Vet in a van

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There’s a lot to like about running a mobile vet practice but there some unique challenges, too. Kerry Ramsey investigates.

For veterinarians in country Australia, being mobile is simply a necessary part of the job. Now many vets in our larger cities have set up mobile practices without a traditional surgery or building. Their websites are their storefront and they travel from case to case in a decked-out van. What’s more, these suburban mobile vets are proving to be very popular with clients.

The benefits of going mobile—low set-up cost, minimal operational outgoings, flexible working hours, calm animals and calm clients in their home environments—are very attractive. However, there are a number of challenges unique to being a vet on the road.

“Everyone thinks the set-up costs of a mobile vet are negligible and the profit margin is 100 per cent,” says Dr Ari Ende of Vetaround in Sydney. “It’s absolute garbage. Certainly, less money is required than setting up a new hospital but it’s still substantial and dependent on what you want to do.”

Dr Ende spent 10 years working in traditional veterinary practices before deciding to start his own mobile vet business seven years ago. While the lower start-up cost was attractive, it wasn’t the main reason he decided to go mobile. “There weren’t near as many mobile vets then so I saw a real opportunity to start a successful business and make it work. It also gave me a lot of flexibility and the ability to create a good work/life balance.”

Another mobile vet, Dr Chris Gleeson, met his future wife, Natasha Watts, when they were both vet students at the University of Melbourne. After graduating in 2002, the two vets worked in a number of different small animal practices in Melbourne and overseas. About four years ago, Drs Gleeson and Watts began exploring the various options involved in starting their own business.

“We eventually decided to start a mobile vet practice from scratch,” says Dr Gleeson, who runs Bayside Mobile Vet in Melbourne with Dr Watts. “To start a bricks-and-mortar practice required about $1 million. Likewise, the buy-in arrangements for a partnership, unless you have been there for a long time, usually require a lot of money up-front. The initial capital outlay and the overheads for a mobile vet practice are much less.”

Another way to get a mobile vet practice up and running is to start slow and gradually build the business. Dr Andrew Parker was working in Brisbane and noticed a lot of women coming into the practice were juggling babies and animals. He thought there must be a more convenient way for these people to get their animals treated.

“Having a vet come to your house is very convenient for the client.”—Dr Ari Ende, Vetaround, Sydney

“I could see an opportunity for a low-level business I could use as an income supplement,” says Dr Parker, who qualified in 1990 and spent 14 years working in traditional practices before deciding to go mobile. “I developed a business plan, spoke to an accountant and realised it was worthwhile investing the small amount of money required. It was exciting to start my own business and I really wanted to see where it would go.”

When Dr Parker set up VetVan in Brisbane 12 years ago, the business was run as a purely part-time concern. As it slowly grew in popularity, he started considering turning it into a full-time job.

“About five years ago, I decided that when I reached 40 calls per week, I would go full-time. I kept hitting that mark consistently and reduced my part-time hours but it took a while to make the commitment. Eventually, I was repeatedly making 45 calls a week, had a stable income and just went ahead and did it.”

Being a mobile vet means there’s a lot of travel between clients and more time is spent on each appointment. Accordingly, they charge more per consultation.

“The majority of clients are happy to pay the extra fee associated with a consultation,” says Dr Ende. “In just about every area of our lives today, people are used to paying extra for convenience—and having a vet come to your house is very convenient for the client. Then again, for some people, it’s a complete barrier. I’m very open and honest about what I charge, and if some people think it’s too expensive, that’s fine.”

One difficulty all mobile vets face is how to set up the surgical side of the practice. A common solution is to utilise the facilities of a veterinary hospital on certain days. When he needs to operate, Dr Gleeson rents out the surgical theatre of a practice in the beachside suburb of Brighton, just 10 kilometres from Melbourne’s CBD. Dr Ende has an arrangement with a vet hospital where he can perform all his surgery. For more complex cases, such as orthopaedic surgery or when an overnight stay is required, Dr Ende and the vets at the hospital will manage the case with shared responsibility.

Dr Parker has a unique solution to the problem. After hiring a surgery at another vet practice for years, he has set up surgical premises in his own home. It took a lot of work obtaining all the approvals and permissions but the convenience and independence it gives him has made it all worthwhile. “I wouldn’t enjoy being a vet if I couldn’t do my surgical cases,” he says. “An inability to perform surgery would also dramatically limit my business. One of the reasons I have so many return clients is because they know I can deal with pretty much anything.”

When a mobile vet visits a client, the patient is relaxed, the client’s happy and there’s no waiting around. It also gives the vet the opportunity to look at where the animal lives. “Some of my clients have massive backyards and others live in shoebox apartments,” says Dr Gleeson. “The home environment can have a real impact on pet health.”

While the low overheads, reduced running costs and flexible hours are big advantages, the vet needs to be able to work alone and be confident in their approach. “When you work in a practice, you can have a chat to colleagues about difficult or unusual cases,” says Dr Parker. “A mobile vet doesn’t have this option so you need to be experienced before deciding to work alone. I also keep up with practical postgraduate studies to ensure I am aware of changes and updates. I can’t rely on information being passed along by colleagues.”

With most mobile vets working alone, it can also put a limit on expanding the business, no matter how successful. “There’s a bit of a ceiling on what you can do as a one-person mobile practice,” says Dr Ende. “If you want to expand then that means bringing in more people. You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to get bigger or am I happy to stay the same size?’ There’s nothing wrong with either option as long as
it’s meeting your needs financially and emotionally.”

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