What does it take to win a national award as the best mixed/large animal practice? Chris Sheedy found out from the winners of Pacific Vetcare
It doesn’t take too long, when chatting with a director of Pacific Vetcare, to figure out why their business won the recent Practice of Excellence for Mixed/Large Animal award, run by the Australian Veterinary Association Practice Management. What takes longer is figuring out exactly where to start when it comes to explaining their dominance of the industry.
Is it the brilliantly calculated financial risk they took in building, from scratch, a major, state-of-the-art vet hospital? Is it the thought and effort they put in to keeping their staff happy and well trained? Is it the clockwork weekly, fortnightly, monthly and quarterly meetings that are booked into the diary for various teams and managers to keep their finger on the pulse, solve issues and develop strategies for as far out as five years in the future? Or is it the fact that they regularly invite outsiders, including respected specialists in the vet industry as well as general business and entrepreneurial experts, to their meetings to advise them on what they could be doing differently, to share business knowledge and to inspire new ideas and directions?
It is a combination of all of the above says Dr Allan Hudson, a director and veterinarian at Pacific Vetcare. Dr Hudson and his four partners in the business Dr David Johnson, Dr Stephen Deist, Dr Adam Gerhardt and Dr Mathew Grabovszky (Gerhardt and Grabovszky were recently welcomed as new directors in typical Pacific Vetcare fashion, to ensure the business held on to great talent) have built, over the last seven years, a veterinary service with a presence in Coffs Harbour, Sawtell/Toormina, Woolgoolga and Coramba, all on the north coast of New South Wales. The major vet hospital is in the Coffs Harbour location.
“The business actually began in 1974 and ran until seven years ago from a converted house in Coffs Harbour,” Dr Hudson says. “We were simply running out of room and the place was falling apart around us.”
The change, it turned out, would be quite a dramatic one. The partners sought and found an empty plot of land, formerly a car yard, and began making plans to build a new hospital. They realised soon enough that bringing in specialists to make sure the job was done well was the best approach, so employed a project management firm and a specialist designer of medical spaces.
The result was a multipurpose vet hospital with an open, airy feeling that clients and staff enjoy and appreciate equally. It boasts a large reception, state-of-the-art treatment areas and consultation rooms, a custom-designed small animal surgery, a large animal surgery, stables, an indoor garden, a generous car park and more.
“Around the time we began planning the new build the new directors were welcomed in to the weekly management meetings to make short-term plans and put out spot fires. Later on we launched monthly governance meetings to discuss such issues as finance, HR, marketing, IT, equipment and stock inventory, etc. And a strategic planning meeting to plan for the next five years of business was also arranged. We often invite external people into those meetings. Most recently we met with Crampton Consulting Group to help keep us on our toes,” Dr Hudson says.
In creating such regular communication channels that covered short-, mid- and long-term outlooks, the partners were actually developing the perfect platform for scalability, meaning their business could grow safely and without any unpleasant surprises. Since the completion of the new vet hospital six years ago, Pacific Vetcare’s value has tripled.
“On the topic of turnover and finances, we have a budget-planning weekend every year,” Dr Hudson says. “We actually do this quite well. We go away and do some very disciplined planning of the budget for the next 12 months. You need to be able to predict your income quite accurately in order to get this right, but when you do, it provides a very valuable guide for the coming year.
“We also work very hard on the culture within our business. Our mission is to be caring and progressive, so we strive to remain up-to-date with evidence-based medicine on a professional level, and we try to make sure we have a fun workplace on a personal level. A big part of this is trying to keep the structure as flat as possible so that everybody who works here is on the same level and has an equal say.
“We encourage all staff to take responsibility and solve problems with the guidance of our well-documented Practice Policies and Protocols. Our monthly meetings include training sessions that help maintain our level of skills and a healthy bond between our staff. Doing an excellent job and having fun doing it is central to our culture.”
All vets are encouraged to develop specific interest areas, which is not only good for their own job satisfaction but also leads to greater internal referrals, benefiting the business and the customer. All staff are allocated funds each year to advance their learning, and the practice’s vet nurses are highly trained and empowered to take care of tasks that in other practices are often vet-only, such as anaesthesia, bandaging and administering fluids, etc.
When staff are happy, they’re not the only ones to benefit. Clients, of course, can sense the level of morale and staff comfort within a workplace and that feeds back in to how comfortable they feel when they walk into the clinic.
And it is the clients of Pacific Vetcare who are highest on the list of priorities in terms of marketing. Many business owners refer to marketing as a method of finding new clients, but Dr Hudson and his colleagues have a different take on the topic.
“Our philosophy around marketing is about looking after our current clients,” he says. “The best marketing for any vet practice is word of mouth. The only way to achieve that is by ensuring your current clients are as genuinely happy and satisfied as possible. We look after our valuable clients and we run information nights for specific interest areas. We do general advertising too, but its effect is more difficult to measure. When we really look after our clients, the results are more obvious.”
“The result was a multipurpose vet hospital with an open, airy feeling that clients and staff enjoy and appreciate equally.”
As the staff skill levels at Pacific Vetcare have continued to improve to match the hospital’s impressive resources, the business has also experienced an increase in passive referral cases from vets in the district. Marketing to regional vets has recently begun, promoting the hospital as an option for referral of cases, one that is possibly closer and cheaper than specialists who can be over 300 kilometres away.
“We do not promote ourselves as specialist vet surgeons, but small animal surgical, medical, avian and equine medical and surgical cases are all accepted on a referral basis,” Dr Hudson says. “Alternatively, performing single procedures such as ultrasounds, with the original vet continuing with the management of the case, is an option.”
Finally, the staff at Pacific Vetcare keep themselves sharp by welcoming into their practice, as often as possible, TAFE students, vet nursing students and vet students. How does it help to have less educated and experienced people around? They ask unique questions, are not afraid to challenge the status quo and are filled with fresh knowledge and original ideas, Dr Hudson says.
Most important and central to all of the practice’s success are the regular meetings, where all processes, policies and details of the business are planned and plotted. Apart from weekly staff meetings, the main gatherings are:
- Strategic planning meetings: Held approximately every five years, usually offsite over two days and involving senior veterinary staff, the practice manager and an outside consultant. Here a five-year strategic plan is formulated.
- Governance meetings: Held monthly with the Board of Directors and the practice manager. This meeting runs to a strict agenda, lasts up to 90 minutes and is held in the morning, beginning at 6.45am. Each director has a portfolio such as finance, HR, marketing, IT, etc. Directors report on their portfolio each month and present a number of key performance indicators pertinent to their portfolio.
- Budget meeting: A budget is planned each year at the end of May, with decisions made on capital expenditure for the next 12 months, new staff, wages, marketing and any special projects. The budget governs spending and is monitored monthly at the governance meetings. Cash Flow Report is part of the budget.
So what are the biggest mistakes Dr Hudson sees other practices making? The main one, he says, is concentrating too much on the money.
“Of course it is a business and it needs to be successful,” he says. “But the essence of vet science is the human/animal bond. That should be the focus, and clients can see if it is not. If you are constantly upselling or over-servicing then they can tell.
“Apart from that, make sure your staff are happy and well looked after. Vet practices can be stressful places, but if you look after your staff then that problem is removed, staff work together to solve problems and clients enjoy their visit.”