Putting pets first in the River City
Friday, 3 May 2019
VetScript Editor's pick - April 2019
Bette Flagler visits Nicola King and Tanya Smith (below left and right), owners of First Vets in Whanganui.
How did First Vets come about?
Tanya: We saw a need in the community for true choice in terms of a completely
Nicola: We picked the name because nobody likes to be second! And it also reflects our ‘slogan’ of putting pets first – that is really important in this profession.
Our philosophy is that we wouldn’t do anything to, or put anything on, a client’s animal that we wouldn’t do to or put on our own.
Tell us about setting up the practice. Was it a big step going from employee to owner?
Tanya: It was a huge relief, despite the inevitable risks involved and the huge responsibility! We had a common vision in terms of the types and level of service we wanted to offer clients, and also how we wanted to manage a practice in terms of working conditions and lifestyle. We opened the practice in August 2017 and we’ve had exponential growth and are busier than we thought we would be. There was a huge sense of achievement as we ticked off our goals, from finishing the build to employing the team, from adding the puppy kindy to the grooming service and cattery. We have had tremendous support from our industry partners and from the community.
Nicola: One of the biggest differences in owning a practice is being responsible
for every part of the business. It was like having another child – you are never quite off the clock, especially in the early days. It demanded a lot of attention, particularly when we were setting it up and during the renovations.
This is a fantastic location.
Nicola: The location is central, accessible and has great exposure. Whanganui is growing very fast. Last year 700 new residents came to town.
We obviously won’t get them all as clients, but when they move here, they see us: we’re next to Countdown and across from Pak‘n’Save. Everyone shops at the two grocery stores.
How did you make the clinic work for your families and lifestyle?
Tanya: Our families own the practice, and our husbands have their own skill sets. We didn’t have to hire a human resources person because Matt (my husband) had done that in his previous jobs. He’s an engineer, and is really handy with building and figuring out details of the property. We have a young family, and we didn’t want having children or a young family to be a barrier to working here, for either ourselves or our staff. Behind our clinic – just across the carpark – is a day care centre. We have a locum whose child is there when she works for us; my two-year old goes there; and our baby will be there once I come back to work after maternity leave. I can walk over to feed him. That fear of ‘what if something happens?’ is a real concern for new mums. Here, that worry is taken away.
Nicola: My husband (Randal) has an MBA and takes care of the financial side of the business. We have two sons, Will (15) and Jack (19). Will works here on weekends and does the lawns, cleans the cattery and bathes dogs. Jack is in Auckland at university, but helps with social media, including Instagram and our Facebook advertising.
What was your design thinking?
Tanya: For our animal and human clients, we try to keep their experiences as stress free as possible. For the animals, this involves having separate cat and dog waiting areas, consult rooms and wards, and running Adaptil and Feliway diffusers in the appropriate areas. We have a third consult room that is larger and has a couch – we use that for a lot of things but we designed it for euthanasia, so that families have enough space to all fit in the room. For the human customers, it means communicating well and clearly to avoid any surprises with treatments, invoices, etc. Preparing people for what to expect is important. For our team, we strive to make sure that everyone has reasonable hours, takes breaks and has time off. We really appreciate all of our team’s hard work (and we hope we tell them often enough!). Our biggest challenge at the moment, because of our rapid growth, is ensuring our staffing levels are appropriate to provide great customer service.
Nicola: We didn’t want second-hand equipment and we wanted to outfit for growth. The dental X-ray units will be used more in the future but we thought it was better to set things up initially than try to retrofit. We have security cameras in all the wards and walk-in kennels, even for the small dogs. We have gas scavenging units that go through the ceiling and outdoors, so the gas isn’t in the work environment. We use a local cremation service – any animal who is euthanased here is cremated and ashes are scattered, nothing goes to the landfill. All that comes with a cost but we designed things to fit with our values.
How do you work with the local community?
Tanya: We hold a $20 tomcat neuter day, and we have been lucky to have had industry support to achieve this. As well as having support from our team, we have had veterinary, veterinary nurse and veterinary technician students volunteer their time, as has the Whanganui SPCA. There is a huge problem with stray cats here, and this is a way to give back and try to improve the health of the animals and educate the owners. We welcome community groups to come through on tours and see what we do here.
Nicola: We try to use as many local suppliers as possible. There is a local woman who makes the eco-friendly pet beds with recycled materials that we sell here. We invited local artists to display their art on our walls, and we sell it through the clinic at no cost. Whanganui is a great community to work in. We see people from all walks of life, and that keeps our work varied and interesting.
What advice would you give to other veterinarians who are considering buying/starting their own practices?
Tanya: First and foremost, do your homework. Have a sound business case and have it critically appraised – at the end of the day it has to make financial sense. Someone has to ask the hard questions like, “Why do you think this will work?”. In our case, that was the bank manager. Also, think about what would bother you more –the possibility that the new business could be hard and not work out, or the fact that you didn’t even try?
Nicola: A practical piece of advice that I would offer is that branding is really important. We paid a lot of money to get the branding right. Spend your money wisely and get it right, and that will take you everywhere. We worked with a local company, Inferno Design, and they were fantastic. We still use them for ads, business cards and magnets. Brands evolve, and the designer is part of the team.
How about after-hours?
Tanya: We use Massey for our after-hours. We did our own after-hours for six months and found that the vast majority of our clients wanted a service where their animals were monitored 24/7 – so they would opt to go to Massey anyway. It made sense to switch to Massey permanently. We retain an after-hours phone for our SPCA Inspectorate work. (First Vets has the SPCA contract for the region.)
What’s your staffing?
Tanya: We’re currently in the process of expanding from two full-time veterinarians to three. There is one BVetTech, two certificate veterinary nurses, one veterinary nursing assistant, one groomer and several casual team members with varying qualifications.
Emma, the BVetTech, is encouraged to delve deeper into the technical aspects of our IDEXX machines and X-ray equipment, as well as the more traditional tech skills. She also runs the puppy kindy course – as did our previous tech, Tyler. They do an amazing job – Massey is training them really well in that respect. Cheryl’s many years of experience as a veterinary nurse mean that she is capable of many technical tasks, such as blood collection and catheter placement. We like our support team to be stretched in their responsibilities, and we try to ensure that they get ample opportunities to do all the tasks that don’t specifically require a veterinarian.
Nicola: In terms of veterinary skills, Tanya and I have complementary skills. I really love medicine and Tanya loves surgery. It works really well; you’re not fighting over cases. We will both do the other things too, of course, but it’s important to keep everyone the happiest. and the division works quite well. Skye and Zoe are mostly on customer service and the administration side of the business, but we try to keep their nursing skills engaged by talking to customers about over-the-counter products and offering advice, and Zoe helps me in the back on weekends. When we were setting up, the whole team was involved and made decisions. We really believe in empowering people.
Do you treat only companion animals?
Nicola: Our SPCA Inspectorate work covers all species, but yes, our day-today work is all companion animals. This is occasionally stretched to surgical castration of companion goats and the spaying of a companion kunekune pig – who lives indoors!
Any final thoughts, 18 months in?
Tanya: We have had really good support from industry reps, and we always try to make time for them. They’re a really important part of the industry, yet quite often you hear about reps being treated like second-class citizens and veterinarians being rude to them. I think, fundamentally, that’s not a good way to act. They are doing their job and trying to help us.
Nicola: I agree. The reps have been great. It’s really important to not forget who helped you in the beginning. We’ve had tremendous industry and community support, and really good feedback from the local community.