May/June 2015 Issue
Dr. Suzanne Yee
Cosmetic & Laser Surgery Center
Suzanne Yee’s cosmetic surgery business was built upon entrepreneurial lessons learned while working in the family grocery store.
Photography by Janet Warlick
Dr. Suzanne Yee pushed open the heavy door to her lobby and peeked out, greeting a visitor warmly and welcoming her to the inner sanctum of her Cosmetic and Laser Surgery Center in west Little Rock.
Yee is petite, much smaller than her standing in the Natural State, where many are quick to recognize her name, often due to word of mouth. Her size also belies her stamina.
She starts her day by 5:30 a.m. after eating a quick breakfast in the car. Yee may see 100 patients per week at the clinic on Highway 10, for procedures ranging in price from a few hundred dollars for a laser skin treatment to many thousands for a breast augmentation or facelift. With the help of marketing coordinator Crystal Johnston, she maintains a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, her website, and her blog, as well as traditional media. Even if she had time for a full midday meal, which she doesn’t, she worries that eating one might make her feel sluggish. Often, she stays in the clinic until 8 p.m.
It is a workload not unfamiliar to other doctor entrepreneurs who run their own practices, but one with an added benefit.
“You want to see my muscles?” she asked, and then obliges by tugging off her hoodie to reveal bulging biceps peeking out from beneath short-sleeve scrubs.
She didn’t get those from working out in a gym. Some surgeries demand quite a bit of physical effort, Yee explained — like liposuction, which requires not only suctioning but also pressure from the surgeon. She jokes that it helps her stay fit as she helps her patients achieve the looks they desire.
Despite her levity, she’s quite serious about her work. “When I first started, it wasn’t that en vogue to go into aesthetic or cosmetic surgery,” said Yee. “Some of my colleagues thought it was foo-foo, you know, fluffy stuff, but it really can be life-changing for patients. When Botox first came out and they were using it for wrinkles, I went to the very first seminar they had about it in the United States. So in 1997 when they first introduced it, I was doing it because that was something that I wouldn’t mind doing for myself. I just thought a lot of that stuff was fun and neat and it makes you feel good, and when you feel good about yourself you do more.”
It’s also work that, when she first started, wasn’t often done by women. Surgery was largely a male-dominated field when Yee was studying and, in some ways, it still is, but she tends not to think much about her gender.
“Physically there may be some things I can’t do that a man can do, but I can work the long hours and I can do most things and mentally I can do everything a man can do,” she said. “Some days I think that some people will think if I do things one way, they would see it differently than if I did the same things and I were a male. When a woman is strong, they have different opinions. They see it differently than if a man has a strong opinion.”
The pressure she puts on herself to balance home and work is heavier than what she sees in her male colleagues, though. She has friends and family to help with her daughters — 18-year-old Addison and 14-year-old Peyton — but there are times when she just wants to be there herself.
“A lot of my colleagues are male and they don’t think twice about having a meeting on Mother’s Day weekend or at the beginning of the school year. I want to be with my kids at those times,” she said.
That emphasis on family can easily be traced back to her parents, Margaret and Buck Wong, immigrants from China who owned two general stores in Holly Grove and Clarendon, Ark., while she and her younger brother and sister were growing up.
“They are self-made; they worked hard to put their kids through college. It’s the American dream. I’m really proud of them,” said Yee.
Her mother worked in one store while her father worked in the other, staying late or going in after hours whenever they needed to get things done. Yee started helping out when she was 9, stocking shelves and sacking groceries. They lived in the back of one store until her parents were able to save up enough money to buy land and a home for the family.
“They worked very, very hard and I guess I learned that work ethic from them, and that you have to know everything about your business if you’re going to run one,” she said. “They also taught me not to buy anything you can’t afford. Unless I can pay for it, I tend to not buy it, and I think that’s helped me in my business.”
The Wongs’ plan for their children always included professional careers rather than continuing the family business.
