Making a difference
Wednesday, 15 May 2019
VetScript Editor's pick: May 2019
Bette Flagler talks to Nicole Brown, owner and veterinarian at Pet and Vet in Milford on Auckland’s North Shore.
What is the history of Pet and Vet?
The clinic has been open for 21 years and I’ve had sole ownership since 2013. The building is a former sewing machine factory, and when I bought the practice I also bought the building. My husband, son and I live in an apartment upstairs. We renovated the practice to use more of the physical space and expanded the reception, waiting and retail areas, and added the cattery and the rehabilitation rooms. We’re still developing it, and we’re planning to convert a storage room into a space for hydrotherapy.
How was the transition to owner?
The previous owner, Simon Wright, actually approached me. He hired a veterinary nurse who had worked with me and she told him, “If you want a business partner and you want to take this clinic to another level, you need to work with Nicole”. I was managing other clinics and was planning to buy a branch where I was working.
I owned 50% of the shares for about two years before Simon retired. It was a really great transition because I got to know him and had some responsibility before getting thrown into the deep end. Simon is a passionate veterinarian and had done self-development and mentoring in the past; he was just brilliant.
You talk a lot about personal development. Can you explain what you mean?
Very early in my career I really looked at making a difference. For me, that was about making a difference not just with animals but also for our profession. It became really clear when I started to manage a few smaller clinics and looked at different setups that some things are not always well addressed. I started with personal development before I bought the clinic and that helped me a lot. There’s so much at veterinary school that you don’t learn. I really wanted to learn “What makes us happy? What makes the customer, the patients, staff and
everyone else in society happy?’
I think you hear it from a lot of veterinarians: “I’m really good with animals but I’m really bad with people, so I’ll be a veterinarian”. It’s one of the standard answers. And then you realise in a really short time that every pet has two or three owners and it’s a really emotional setup. There are custody battles and you get trapped in between; you have to deal with euthanasia. Personal development – really knowing who you are and knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are – is so important.
What do you aspire to achieve in creating a workplace and a place for clients and their pets?
With personal development you learn that you can’t change the environment, but you can change your way of being. My inspiration was to use love and passion to create a caring clinic, where my staff have pride in their skills and have a positive impact on our patients, on the team that works here and in the community. When it gets tough, when there is a euthanasia, when someone is sick, it is that caring environment and our ‘way of being’ that we can draw on. It’s about mindfulness. We tend to never stop in our lives; we’ve got social media and all these things going on around us grabbing our attention. When was the last time you stopped and smelled the roses?
When patients come in here they are stressed and sick. For clients, their pets are their most precious things. The last thing they want is to be in a sterile environment. So when they come in here our greeting is welcoming; there is warmth in the waiting room and consult rooms.
How do you compete?
Corporate and multi-clinic practices have advantages that small practices don’t. They get better deals buying products because they buy in bulk; they can move staff from one clinic to another. I can’t do those things so I have to create something different. For example, a lot of clients here on the North Shore have specialist surgeries at places like Veterinary Specialist Group, but they don’t want to drive over the bridge every day for their pets’ rehab. So we set up a rehabilitation centre where people such as physical therapists, chiropractors and reiki practitioners contract space to work. I facilitate it by creating the space, but they are five women sole-owners of businesses who work here. We offer feline hyperthyroid treatment as a referral centre for other veterinarians. It’s really important to me to work with other veterinarians and to figure out how we can help each other.
We have a large retail space with room for big chest freezers full of raw food. We also sell other food ranges, but I’m open to raw food alternatives, and we provide options to clients. We can’t compete with the big pet supply stores, and we were looking for a range of products. We brought in the Hunter brand. It’s from Germany, made about 25 kilometres from where I grew up. They have a range of everything that we need – leashes, collars, bedding, etc. It’s an old saddler who makes it, all by hand. My husband Scott is an accountant and was getting tired of his job, and is now an importer/wholesaler of the Hunter range. He distributes it to other retail outlets – for example, to other veterinarians and grooming parlours. That’s a passive income for us.
Our cattery is set up ‘like home’. A lot of people bring their cats here when their homes are being renovated and they’re not safe places for the animals to be. They come here and have lunch with the cats, or sit with them and really enjoy the space. Our staff enjoy it, too.
Tell us about your clientele.
Auckland is different from the rest of New Zealand, and Milford is different from most areas of Auckland. Milford is a destination; a lot of people have their lawyers and accountants and grocery shops within walking distance. We have the beach, and there are a lot of dogs. I tried to create this place to be a one-stop shop, where people have the convenience to do and get everything they need.
