On the fast track in the 'Naki
Monday, 29 July 2019
Posted by: Erin Henderson
VetScript Editor's pick: July 2019
Bette Flagler visits life and business partners Alex Hicks and Helen Knox at Vets4Pets in New Plymouth.
When did the clinic open? Did you always want to be an owner?
A: We opened the clinic in September 2015. I always wanted to be a practice owner. My father Kevin was a veterinarian and a practice owner, so it was in my blood.
How did the practice come about?
H: We worked together at another local clinic and took a few months after leaving there to decide what we wanted to do. We thought there was a need here for another practice; the market was wide open.
A: After we left our jobs, I worked as a locum and was offered another full-time job. I came home and said to Helen, “I think we have three choices: leave the district; open our own practice; or take the job I have been offered”. We looked at other centres that were around the size of New Plymouth and realised that most of them had between four and six veterinary practices that were in competition with each other. We realised that since New Plymouth only had one veterinary group, it needed a second choice.
Are you both from Taranaki?
H: No, we’re both from Auckland. I’ve been here for just over 10 years. I worked in Inglewood and Waitara straight out of veterinary school and then came to work in New Plymouth. I went travelling to Europe and Africa, and when I came back to New Zealand I returned to my job in New Plymouth.
A: I’ve been here six years. I worked in the South Island first and then did two years in the UK. When I came back to New Zealand, the New Plymouth job I was offered was the right fit.
Vets4Pets has grown very quickly. What is your staffing now?
H: When we started we only had three people: Alex, me and another veterinarian, Sarah. It just grew from there. The first year, we needed a new staff member every six weeks. We had 11 staff by the end of the first year; now we’re up to 17.
A: We have five veterinarians (soon to be six), three people in reception/administration, two veterinary technicians and seven veterinary nurses. We try to get the work-life balance as best as we can for the support staff by adjusting the rosters so that where possible they each have a four-day work week. We’re trying to do the same for the veterinarians, but it is really difficult finding veterinarians – and finding experienced veterinarians is even harder.
So the shortage is affecting you? Do you see a solution?
H: Absolutely, especially because we’re a growing practice.
A: I think New Zealand probably needs more veterinarians full stop. But I also think there needs to be a change in the way that veterinarians view the profession. It’s a hard job. It’s long hours and you have to be passionate about it to do it. Part-time is fine, but we need to balance that with the needs of the veterinarians who are working full-time. In my mind, those who are working part-time should be doing their percentage of the after-hours and weekends, otherwise it all falls on the full-timers. Part-time is great, but there is x amount of work that needs to be done by y number of veterinarians in New Zealand.
How do you organise salaries for your veterinarians?
A: We’ve split the pay rate into two packages. Veterinarians get paid a base salary for the hours they are contractually obligated to work, then they get paid additionally for other work they do. The evening on-call rate isn’t a big amount – it’s $100 to be on call – but on the weekends we pay our experienced veterinarians $500 per day and our less-experienced $250 to $300 per day. That means that a new grad could potentially make $6,000 to $8,000 on top of their base salary, depending on how many weekends they do each year.
H: And an experienced veterinarian could end up with $20,000 on top of their base salary. We’re trying to make sure people are compensated for their time. It means that people don’t resent the after-hours work as much. We expect people to work hard, but we also pay them well for it.
Any thoughts on hiring?
H: We only hire compassionate people.
A: We want to ensure that our team is friendly and compassionate – that’s with each other, the animals and the clients. In any given situation we try to treat each other with respect; we try to treat the animals with respect; and we try to treat the clients with respect.
What are your biggest challenges?
H: The fast growth, making sure we have enough staff, getting enough sleep. The growth has been so fast that we are trying to get to the point where we can have time off, but we haven’t quite got there yet. We’re hoping that by going to five and a half or six veterinarians we’ll be able to schedule time off for ourselves. We knew from the start that it was going to be a hard slog for a long time.
Did it grow faster than you thought it would?
H: We planned for it to grow this fast, but we were surprised that it did as well as we hoped. Initially when we did all the budgets everyone said, “You’re crazy, you’re never going to grow that fast”, but if you do a good job, the people keep coming. We’re still getting new clients every day.
You mention on your website having ‘straightforward pricing’. What does that mean?
A: We have a pricing menu at the front counter that the staff use. We try to control our stock by having formulations within our software. Then we have formulations within those to make sure that everything is charged appropriately and that we can just quote one price for the day-to-day procedural things.
This works well because you can model veterinary nurse and veterinarian time into procedures, which means you can account for the time taken to wash and sterilise surgical kits, do surgical preps on animals, undertake anaesthetic maintenance and things like that. It took a long time to set up, but it is worth it.
H: As we encounter a new kind of case or procedure we haven’t done before we make a formulated fee to charge it out.
What are your thoughts on the profession?
A: Ultimately it doesn’t matter how many practices or veterinarians there are, it’s always going to be difficult to be a professional of any sort – doctor, lawyer, veterinarian – and it’s especially difficult when you start out. I think if people were paid more it would help, and I don’t see any reason why people couldn’t be paid more, but you also have to look at skill set differences. One of the biggest mistakes our profession has made is that we judge veterinarians on how many years they’ve been qualified, rather than on their actual skill sets. If you work part-time for 10 years, you haven’t done the same amount of actual work as someone who has worked full-time for seven years. We need to judge people on what they can contribute to the practice, not on how many years they’ve been qualified. It’s becoming more common for ‘experienced’ veterinarians to not feel comfortable doing solo bitch spays or large-scale dental extractions or basic orthopaedic procedures by themselves. A lot of these are things we should be training and encouraging all veterinarians to do.
H: You get out of it what you put into it. In the past three and a half years, we have become far better veterinarians than we were because we’ve put in that time and effort. We want to do the best by our patients. It sounds rough, but you can’t just demand a higher salary, you have to work for it.
Do you have a succession plan?
H: We’re hoping we can retire early. You can only work this hard when you’re young and we don’t intend to work this hard for that long! We need fresh blood coming through all the time, and the younger veterinarians need to realise that there is a solid incentive for working hard and putting in that effort.
A: We’re in our mid-30s and we’re looking to pass on the practice by our mid-40s. The succession has to be done early to work. We have to convince the younger generation that there’s a need and that it’s worthwhile to become involved in practice ownership and practice management. Passing the torch early is the way to do it. We shouldn’t try to run a practice for 30 years, we should try to run it well for 15 years and then hand it on and consult back with the skills that we’ve developed.
Upon leaving Vets4Pets, we would hope that we will be employable in another practice with younger veterinarians where we could offer support.
What’s the coolest case you’ve had?
H: Fletcher is totally the coolest case. Fletcher is a Boxer who got a bone stuck in his oesophagus. We tried to retrieve it and we couldn’t pull it out endoscopically. He needed a thoracotomy. We said to the owners that we could try to get him to Massey (but we doubted that he would survive the trip), attempt the surgery here or put him down. They said, “Can’t you try the surgery here?” and asked us to give it a go. So we opened up his chest and pulled up his oesophagus beside his beating heart and his inflating lungs. It’s generally considered to be a specialist procedure but we managed to get the bone out and save him.