“Not that owning a grocery store isn’t a good thing,” she said, “but I think they just wanted a better life for us. They wanted us to get our educations.”
For her part, Yee graduated high school a year early and spent her freshman year at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville; she graduated from Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe with a bachelor of science in pharmacy in 1982. She went on to complete pharmacy school and worked for awhile in a hospital pharmacy.
“I just wanted a different challenge,” she said. “I wanted to interact with people a little bit more.”
So Yee applied to dental school and medical school and was accepted to both.
She opted for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and in 1989 graduated first in her class of 125. In 1994 she completed a surgical residency that included training with Dr. Milton Waner, now the co-director of the Vascular Birthmark Institute of New York.
“Dr. Waner is a laser guru, and I got a lot of hands-on training with lasers, which a lot of people don’t get,” Yee said.
Waner had good things to say about Yee, as well. “I found Dr. Yee to be very quick to learn about new technology and to adapt to all the new technology. She was very innovative, and she earned my admiration in this field,” he said. “She’s extremely talented. She has very, very talented hands, and she is an exceptionally talented surgeon.”
Yee went on to do a fellowship with Dr. Russell Kridel at the University of Texas in Houston.
“All he did was [cosmetic surgery],” she said of Kridel. “It was fun. Patients loved to come to see him. You could help with people’s self-esteem and help their confidence. I just fell in love with it, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
She opened the Cosmetic and Laser Surgery Center at UAMS in 1999 and then opened her current practice in 2003. It started out in a space of about 2,000 square feet, including the surgical suite; back then her office also served as the break room and was where patient photos were taken before and after surgery. But starting in a small space was part of her plan.
“You can’t just automatically go out and open something like this,” said Yee, indicating her current 7,000-square-foot clinic. “You have to save and be smart about it.”
Again, her mother and father served as role models for taking deliberate steps toward a goal.
“My parents had two stores, and one store was open seven days a week,” she said. “They did everything from stocking groceries to checking out, cutting meat, everything.”
Just as her parents worked in tandem for the success of the family business, Yee and her husband Bill do, too, even though they each have their own careers.
“My husband is a banker, so before I could go into private practice he made me write out a business plan. It was about 20 pages long, and I had to answer all these questions,” she said.
Bill Yee thought it was important for his wife to go through the same exercise he would have expected of anyone else starting a business and asking for a loan.
“It helped her see a different side of the business that she’d never really had to deal with,” he said. “She had always been able to concentrate on seeing patients and doing surgery and she never really had to deal with the business side of it.”
Now they meet at home for dinner each night, and they go over the day’s financial charts before getting some sleep, sometimes as late as midnight.
“I try to take as much as I can off her back so she can focus on good, quality patient care and surgery, so she doesn’t have to worry about the business end of it,” Bill Yee said. “We’re very fortunate in that we complement each other well. I can take care of that part of it after hours.”
On this day, Yee is relaxed. It’s noon on Friday, the end of a short work day before a week-long Disney World vacation with her family. Family time is precious to Yee. She drives carpool a couple of times per week and regularly shuttles her daughters to cheer competitions on weekends, and she relishes all the time she gets to spend them. Kids do grow up fast, after all.
But she knows it won’t be long before she’s back to the hustle of patients, procedures, and running her business. She will be in the thick of all of it.
“When I’m here, even during surgery, we have other things that are going on in the office. We have laser hair removal, skin tightening, things that are non-surgical,” said Yee, who has four full-time and five part-time medical personnel, as well as five non-medical members on her staff. “If a procedure is going on and something happens, I’m right here to take care of it. If the girls need something, they’ll just ask me and they know they can ask me because I’ll want to know.”
And, in case you’re wondering, yes — Yee, herself, has tried many of the services she offers.
“I do use good skin care. I’ve had peels, I’ve had skin tightening done, some filler, all those little things,” said Yee, her smooth, dewy skin quite possibly serving as her own best advertisement. “It’s just fun to try it all out, you know?”