No vet caring for the wellbeing of companion animals in Australia could have failed to notice the ‘corporates’ who have entered the sector over the past few years, buying up practices and standardizing them. The idea is, you sell your practice to the corporation, and in return for cold, hard cash, you surrender your identity to the corporate brand.
But what if you want to access the value of the business you’ve built while keeping the identity that made it valuable in the first place?
“It’s very easy to standardize things and try to get everybody on the same payroll and back-office software and so on, but it’s incredibly disruptive to businesses,” says John Burns, chief operating officer of VetPartners.
“At VetPartners, we know that for some people, remaining independent and not being shoehorned into a corporatized box is really important. That’s why we don’t try to impose standardization. We’re happy to keep working with the systems already in place in a practice. We leave that alone. What we’re building is what I call a federation—a way of being part of a network but remaining independent.”
By ‘federation’, Burns means a network of likeminded practices. “Part of what we do is open the lines of communication between them, and help them support each other,” he says. “For example, we recently had a case where one of our sites needed some advice on an ophthalmology case. They were able to message all the other vets in the network and get feedback from them. I know they see a lot of value in that. It’s about the connection.”
The VetPartners approach is resonating through the profession. About half of the inquiries the company receives now come from referrals, says Burns. Practice owners are seeking out colleagues who have joined VetPartners to ask them about their experience and, like a good restaurant, the VetPartners experience is spreading by word of mouth.
“It’s really exciting,” says Burns. “I worked in human health before coming to VetPartners, and I’ve been through this process before. Usually, the referral effect takes a while to kick in. With VetPartners, it’s happened really quickly.”
VetPartners isn’t a listed company, which means it has no share price to safeguard. As a result, its acquisitions approach is “quite relaxed,” says Burns.
“We do want people to know that we’re in the market to buy good, independent clinics. But sometimes the conversation develops into one about what we can offer apart from an outright acquisition. For example, we recently settled on a joint-venture approach with a practice in New Zealand. We offer options to vets who might want to sell us a part of the business, with the idea of transitioning off the remainder down the track. We’re finding this flexible approach is appealing to younger vets especially.”
VetPartners has been growing at a rapid pace, with 12 Australian practices joining since March, and four in New Zealand just in August and September.
“I think we are filling a demand in the market for a truly independent model,” says Burns. “Our motto is, ‘Join us, stay you’. We believe strongly in that. Just as we believe that each clinic makes us stronger. We’ve been fortunate to have many unique and strong clinics join us, so we’re looking pretty good. I think we have a lot to offer. I’m looking forward to the next year.”