Just two years after graduating as a veterinarian, Dr Zachary Lederhose was ready for his next challenge—purchasing his own practice. By Kerryn Ramsey
For many new vets, practice ownership is an essential part of their career path. After graduation, they’ll often jump from practice to practice in order to gain confidence and experience in various types of veterinary skills. A decade or so later, they’re ready to purchase an existing practice or start a new clinic from scratch. Of course, some vets have a very different plan.
Dr Zachary Lederhose was just 17 when he started his degree at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. He graduated in 2016 and began working as a vet at the age of 23. For the next two years, he was based around Cooma and Jindabyne in NSW, gaining experience with cows, horses, sheep, dogs and cats.
“I think every new grad should cut their teeth at a mixed practice,” says Dr Lederhose. “There’s no better grounding than a real James Herriot experience.”
At the end of two years, Dr Lederhose considered himself a fairly competent vet. To keep improving his skills, he contemplated starting a residency or specialising in a specific field but ultimately chose a different path.
“I decided to develop new skills in leadership and business,” he says. “What better way to do that than give it a go. I decided I would buy my own practice and put some of my ideas into operation. Basically, I decided to jump in the deep end.”
Taking the leap
Dr Lederhose believed that starting small was a fairly risk adverse beginning. He planned to buy a single vet clinic, put his ideas into practice and attempt to grow the business. In 2018, he purchased Goulburn Veterinary Clinic in the Southern Tablelands of NSW.
“It was a quiet one-vet practice that had been trading for 35 years,” says Dr Lederhose. “It was just me and a nurse, and business was slow. Building a reputation takes a very long time, so it was imperative that I maintained the existing clients. I had to ensure that they were comfortable, had a good experience with every visit and continued their relationship with the practice.”
This proactive approach paid dividends quickly. Positive word of mouth about the new vet spread through the small town and drove more business his way. Dr Lederhose backed this up with a social media presence that regularly put out interesting and positive information.
Being new to business ownership, Dr Lederhose took advice from all quarters. “I read extensively, went to conferences and listened to podcasts,” he says. “There’s so much advice out there that I was spoiled for choice. My business was cashflow steady but I was new to running a business, so didn’t want to splash around huge amounts of money on marketing or expensive advice. I stuck with the core things that have the biggest impacts.”
The business grew steadily and two additional nurses were soon added. Then a second vet joined the team and suddenly Dr Lederhose had a staff of four to manage. At present the clinic has four nurses and two vets along with Dr Lederhose. As well as running an expanding practice, he also has to be across human resources, accounting, staff issues, holiday entitlements, sick leave, GST, BAS and everything else that comes with running a business.
“Every new person added to the team also adds another level of complexity to the business,” he says. “It worked for me because I slowly built up to a six-person team rather than jumping straight into a practice of that size. There’s a steep learning curve with the business operations but if you apply the same attitude to it as to your clinical work, it can be done. I employ a good accounting team and the Australian Veterinary Association HR resources and Veterinary Business Group have been a lifesaver.”
After two years of running his own practice, Dr Lederhose still sometimes finds it difficult being the boss. It can be isolating, as the challenges of practice ownership are unique to his position in the team. Whatever the issue or problem, the buck stops with him.
“Looking back, I wish I had been a bit more confident,” says Dr Lederhose. “I put off a lot of decisions because I was second-guessing myself. If I had committed to those decisions earlier, my business would be further along its journey than it is today. The key to running a successful veterinary practice is to be authentic. I don’t present myself as an old school vet with a wealth of experience. Clearly, I’m a 27-year-old vet.”
Both Goulburn Veterinary Clinic and Dr Lederhose promote core values of enthusiasm, personal and professional growth, and having an impact. An engaged, happy and committed team is at the centre of the practice’s success. Business has been growing constantly since it started two years ago and every new month is their busiest month. While a second practice is definitely an option, at the moment—especially with the COVID-19 pandemic—it’s a case of wait and see.
Dr Lederhose has some clear advice for any new graduate thinking of buying their own practice in the near future. “Don’t jump into ownership because you think it’s the thing to do or that you have to tick a box to succeed,” he says. “Have a really strong idea about what you want to achieve and what you want to do differently. The best way to succeed is to have a clear vision about what you want, your style of practice and the type of medicine you want to embrace. Most importantly, don’t do it because you hate people and want to be your own boss. You’ll never work with more people than you do as an employer.”