Veterinary business coach and author, Dr Diederik Gelderman, has interviewed highly successful practitioners about success and a positive work-life balance. Turns out it’s possible. By Kerryn Ramsey
Dr Diederik Gelderman’s new book, Veterinary Success: Secrets Revealed, explores the path successful practitioners have taken to create a thriving business and have a rewarding life. His in-depth interviews cover a wide variety of vets who have managed to balance work, career, family and lifestyle—all while running successful veterinary practices.
Dr Gelderman believes there is more to being successful than just making money. It’s about living a passionate and balanced life without ever underestimating the value of family, friends and following your heart. Vet Practice has decided to turn the table on the good doctor and subject him to a good grilling…
What ignited your passion to be a veterinarian?
My father was an Olympic show jumper. We had a horse stud in Maitland and I grew up riding horses and competing. However, I really wanted to be a pilot. I sat the exams and received a scholarship but was informed I would never make captain because of my glasses. I could only ever rise to first officer. Being quite achievement driven, I decided that wasn’t good enough so my natural second choice was vet school.
What didn’t they teach you at university that you now know is crucial to your success as a practising veterinarian?
Communication. Technically I was a very good vet when I graduated. It took time and practice to build up my surgical skills and speed but the basis was there. Unfortunately, I was a very poor communicator with clients and staff. In fact, one of my best clients said to me, “Diederik, you’re a great vet and that’s why I keep coming back to you. But you’re an arsehole of a person.” After I recovered, I went and learned as much about verbal, written and non-verbal communication as I could. I’ve been continually learning about communication ever since.
First and foremost, communication—but we’ve already talked about that. Secondly, knowing when to say no to clients and give them boundaries. This took me a long time to learn. I spent ridiculous amounts of time at work. By the time I learned to say no and spend more time recovering, relaxing and enjoying family and friends, I was divorced and had had a nervous breakdown. I wish I’d learned this lesson much earlier. Thirdly, learning to manage the practice as a business.
When we moved from a couple of rooms on the side of our house into a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art building, we almost went broke. This was because I had no idea of how to manage and lead a much larger team. There is much more to managing a real business than the small family practice I’d been running up till then.
“Business is really simple—really, really simple. Just be nice to people, treat them as individuals and listen to them.”—Dr Diederik Gelderman
What do you believe holds most vets back from achieving their goals?
For business goals, the answer is making things too complex. Business is really simple. Just be nice to people, treat them as individuals and listen to them. In turn, they’ll give you their custom, come back more often and tell their friends about you. A veterinary practice should be all about the clients and the patients.
With respect to non-business—what holds most vets back is fear of failure, fear of getting it wrong and fear of making a mistake. They procrastinate and don’t do anything. With a medical or surgical case, you have to make sure things are done perfectly or the patient dies. But 98 per cent of the time, perfection is not needed. Vets need to be more concerned with making the decision right and not so much about making the right decision.
If you had the chance to do it all again, is there anything you’d do differently?
I’d learn communication from day one. I’d be less arrogant and less of a know-it-all. I’d ask for help. I was taught that asking for help was showing weakness—something I still struggle with to this day.
When did you realise the importance of the business side in a practice?
When I almost went broke in about 2000. I lost over $175,000 in one financial year and didn’t know about it until tax time in the next year. Then I lost $75,000 in the next year. I drew a line in the sand and gave myself 12 months to turn things around. If I couldn’t then I’d give up being a vet. Obviously, I managed to turn things around. In 2004 we won the AVA Practice of Excellence Award and came third in the Australia-wide (all businesses) customer service awards.
What’s the future of our profession?
We will see vets becoming commoditised for many people. There will be advances and encroachment of telemedicine into what we do. Corporate practices will continue to standardise their medicine and surgery to fit in with a certain price range. And many clients will be okay with this.
However, the increasing de-personalisation of society and the loss of real connectedness will see a certain proportion of veterinarians become more relevant, more in-demand and more important to a small percentage of our current clients. These clients are happy to pay a fair fee for us to do the best for their dogs, cats, pocket pets, horses, birds and fish.
Australian vets who appear in Veterinary Success: Secrets Revealed discuss their essential business tips when running a practice…
“I was branded a feminist early on in my career when I thought I was just being a humanist and pointing out the obvious disparities between males and females in the profession.”—Dr Barbara Fougere, All Natural Vet Care, Russell Lea, NSW
“Find a practice which supports the highest standard of quality care. Don’t settle for going somewhere where corners are cut.”—Dr Debbie Delahunty, Horsham Veterinary Hospital, VIC
“Success is living life on your terms.”—Dr Gary Turnbull, East Port Veterinary Hospital, Port Macquarie, NSW
“I’ve only been able to achieve what I’ve been able to achieve because of work.”—Dr Geoff Golovsky, Vet HQ, Double Bay, NSW
“Look for a great mentor, within the profession or outside, who is going to be your sounding board as you make big career decisions.”—Dr Glen Richards, managing director, Greencross
“Avoid focusing only on improving your veterinary skills; also learn business skills.”—Dr Glen Kolenc, Pet Vets, Petersham, NSW
“Success is about feeling fulfilled as a person and as a professional. Feeling that I’ve developed, grown as a vet, as a mother, as a wife, as a colleague, as a business partner, as everything.”—Dr Isabelle Resch, Inner South Veterinary Centre, Narrabundah, ACT