Getting down to business
Tuesday, 3 April 2018
VetScript Editor's pick - April 2018
New veterinary graduates are often criticised for lacking business sense, but entrepreneurial Massey students have established a group devoted to improving their business competency. Mirjam Guesgen reports.
Fifth-year veterinary student Billy Fitzgerald knew early on in his degree that he wanted to do more than practise veterinary medicine – he wanted to own a practice. And Billy is not alone. Many of his friends in the degree course also want to own and run a practice, or at the very least have a say in the direction of the practice where they work.
But those ambitions have often been met with surprise from senior veterinarians when students go on placement. The general perception, say the students, is that new graduates are interested in the clinical side of being a veterinarian, but not the business side – or that they know nothing about business.
In an attempt to challenge that perception, a team of students at Massey University has formed the Student Veterinary Business Group. Billy, who is on the group’s committee, says it’s not a matter of students not wanting to run their own businesses, it’s that they don’t know how.
Students from all levels of the BVSc and BVetTech programmes are receiving professional and business competency training from veterinarians and professionals around New Zealand, training that not only provides a stepping stone towards the students’ goals but also gives them an edge as new graduates.
The business group was initially the brainchild of recent graduate and entrepreneur Corey Regnerus, who wanted to set up more leadership opportunities for veterinary students. It was modelled on the US Veterinary Business Management Association, but was adapted to suit New Zealand’s profession.
Currently the group is run by a committee of six students, but is looking to expand that to reflect the current 110-strong membership. The group’s goals and values are based on five cornerstones: professional skills, business competency, networking, innovation and mentorship, and community.
Although it is run by students and is separate from the university curriculum, the group’s goals mirror some of those of the university. Since 2017, students have been selected for the veterinary degree based on academic and other qualifications, and the veterinary programme itself offers realistic role-playing scenarios each year on topics such as budgeting for their degree, asking for a pay rise one year into a job, buying into a business 10 years into the job and improving service from a management perspective.
“We’re trying to provide a little bit extra on top of that,” explains committee member Gabby Rout-Brown.
The student group is working closely with BCC, a Palmerston North startup and investment company. BCC provides event space for the group and training in areas such as developing exclusive and strong stakeholder relationships, event management, entrepreneurship and problem-solving.
“We saw something in them and wanted to try to nurture it as much as we could,” says BCC startup coordinator Nick Gain.
The Student Veterinary Business Group organises workshops based on the needs and interests of veterinary students. So far there have been two, and both proved immensely popular. More than 70 students attended the first, and the group turned away interested students for the second because it was oversubscribed.
For the first workshop, on professionalism during placement, they managed to get mentor veterinarians from every clinic in Palmerston North to attend, as well as a few from out of town. Initially, students were mostly concerned with how to get a job out of a placement, but they quickly learned that getting a great reference is the important thing, because jobs are not always available.
Gabby says she was surprised by the diversity of skills sought by different veterinarians.
“There was no template for the perfect placement student. Instead of how to behave, it was more of a list of things you might come up against.” Being adaptable and practical is key, she says.
The group’s second workshop focused on perfecting students’ curriculum vitae and interview skills. Thomas Traill, a fifth-year student also on the committee, says that the most valuable part of that session was hearing from non-veterinary professionals such as human resource managers. It also cemented a relationship between the group and its ‘big sibling’ organisation, the NZVA Veterinary Business Group (VBG).
The VBG was so impressed by the students’ initiative that it is now helping to organise speakers and mentorship on an ongoing basis. Debra Gates, the VBG Chair, says the board is in complete support of the students.
“We’re really excited that the students have taken this initiative and are really proud that they’re thinking this way. We want to do everything we can to make sure this initiative continues from year to year.”
The group is calling on veterinarians and business owners to be speakers at future events and provide insights into knowledge gaps in the industry, and is also keen to hear from veterinarians, business owners and allied professionals.
The committee members agree that the feedback they’re already getting from business professionals is invaluable. “Before I got involved in this I wasn’t aware of what I didn’t know,” says Gabby.
Aside from teaching business and other skills, the workshops provide an excellent opportunity to network.
Billy argues that networking is one of the most important non-clinical skills for a veterinarian. As he puts it, “It’s not just what you know, but who you know.”
Gabby agrees. “The professionals we’re bringing in are people who these students are really interested in meeting, so we’re facilitating those pathways for them,” she says.
Next, the group will tackle how to become a business owner.
Thomas says that a challenge – and opportunity – with veterinary clinics is that they are increasingly corporate entities rather than owner-operated clinics. A positive is that there are opportunities outside ownership where veterinarians can take part in decisionmaking – for example, in management or simply by knowing how to bring up issues or suggestions.
“Students need to understand what that means for them and how to progress their careers,” he says.
The long-term goal is to turn the workshops and lectures into a recognised diploma or certificate course, where students are able to watch sessions online as well as in person and develop portfolios of their learning to be assessed by professionals. While the student group is not yet sure who will accredit the qualification (potentially Massey University or the New Zealand Qualifications Authority) it plans to roll out a prototype course later this year.
“We hope to be a hub for business knowledge,” says Billy.
Debra says that kind of entrepreneurial thinking will not only increase the students’ value to a veterinary business, but is also vital for the future of the industry as a whole. “We’re hoping that this will [help to produce] the people who will be running these businesses in years to come,” she says.
Nick from BCC agrees. He says that having veterinarians who think like entrepreneurs will ultimately benefit veterinary clients, because veterinarians will adopt new ideas and technologies sooner, potentially translating to better health outcomes for animals.
All of this confirms a larger trend of new veterinarians and veterinary students increasingly being valued for more than just academic ability. Communication skills, financial knowledge, drive, innovation, creativity and collegial support are now also prized.
Now in his final year, Billy is excited by the prospects available to him and his peers. “New graduates and young people have always been drivers for change,” he says. “Now they know new ways they can do that.”
Professionals wishing to get in touch with the students can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.