Relationships can be difficult at the best of times so are couples who work together in the same practice a good idea? By Frank Leggett
Marriage is a commitment to each other that sees you living together, holidaying together, building a life together and maybe raising children together. But is it a good idea to work together?
For many people there’s a clear demarcation between their home life and their professional life. While it’s true that many couples meet at work, it is rare that they continue to work together after marriage. So when a couple work together in a veterinary practice—as either two vets or as a vet and a practice manager—is it a good thing? Will their relationship survive so much closeness? Will the business suffer from their over familiarity? Is it just too much time together?
We talked about the pros and cons with three married couples who work together. Spoiler: they all think it’s a positive situation for their business and their relationship!
Drs Peter Lee & Natasha Bilous: Vets who own and run Two By Two Veterinary Hospital in Balgowlah, NSW.
Peter and Natasha are the classic veterinary love story. They went through university together in the same graduating year, started dating and ended up married as newly qualified vets. While they always intended to own a practice together, they first gained veterinary experience in different situations.
“As an employed vet, you reach a certain level of experience and feel like you’ve plateaued,” says Peter. “We both reached that point and then decided it was time to work for ourselves.”
Unfortunately, most existing practices were overvalued and beyond their price range. So they started Two By Two from scratch. “It was really jumping in the deep end,” says Natasha. “The day we opened our doors, we didn’t have a single client.”
As the business grew, Peter took on the business side of things and acts as the practice manager. Happily, the married vets regard working together as positive.
“We complement each other,” says Natasha. “Pete loves orthopaedic surgery whereas I can take it or leave it. We can be honest with each other and that allows us to play to our strengths.”
“It’s also great when sharing cases,” says Peter. “When I see one of Natasha’s cases, I introduce myself to the client as Natasha’s husband and there’s an instant acceptance.”
So, are there any disadvantages to their situation? “We often communicate like husband and wife rather then colleagues,” says Natasha. “I will quite happily tell Pete that he is doing something wrong but I would never say that to another veterinary colleague. Neither of us is shy about giving advice to the other.”
“One big drawback of married vets working together is that it’s almost impossible to take holidays,” says Peter. “We can hire locums but it’s very difficult when the two principal vets are away. Apart from everything else, our clients expect to see one of us when they walk in.”
Dr Michel Doney & Wayne Doney: A vet and a practice manager at Margaret River Vet Hospital, WA.
As soon as Michel was accepted to vet school, the couple’s goal was to own a vet practice and work together. They bought an existing business in WA while living in California and flew halfway around the world to set it up. While Margaret River Vet Hospital has gone from strength to strength—they have recently opened a second practice in Augusta—there was an period of adjustment in the beginning.
“Some of our earlier difficulties concerned defining our roles and having staff respect those roles,” says Michel. “I’m the leader in the hospital environment so team members would come to me and ask for a day off. I’d grant it and not tell Wayne even though he was the one doing the rostering and staffing. Now we are consistent in that I make the medical decisions and he makes the business decisions.”
The couple also find that they are constantly taking work home. “We always talk about work at home,” says Wayne. “This business is our baby and we want to make sure the best decisions are made.”
“If you choose to work together, you have to be solid as a couple. Decide on your roles and stick to them. Be consistent on your decisions and back each other up.” —Dr Michel Doney, co-owner, Margaret River Vet Hospital
“Besides, we’ve been married for 21 years so it gives us something to talk about,” says Michel, laughing.
On the plus side, the couple love being a team and having a partner who understands what you’re going through. “Veterinary work is an incredibly challenging and stressful job,” explains Michel. “I think it is so beneficial that we experience the good times and the bad together.”
So is it a good thing for a couple to work together? “It’s probably a cliché but we’re best friends and we want to spend as much time together as possible,” says Wayne.
Michel adds, “If you choose to work together, you have to be solid as a couple. Decide on your roles and stick to them. Talk about policies. Talk about staff issues. Talk about client issues. Be consistent on your decisions and back each other up.”
Dr Louise Lehmann & Jason Lehmann: A vet and a part-time practice manager who both own and run Clare Valley Veterinary Service in SA.
Louise, who is Scottish, travelled to Australia for an 18-month working holiday in 1997. This turned into a four-year stint before she returned to the UK with Jason in tow. There, they married, had their first child and returned to Australia, purchasing the clinic where Louise had been working when they met. Clare Valley Veterinary Services opened on April Fool’s day in 2007, just after Louise discovered she was pregnant with their second child.
For the first three years, Jason worked full-time in the practice but when he was accepted into the fire service, he dropped back to part-time. Now he handles all the financials and behind-the-scenes organisation.
“We always bring work home but as it’s our own business, we don’t mind,” says Louise.
“I like the fact that we work together,” says Jason. “We can openly discuss all aspects of the business and that is very positive.”
“Essentially, our financial future relies on the success of our practice,” says Louise. “Taking work home is not such a big deal.”
Over the 11 years they have run the practice, there has been good times, bad times and tough financial times. Working together lets them celebrate their successes and emotionally support one another when times aren’t so good. “As I’m the principal vet, if we are having financial worries then I take it personally as I am the one who is bringing in the money,” says Louise.
“We’ve had the odd work-related argument over the years,” says Jason, “but that’s going to happen with all business partners, whether they are married or not.”
Louise and Jason have managed to maintain a healthy relationship, raise three kids, heal a lot of animals and grow their practice. Initially, Louise had one part-time vet to assist her. Now it’s a four-vet practice with two branch clinics, one in Jamestown and a recently opened one in Balaklava.
The three Lehmann kids have been raised surrounded by animals and immersed in veterinary procedures. Unfortunately, none of them appear to be following in Mum’s footsteps. “They’re terrific kids but they’re just not interested,” says Louise. “Maybe I took them on too many call outs!”