Married couples in business together

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

married couples in business together
Drs Carrie Hawthorn and Matthew Tay say demarcating responsibilities minimises disagreements.

Does it make good business sense for two vets to marry, buy a practice and run it together? And how does it impact their relationship? By Frank Leggett

Running a veterinary practice is difficult at the best of times. Not only is it an emotionally draining job, it comes with all the pressures associated with trying to turn a profit. So, what happens when married vets own and run a veterinary practice? Is it a better business model? After a bad day at work, is it nice to be able to vent with your partner? What happens if you disagree about business decisions, clinical work or staffing issues? Are there times when you just need to get away from each other?

Three couples talk about the pros and cons of being married vets and running their own practice. 

Drs Rebel and Stuart Skirving, Gambier Vets, Mount Gambier, SA

Rebel and Stuart met at Murdoch University where they studied veterinary science. After graduating in 2001, they had a few years working apart and married in 2006. They were employed at Gambier Vets in 2007 and in 2010, they purchased the practice.

“The owner decided to sell and we jumped at the opportunity,” says Stuart. “The financial commitment was a big one because at the time we had one baby, and Rebel was pregnant with the second.” The couple now have three kids aged seven, nine and 11, and both vets work full-time at the practice.

“It’s a bit of a juggle,” says Rebel. “We organise it so one of us is on-call and the other looks after the kids. The flexibility of our work life is one of the big advantages of owning our own practice.”

If they need to duck away for a kid’s sports carnival or if Rebel needs to study for her PhD or if Stuart needs a quick round of golf, the other partner can step in. Not only do they have a healthy work-life balance and the opportunity to spend quality time with their kids, but the business is doing well.

“We’re looking at building a new clinic to replace our existing practice in the next year or two,” says Rebel. 

The couple have divided responsibilities in the practice to give each other a little space. Stuart deals with the majority of farm calls while Rebel spends most of her day at the clinic. If there’s a staff, business or management problem, Rebel tends to solve it. “We have an all-female staff and they relate to Rebel very well,” says Stuart.

The biggest disadvantage is organising a family holiday. They need to bring in a locum or two and take holidays in the quieter times. 

Drs Fiona and Kevin Cruickshank, Gold Coast Vet Surgery, Surfers Paradise, QLD

Fiona and Kevin met while studying at the University of Pretoria in Onderstepoort—the only vet school in South Africa. They married shortly after qualifying in 1998 and spent some years working at a variety of locations and practices. In 2000, they spent six months backpacking around the world before immigrating to Darwin, Australia. 

“We like warm climates so Queensland was our ultimate destination,” says Kevin. “We looked at many practices and eventually settled on Gold Coast Vet Surgery. It was quite run-down, had few clients and just one nurse/receptionist. While we were growing the practice, I worked full-time and Fiona slowly increased her hours until she was working full-time too.”

Now, with children aged 16, 13 and five, she’s back to part-time. The ability to adjust your schedules around your partner’s is one of the biggest advantages of being married vets. On the other hand, the Cruickshanks have had the occasional disagreement over management issues. 

Like marriage, business is all a matter of compromise—and some battles are just not worth fighting.

Dr Matthew Tay, Milton Village Vet

“Sometimes it’s not just a management decision, it can become a marital disagreement,” says Fiona. “Fortunately, we have a good practice manager who’s on the same wavelength as Kevin and myself. Sometimes, delegating the issue to her can be the best way of dealing with it.”

The two vets discuss interesting and challenging cases at home. Fiona also has a wide social network and they expect her to know what’s happening with their sick pets.

“I have to keep her in the loop,” says Kevin. “All her friends expect her to know everything about every patient in the clinic.”

From a business perspective, the Crucikshanks believe that being married vets works to their advantage. It allows them to make business decisions quickly, be flexible with their working hours and successfully grow their business.

“I love being a mother but I also find it very rewarding to be a vet,” says Fiona. “Owning our business has allowed me to stay involved and utilise my years of education and practical experience.”

Carrie Hawthorn and Matthew Tay, Milton Village Vet, NSW

Even though Carrie met Matthew when they were students at the University of Sydney, they didn’t date until after they graduated. After marriage in 2000, they spent several years working for different practices across Sydney but always had plans to run their own practice.

“Matthew was probably a bit keener than me,” says Carrie. “He was involved with the set-up of Sydney Animal Hospital in Newtown and was very motivated to start his own practice.”

The couple moved from Sydney to the South Coast town of Milton with their two children. The purchased a building to convert into a practice and rented a house nearby.

“When we finally opened in 2005, I worked full-time with one nurse,” says Matthew. “It took a long time to build up client numbers. People had been seeing the same vet for 20 years and no-one wanted to change.”

At present, Carrie and Matthew both work full-time along with a third vet. They are understaffed but are having real difficulty in finding another vet in their area.

They find the biggest advantage of being married vets is that they can share the load with a partner who fully understands the situation. In such a busy practice, the biggest disadvantage is that there’s no escape from each other. Carrie and Matthew work side by side, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for months at a time. “Things are a little better now and we prioritise personal time,” says Carrie.

Demarcating responsibilities means there are few disagreements in the practice. Matthew does most of the surgery and behavioural cases while Carrie handles the consults and any skin issues. Staffing or HR issues are worked through together.

“We have occasional disagreements but nothing too major,” says Matthew. “Like marriage, business is all a matter of compromise—and some battles are just not worth fighting.”

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