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Friday, 7 June 2019  
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VetScript Editor's pick: June 2019

Bette Flagler talks to Andrew Cribb (‘Cribby’) from East Coast Farm Vets, the Gisborne Westpac Business Awards Supreme winner in 2012 and category winner in 2015.

What’s the history of East Coast Farm Vets?

We set up the clinic in early 2010. Initially I worked from home and out of my truck and then we converted the garage at our house into a surgery. We did some small animal work from there, and had a desexing programme with the SPCA. My wife Loren is also a veterinarian, and in 2011 we opened East Coast Pet Vets and a clinic in Gisborne. We sold East Coast Pet Vets to CareVets in 2016. Loren works as a locum for them and also fills in for us. We only do large animal work now. Last year we opened a branch in Wairoa and we created the drive-thru clinic access at the Gisborne clinic. That had always been a dream of mine.

Why did you become a veterinarian? Why Gisborne?

I don’t know why Gisborne! I never thought I would end up in Gisborne, but I got a job here in 2006 when I finished veterinary school. I was brought up on a deer farm in Winton, Southland but there was a job going here and it fit with where I was at that point of life. Part of the decision was that there were opportunities for me to play rugby here. I played for Poverty Bay for a few years.

At some level I thought being a veterinarian would be a good job, a cool job. You get told how hard it is to get into veterinary school so I was doing a chemistry degree when I applied to veterinary school. I think I’m three papers off the degree – I’m probably not likely to get it now!

Tell us about the geographical area you cover.

Our service area is massive. From Gisborne, we go 200 kilometres north, 180 kilometres south and 130 kilometres inland.

Did you plan to own a practice?

My father was self-employed so I had been exposed to business ownership, but starting a practice wasn’t something that Loren and I were seriously looking at, but when you work at other practices you always see areas that you think could be done better. In essence, though, large animal practice relies a lot on people purchasing products from you and you’re simply in a better financial position if you own the business.

Tell us about those areas of practice you focus on.

A lot of what we do is pretty routine. We don’t do a lot of individual animal medicine, we do more herd health and preventive treatments. I really like having a personal approach with clients and being part of our clients’ businesses, as opposed to coming in, doing their herd testing and then going away. We don’t sell clients things they don’t need – our goal is to help them to find solutions to their problems. This is a really interesting kind of practice, because it relies on our being part of the farmers’ businesses and being involved in their decisions.

Otherwise, there’d be a question of why you do sheep and beef if you have a veterinary degree. Pregnancy testing, taking bloods – it’s technician work, really. The holistic approach to herd health is really what we are about.

This is what I thought I’d be doing when I became a veterinarian. The difference between me and Loren is that she really, really loves animals. That’s not to say I don’t love animals or don’t like animals, but my job is more of a consultant. I think the job is going to go more that way. There is a shortage of farm consultants as well as large animal veterinarians, and farmers rely on us for our advice. We should probably formalise our consulting arrangements a bit more.

What about staffing?

We have four veterinarians and Loren works with us as a locum. We probably need another veterinarian to go into our Wairoa clinic, but the veterinarians we have are phenomenal. It’s taken a long time to get where we are with staffing, especially with the large animal business. You are only as good as the people you have, and learning how to hire and manage was difficult. You only get better with experience and when you hire really good people who show you how really good employees work. We have been prepared to wait for the right people and the team we have now is great.

Do you employ any large animal veterinary technicians (LAVTs) ?

No, we don’t, and for a couple reasons. We have four veterinarians on staff now. If we employed an LAVT to do some of the jobs of a veterinarian, we would need to go down to three veterinarians and lose one person from the after-hours roster – we’d go from one in three to one in four. We try to keep ourselves out of fighting on price – we want to focus more on quality of service – and if we used an LAVT we could get into a price fight. If, for example, we send an LAVT to scan cows, the price might be lower than if a veterinarian did it. At the moment we can counter that by saying that we have a veterinarian doing the scans and you can pick their brains while they’re scanning, then have them take a look at your dog or do whatever might need attention while they are there.

Gisborne and the East Coast struggle economically. How does that affect you?

We are lucky. We have two main types of client: large Māori corporations and owner-operators. They are great people and great payers – we don’t have a lot of clients who are overdue on invoices. We’re straight up with clients about what we charge, and we think what we charge is right for the area. One thing that a mentor taught me was not to look at the value of a client over one or two years, but to see the value in a client over 10 years. We look after our clients. We don’t get things right every time, but if it’s not right then you fix it, and move ahead.

Business risk analysis and strategic planning has always been a priority for us and understanding the rural and business environment has meant that we have been able to change and adapt to changing markets and market behaviour.

It seems like there has been growth in Gisborne at the end of last year and this year. House prices have increased, and there’s talk of more businesses coming to Gisborne to set up, which means more jobs. That probably doesn’t affect us very much – if we still had the small animal clinic it would affect us more than with the large animal clinic. With the proposed tree planting, depending on how many trees they plant it could mean that some of the land that animals are on goes into trees. That could affect us.

You had a business mentor. Would you recommend having a mentor to other veterinarians?

Absolutely. I met Tom Poland at the 2010 NZVA conference, where he was doing a presentation. I had him as a mentor for 18 or 24 months and we focused on the business side. As a veterinarian you know 85–90% of what you need to know clinically, but you don’t know anything about running a business. When we opened the small animal clinic we had no clients other than the SPCA. When we sold it four years later we had more than 7,000. The key for us was to get clients through the door. For the first couple of months we offered free consults. A lot of people do that now, but back then people thought we were utter idiots. But it worked: in the first year we had 3,000 new clients.

Tom was really good from the business side of things and we had another guy who helped, Josh Willoughby. He and I played rugby together, and we hired the company he worked for to do our branding. He ended up working for us as our practice manager for three or four years and taught us a lot about the management of people. We worked with him in conjunction with the business plan we developed with Tom.

What are your biggest strengths?

We are quite entrepreneurial and we really care about our clients. We’re involved with their businesses so for them to contact us is not an issue. Sometimes it becomes a problem when they start ringing past nine at night, but we’re available to these people. A lot of them don’t have a lot of contact with the outside world and we help put things in perspective. It’s about hearing enough to care enough to make a phone call to help them through a situation.

Being remote and far from a lot of your colleagues, how do you keep current? How do you make sure that you have the new information or the knowledge that you need?

This was a real issue when I started doing sheep and beef. We had three or four small animal veterinarians, and I was the only one doing large animals. You rely on what your farmers want. You need to talk to them about what they actually want from their veterinarians. In the first six or seven years of practice you pick up most of what you need to know. It’s about refining that knowledge and putting it in a workable format for what your clients want.

Reps are always bringing around new information. We have a core group that we allow inside our business as well, who we rely on for upskilling and knowledge. The key ones come every couple of weeks, the others every three or four weeks.

Any final thoughts about running a successful practice?

You need to take the necessary steps, believe in what you’re doing and go for the ride. You need to be adaptable – you need to change as needed. And you need a very understanding partner!