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Ten-minute chat
  1. Peter Webbon

Abstract

Peter Webbon qualified from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and is currently chief executive of the Animal Health Trust (AHT). Much of his life has involved animals, for leisure as well as work, and he is committed to improving their welfare

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How did you get to where you are today?

Certainly not by following a carefully planned career route! I intended, as an undergraduate, to be a large animal practitioner, but Neil Adam, with whom I saw practice, convinced me that I should consider a PhD, and then persuaded me to buy a racehorse with a recent tendon injury. The consequence was that I did my PhD on equine tendon disease, supported by the Horserace Betting Levy Board, and was attracted to stay at the RVC when a new lectureship in radiology was created. I ultimately took on the role of director of the Sefton Equine Referral Centre. In early 1996, on my way to a skiing holiday, I posted a last-minute application to join the Jockey Club as chief veterinary adviser. I was successful, became a director of the Jockey Club following the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, then chief executive of the Horseracing Regulatory Authority, before the attraction of rural Suffolk became irresistible.

Why did you join the AHT?

The AHT is a unique organisation with an international reputation. When the position as its chief executive came up I was in the process of deciding whether to apply for the role of chief executive of the newly formed British Horseracing Authority or to return to a more veterinary/scientific environment. So, in effect, I had to choose between the possibility of a fascinating job in central London or a return to my veterinary roots on the idyllic site at Lanwades Park. Suffolk won by a distance.

How do you spend a typical day?

Walking the dogs and feeding our cat, sheep, assorted chickens (and occasional pigs) are the predictable parts of my day; the rest is not. I have to try to combine the fundraising skills of Terry Wogan, the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, the promotional ability of Max Clifford and the wisdom of King Solomon – none of which I could ever live up to.

What do you like about your job?

I am constantly amazed by the energy, ability, enthusiasm, knowledge and commitment of the Trust's staff, at all levels, in all areas. Trying to provide them with the facilities and opportunities to do the work that they love is very satisfying, but also a big responsibility.

What do you not like?

Struggling to fund what I am convinced is the most deserving animal charity in the country. The AHT has had a profound influence on our understanding of animal disease and, therefore, our ability to diagnose, treat or prevent a range of diseases. This has had a beneficial effect on countless animals but, in spite of that, we struggle to compete in fundraising with other animal charities that, worthy as they are, may help or support only relatively few animals, but have the advantage of an immediate and powerful emotional appeal.

Why is your job important?

Reg Wooldridge, who founded the Trust in 1942, was convinced that a lack of veterinary research into farm animal diseases contributed both to unnecessary animal suffering and a reduction in their productivity. While the Trust now concentrates more on companion animals, its mission remains the same – to conduct research, improve understanding of animal diseases and disseminate the knowledge that we acquire. Because the Trust is completely independent and funded by industry groups and individuals, it is, and has to be, very responsive to the needs and requirements of its stakeholders. This means that much of the research that we do, often of outstanding scientific merit, is readily applicable to the development of new vaccines, diagnostic methods and treatments. For example, within the past 12 months we have produced two new genetic screening tests which have the potential to avoid the development of crippling blindness in 11 breeds of dogs and early death in Fell and Dale pony foals.

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What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?

The transition from veterinary clinical practice, in either an academic or practice setting, to an essentially administrative position can sometimes be frustrating. As a chief executive of a medium-sized organisation you have the opportunity to make a real difference for animals and people in a way that you probably cannot do just as an individual. Most important, you have to remember that we all spend so much time at work that, whatever we choose to do, it should be fun.

What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?

My grandfather, who farmed 50 acres and hand milked twice a day for the whole of his life, told me not to follow in his footsteps but to become a veterinary surgeon, because ‘it was not such hard work’!

What was your proudest moment?

It's impossible to decide between professional achievements and the huge pride and pleasure that I have felt while watching my four children develop into wonderful adults in spite of their grumpy, impatient father. However, if I have to choose one veterinary moment, seeing my name on the RVC pass list was a pretty good feeling.

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