Auckland is busy and stressed, and people expect things instantly. When you look at how stressed people are, that’s a threat but also an opportunity. We have an in-house lab – we don’t need to send the bloods away – so we suggest clients go have a cup of coffee and come back when we have the results. We order things for people and courier or deliver to them. Auckland is too expensive, but that also creates an opportunity. Not everyone is rich on the North Shore. I have a lot of older clients, so we have a SuperGold Card discount that a lot of people take advantage of. We’re not a franchise, and we can tailor what clients need. Is the nanny going to drop off the dog and then I ring the owner after they’ve had their meetings? That’s less stressful for them than having to be here at an appointment time. It’s about listening: “What do you need from me?” Extraordinary veterinary care is often what the pet and owner need.
What advice would you give other veterinarians?
Get yourself mentors. Look at different scenarios and learn from your mistakes rather than beat yourself up. Explore the ‘self-talk’ you do – would you say these things to your best friend?
I explored personal development because I needed to learn how to be a better person and to understand myself. When things are going badly, most veterinarians just look at another technique to do the ‘work’ better. I have young veterinarians coming through for mentoring who are ready to leave the profession after six weeks because they have been in tricky situations. I say to them, “You have one medical concern that you can possibly look up on the internet. On top of that you have four or five other things – maybe emotional, personal interaction, miscommunication, staff problems – that have to be figured out. So, yes, you need to be a good veterinarian, but who you are as a person is equally important.”
How many people work here? How do you use their skills?
We have 20 staff. That sounds a lot for a small clinic, but none of the four veterinarians works full-time – by choice. They may have a family, or there’s something else that they want for their work-life balance. I have veterinarians who come from overseas, and one of their conditions of employment is they want to go see their families for six weeks a year. We have a practice manager. That is a luxury in this profession, but there are so many things such as paperwork that I dread doing and that she loves. And she has an open door for the staff to go through, a mother duck for the staff to talk to. People don’t always want to talk to the boss, and I’m usually busy. We have a veterinary nurse manager and five veterinary nurses and one BVetTech. I like to look at my staff and see what they’re interested in and what they want. Then we use their full range of skills. It’s important to get to know your staff, to say to them, “You really did well; what else would you like to do?”
Do you think we underutilize the skills of allied veterinary professionals in New Zealand?
Yes. You need to know and trust your staff. They actually know the patients coming through the door better than I do. They see and talk to the owners, make a lot of notes, deal with the financial animals. They often remember things about the animals that I forget. We do a lot of veterinary nurse consults, and they discharge, recheck, offer arthritis and obesity advice. I needed to make initial templates for guidance, but they do a great job.
We also have groomers and cattery staff. For radioactive hyperthyroid treatment, we need staff who are beyond child-bearing years. We use a lot of people who wanted to be veterinarians or work in the animal field and who want to make a difference. They come in, are relaxed and spend time with the cats. They may only work 10 to 15 hours a week, and because they’re older they don’t need to be home during the school holidays.
Where do you see veterinary medicine going in the future?
In the past three to five years the profession has developed faster than ever before. If we look overseas, New Zealand is at the tip of the iceberg. I have good friends working in big referral centres that aren’t just being bought up by big veterinary groups – they are being bought by Mars Petcare. So we have non-veterinarians who see that there is financial gain in managing veterinary practices. That can put veterinarians in the position of doing treatments they may not feel comfortable with because management doesn’t understand how an animal got in the position in the first place. But I think these corporates have a lid. In New Zealand we still believe in New Zealand-owned and operated, and we have great emotion around that in this country. The personalised, extraordinary pet care that I can supply as a niche could get lost, but to me there is a niche for the private practices that make a difference. Look at butchers. A few years ago, everyone went to the supermarket to buy meat, but now many people want their fresh meat to come from someone they trust and who knows how it was raised and what was put into it.
When it comes to our customers, things have changed as well. They have rising knowledge and demands and that’s an opportunity. I can’t be the old veterinarian lecturing my customers. I’m here to be their partner. I’m here to have an open discussion. I need to ask them, “What do you already know? What did the internet tell you? What does the animal say?” Their previous knowledge often opens doors for testing and for helping the animal way beyond what can I fit in in 15 minutes. Use that previous knowledge. Clients need to feel respected and not ‘told to’, they need to feel that they have free choice. Yes, it takes a lot of organisation and effort to make up pamphlets and send them home with information and ring them later when they’ve thought about things, but that is
a difference we can make.
Are you excited to come to work every morning?
Yes. What makes it worthwhile for me is having people – staff and clients – proud of who they are and feeling good. When you have an emergency come in, it’s do or die. We pull together, we work as a team. The pleasant experience is about being part of that, and creating a team that helps each other.
PHOTOGRAPHY: MARCEL TROMP