Two young vets became business partners after knowing each other for less than a year—and their practice, Collaroy Plateau Veterinary Hospital, has gone from strength to strength. By Kerryn Ramsey
When Sydney veterinarians, Drs Lewis Hunt and Caroline Wood, decided to join forces to buy a practice, they knew they had very different traits. Dr Wood focuses more on medicine while Dr Hunt is passionate about surgery. Dr Wood enjoys looking after the books while Dr Hunt prefers consulting. Dr Wood had only worked full-time at one practice while Dr Hunt had worked in three states and overseas. On top of this, they had only worked together for 10 months. And then there was the age difference—Dr Hunt is nine years older than Dr Wood.
“We have very different strengths,” says Dr Hunt.
“Fortunately, we tend to defer to each other’s area of expertise and not butt heads very often Thankfully, Lewis and I are very compatible personality-wise,” says Dr Wood.
Time to buy
So what convinced Drs Hunt and Wood to go into business together? Dr Hunt had been working at Collaroy Plateau Veterinary Hospital in Sydney’s northern beaches for just over a year when Dr Wood started.
“I was thinking about starting a practice from scratch but I knew it would be really difficult,” says Dr Wood, who started at the Collaroy Plateau clinic—her second veterinary position—in 2014. She’d completed her veterinary degree at the University of Sydney in 2011 and worked at Castle Hill Veterinary Hospital for three years.
Dr Hunt, meanwhile, had worked at a variety of practices. After completing a science degree at the University of Sydney, he had then graduated as a veterinary surgeon at the University of Melbourne in 2007. After working at a general practice in Queensland, he then completed a surgical internship in Melbourne, followed by working in the UK for five years. He finally took a job at Collaroy Plateau Veterinary Hospital in 2014.
The practice went on the market when one of the owners, Dr Gary Boston, was ready to retire. He first opened Collaroy Plateau Veterinary Hospital in 1983, and was soon joined by Dr Margot Horder who became a partner/owner in 2000. In 2015, the two vet owners decided to sell, wanting the clinic to be taken over by vets they knew and trusted to retain the values of the practice.
“I think a lot of things fell into our lap along with some fortuitous timing,” says Dr Hunt.
While the two of them had many diverse skills, neither of them were experts when it came to buying a practice. “Gary and Margot had the clinic valued by Synstrat, which we both felt was a fair price,” says Dr Wood. “I quickly started to see the benefit of having a co-owner and business partner rather than doing it by yourself. We’re both happy to be in a partnership.” Dr Hunt agrees: “I don’t think I could run a business without my partner. There are massive positives by doing it our way. As we are friends—but not more than that—it allows the tough conversations to be had.”
Initially, both vets found it a challenge when it came to finance. “It was such a huge learning curve,” says Dr Wood. “We have very good accountants and business advisers who walked us through the set-up of the company. We actively seek out advice wherever we can.” Dr Wood was also able to pick the brains of her parents—both are medicos who ran their own medical practice.
While the set-up was stressful for Drs Hunt and Wood, they found it even more exhausting when they finally took ownership. “September of 2015 is a month burnt into my brain because we took over on the first of October,” recalls Dr Wood. “During that time, there were so many things we had to sort out, such as how we were going to pay staff.”
A bonus for Drs Hunt and Wood was that even though Dr Boston had retired, Dr Horder decided to continue working at the practice for two days a week. It gave her the opportunity to keep working as a vet, as well as offering business advice to Drs Hunt and Wood.
“She really loved coming to work, seeing all her clients and interacting with staff,” says Dr Wood. “And it really helped with client handover. People saw that they could trust us because Margot was still here.”
Solving the missing link
After the first year, the business was thriving and they had revitalised the practice with new equipment. But the system had to change when Dr Wood gave birth to her first child and went on maternity leave in July 2018. She returned to work part-time six months later. Meanwhile, Dr Hunt had scored the role as a co-presenter on Bondi Vet: Coast to Coast on Channel 9.
“Even though there was a lot going on in our lives, we wanted to elevate the standard of the clinic,” explains Dr Wood. “The best solution was to hire a practice manager at the end of last year.”
While they needed someone to take care of HR and day-to-day management, Drs Wood and Hunt were both adamant about hiring someone from outside the veterinary industry in order to bring a fresh perspective. They achieved that by hiring Eloise Blake who was previously a practice manager at a psychology clinic on Sydney’s upper north shore. This was a busy practice with 10 psychologists on staff. “It’s been great having Eloise as a third member of our little management team—and sometimes a tie breaker,” says Dr Hunt. “She’s formalised a lot of the HR and introduced written agreements and contracts for everyone, along with quarterly staff appraisals.”
Both vets are extremely happy to have had their time freed up from admin work so they can concentrate on sick animals. Blake has also utilised her time at the psychology practice by offering a perspective on the mental health aspect of the veterinary industry.
“She’s introduced some mental health plans and we have a psychotherapist visiting to do some wellness sessions with our staff in upcoming months,” says Dr Wood. “In the old days, practices didn’t talk about these kind of things. Now it’s open and there’s no embarrassment if you’re having difficulties. It’s a very big—and necessary—change.”
In the three and a half years since buying Collaroy Plateau Veterinary Hospital, Drs Hunt and Wood have renovated the reception, consult rooms and kennels. A storeroom has been converted into a cat boarding and cat hospital ward.
The next phase is to renovate the surgery and treatment area, which will take place soon.
The team has also created a brand new look for the practice with a new colour scheme and revamp of the website. They wanted to get it up and running before the Bondi Vet series airs on TV. Drs Hunt and Wood have also invested in new equipment, including a blood machine, a dental X-ray unit, an ultrasound, and periodontal equipment.
The two practice owners are committed to professional development, upskilling themselves and their staff. In-house training has included sessions with Dr Christine Hawke, focusing on dental work for pets, as well as echocardiology training to utilise the ultrasound better.
At present, Drs Hunt and Wood are in the process of formalising the practice’s core values. “We want those core values to be clear to our staff and to our clients—and to ourselves,” says Dr Wood. “It reminds us as to why we are doing what we’re doing and how we want it to be done.”
Power of two
Collaroy Plateau Veterinary Hospital is now providing more services than when it started. The two vets plan on continuing to grow the practice, increasing their client base and increasing what they offer. Having two people who work well together in a business sense and who can depend on each other is the key to their success.
“I love being in a business partnership,” says Dr Hunt. “It allows you to build a great business and have an extraordinarily satisfying veterinary life while still being able to chase your outside interests.”
Dr Wood agrees: “It’s all about an effective and fruitful work-life balance. Since we’re colleagues rather than a couple, it means we can both have holidays at different times, so it doesn’t affect the practice.”
“Mind you, owning and running our own practice has been a steep learning curve,” continues Dr Hunt. “I’ve really enjoyed it and, as the years go on, I find I enjoy it more and more. We are continuing to expand the practice while undertaking some mentorship work and looking after the younger staff as well.”
And Dr Wood adds: “We’re definitely proud of what we have achieved and, after getting through the early stages, Lewis and I feel like we can tackle anything together.”