because even within our profession, you could have a different point of view, about the type of practice or about the body and the body healing from within. I mean, there are chiropractors everywhere, and they’re not all the same as us. So we are totally philosophically on the same page. And we always have the same vision and goals. That’s really been helpful. And I say that it’s bigger than we are. So when we have that passion together, everything else works. 

There’s also personality, you know, I’m much more, I want to talk about things from the beginning and plan, what are we doing this month? And my husband, not so much. He’s also the most fun person in the world and he never worries about things and he’s an optimist. So that helps me in my left brain, that analyzing, figuring things out, that might be something of benefit.

Sounds like you got a really really cool partnership with your husband.

Yeah, we do. Yeah.

I can’t believe you haven’t convinced any of the kids to continue the practice with you.

It’s best if we don’t talk about that right now. You know, a lot of people are in that generational, you know, family, generational chiropractic, nothing we did wrong. And we really are at the point now, like they have to make their own choices, and they have careers, and they’re all happy doing what they’re doing.

And we talked about retirement briefly. But do you see yourself doing this for many, many, many more years? Because you can kind of see as many patients as you want?

Well, I mean, we love what we do. So we don’t really want to stop, you know, even on our days off, we’re like, well, what are we going to do today? So the plan that I made, because he doesn’t really want to talk about it, is to hire another person, and then, you know, as you train them, then there’s like a longer vacation, there’s maybe a month off in the winter, where we could go away, and we have, we have a really great team, but we still will own the practice. And what most chiropractors do is either they sell the whole practice, which in the long run doesn’t end up being that much. 

A better way is, put someone in it and keep owning it, you know, and running it for them. So we can’t really think about moving to another state, or we don’t want to, our kids are all here. We only have a license in New Jersey, our chiropractic license. So we want to keep owning this successful business for as long as we can. It’s a very physically challenging job, maybe cut back. There’s so much we can do. We feel grateful that we have those options. And with our coaching group that we really trust, you know, we use our mentors there to see what the best options are. It’s kind of a new conversation.

Yeah, and I mean, we work with business owners all the time. And I feel like retirement, too, these days isn’t what it used to be. We’re more creative with what retirement looks like, and the future as well. So no one wants to just give up everything they’ve worked really hard for. 

And we love it. I really don’t think we could financially retire yet. That’s why I think it’s great to own this business, because we can keep owning it. I mean, we literally could walk in two days a month and keep a doctor in there running it, we think—I mean, we haven’t done it yet. Like I said, at least now at this point, when we don’t know, we have people to ask. We rely on them and then help other people learn the same thing.

What’s your favorite part about owning a business or the practice itself?

Well, my favorite part kind of comes along with my statement of desire that I live by, like I always want to be moving forward. And when I’m in that office, I’m so happy because I have people there that are just getting healthy. Anna, you probably would agree that it’s just a happy place to be in. Someone said the other day, I feel better, but I feel like a better person when I come here. I feel kinder. So that feels like everything to me, and our patients are like our family to us. I feel like I help lift people up and guide them to what I understand about health and healing. Whether they understand or not, is okay. Whether they’re out of pain or not is okay. They usually are, they just feel loved and appreciated. And I feel that they do. That’s what we love. It makes me feel happy that I can serve people like that. That’s the most fun. I never think of it as, I run a business. I just don’t.

Well, it sounds like everything you’re doing is very rewarding for you and your patients as well. So I love to hear that.

But I will say one thing, though. I mean, we do have a lot of people that we know that have that kind of open heart and they don’t know how to run a business at all. And it can really be a problem, because then it can stop you from doing what you love if you can’t stay financially sound, right? And one of our mentors in chiropractic school at life—we didn’t understand till much later—he always would say this on stage and say service in one hand and business in the other. So you’re serving your patients, and then you have a business. They never can combine. I mean, when I’m in that office, never look at my checkbook. I barely go on my email, unless it’s my business one. You know, I try to stay very much in the mode that I have to be in, which is health and not about running a business at all. I mean, there’s certain insurance things I need to handle. I have a financial assistant who does that. And we try to just meet once a week, so I don’t have to hear all the insurance stuff.

It sounds like you have three groups of things here—your patients, your business, and then your home life as well. You’ve found ways to compartmentalize everything.

The only other thing Cathy, I’d like to—we’ve kind of touched on this. But when you look back at the arc of your experience with your business, what’s the single best decision? Is there one particular decision that you think would be applicable to a lot of other business owners who are early on in their business career running their own businesses? Is there one decision you can look back on and say, boy, I’m glad I made that decision. That’s really helped me out.

Yeah, I know exactly what it is. It was getting help. Getting help from someone that we trusted. 

That’s what I thought, because what I’m hearing from you is you’ve got this passion for what you do, but of course, you’re not good at everything. So it was coming to the realization that you needed help in certain areas, whether it was from your dad, whether it was from this coaching group, whether it was from the financial assistant. You got your pride out of the way and you got help in the areas that you just—it’s just not your expertise or your or your passion. 

And what we loved when we found this coaching group was that they’re obviously chiropractors, but we just resonated with them. They allowed us, this group of chiropractors—some practice this way, some don’t—they understood us. That really turned us around, I think, for the business end of it. We already knew what we were doing chiropractically. So I would say ask for help or find help, but carefully choose who you’re going to ask for that help.

Cathy, thank you so much for joining us today. I know Mark and I have both enjoyed this conversation and learning about you know, your business and the challenges and successes you’ve had along the way. What’s the last non financial decision you’ve had to make? We like to ask all of our guests that before they go.

That’s tricky, I guess to what our next vacation was going to be. We’re taking our kids away in June, just the six of us. So we haven’t been away together in a while. And since they all work, we found a week. That’s our decision.

So thanks very much to Victoria and to Cathy for letting us listen in to their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspectives. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.


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About Cathy

Portrait of Cathy Gurman

Dr. Cathy Gurman is a chiropractor in Westwood, NJ.  She has been practicing with her husband, Dr. Jett Gurman since 1985.  She is a 1977 graduate of Bucknell University, and she is a graduate of Life Chiropractic College where she met Dr. Jett.  Since opening she and her husband have grown and maintained a large family-based health care practice in Westwood.  Both doctors are active members of the Westwood Chamber of Commerce as well as Westwood UNICO.

They have been the official chiropractors for Paragon Gymnastics in Norwood, as well as the Westwood Volunteer Fire Department.  In addition to running a successful practice, Dr. Cathy is a chiropractic coach, mentor, and sought after lecturer.  Dr. Cathy was honored with, and is the recipient of the 2018 Coach of the Year from TLC (Team, Leadership, Conditioning Organization).  Dr. Cathy is a member of the International Chiropractic Association and the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association.


Modera is an SEC registered investment adviser which does not imply any level of skill or training. For additional information see our Form ADV available at which contains a full description of our business, operations and service offerings including fees. Statements made in the podcast are not to be construed as personalized investment or financial planning advice, may not be suitable for everyone and should not be considered a solicitation to engage in any particular investment or planning strategy. Statements made are subject to change without notice.