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Venturing into partnership
  1. Luke Knowles

Abstract

After working within independent practices, company-owned and group practices for a number of years, Luke Knowles wanted to move his career up a notch, while continuing to practise and learn, but with the power to make clinical and business decisions

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I GRADUATED from Bristol university in June 2003 with a degree in veterinary science and a BSc in zoology (taken as an intercalated degree in 2001). I wanted to work in mixed practice in order to experience every aspect of what I had learned during my time at vet school (although I wasn't that keen on horses). It took me five months to find my first job. This was for two reasons; first, because I didn't want to rush into something that may not have been right for me and, secondly, the rugby world cup was on and I wanted to make the most of the longest period of free time that I would have until I retired!

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First job

I started work in a mixed practice in Leicestershire and enjoyed the constant low level of panic that I normally felt whenever I saw a cat, dog, cow, sheep, pig, rabbit, bird, tortoise . . . the list went on. I moved on through two more mixed practices getting more time on farm and increasing my large animal experience. I became really interested in herd health and fertility visits and even tried to eradicate bovine viral diarrhoea virus from Rutland. I thought this would be fairly easy as it was the smallest county in England and only had about 40 herds of cows. Joe Brownlie from the RVC warned me it could be difficult, and he was right.

I then made a bold decision to start locuming and ended up working in practices around Rutland and Leicestershire, finally staying on at a local veterinary hospital as manager of its small animal department for four years. This was a completely new experience for me, being away from daylight for long stints and not smelling of cow poo when I got home at night.

Starting a family

My daughter, Sofia arrived, and out went the season ticket for Leicester Tigers (although I'm still arguing over that one); in came lots of dirty nappies, the colour pink, a tired wife and the realisation that going to work was a means to an end; a way to make money in order to pay the bills and have a better life. How I was to achieve the holy grail of less work while earning more money wasn't exactly clear to my sleep-starved brain then, but I thought partnership was likely to get me there in the end.

Looking for a partnership

There isn't much of a career ladder in veterinary practice – new graduate, employee, senior employee, partner, retired. So my long-term ambition has always been to become a partner in order to earn some decent money. Partnership became a more serious prospect once Sofia was born as I wanted some security and to settle down in a job, rather than moving on every couple of years. My experience of gaining a partnership in an established practice is one of disappointment, moving goal posts and eventual failure. I think that taking on a new partner must be a difficult decision for the owners of a practice, but it could be made a lot easier in some cases if there were a clear plan of how it was going to happen.

Joint venture

I looked at the group model of partnership when I realised that my current partnership offer wasn't going to work out, and that it would take quite a lot of time and possibly a change of location to find another partnership offer in an established practice.

By going into a joint venture partnership with Vets4Pets, I could invest in my own practice, which would be brand new and in a location of my choosing. The fact that the group did all the hard work; finding the right location in Loughborough, sorting the shopfit, sourcing the equipment and day 1 needs of the business, and all I had to do was say ‘yes’ and sign bits of paper, was brilliant. If I had tried to do all that on my own I would probably have had to have a year off work and a nervous breakdown.

Giving up out-of-hours work after 10 years' of phone calls to calvings and small animal emergencies has allowed me to sleep better at night. And I can finally organise things to do on any weekend I choose. Although being a sole charge vet is tough, once the clinical team starts to expand I should be able to get more free time to spend with my family.

All the clients coming to our practice are really happy that we're here. The new place has made a real difference to the community as we've converted a shop that's been empty for 15 years. Being a new practice with no history is easier than I thought; clients seem to automatically trust you even though you've never met them before.

Advising clients

I am quite conservative in many ways when it comes to treating animals; I prefer to start with simple solutions and go from there. I think that owners should have a major say in what they want for their animals and be given choices not ultimatums. I want to run my practice as a place where clients can come and get the advice they need and have help in making the decisions they feel are right for them. This isn't always the ‘gold standard’ we strive for and may not make us millionaires, but I feel that if you're doing a good job for the patient and the clients, the money will always follow.

Being my own boss

In my new role, I am the only vet in the practice and I feel quite liberated for it. There is no-one looking over my shoulder telling me how they would have done it, although I know there is an increased responsibility on me to keep up to date and I encourage my staff (especially my nurse) to give me feedback if they are not sure of what I am doing or why I am doing it. I picked the people I work with and I'm very happy with the choices I made. We are all having to learn new things and are making a lot up as we go along, but it seems to be working well so far. I'm also having to make decisions and, although I haven't always got the answer, between us we're able to find a way to get there in the end.

I love being the boss, although I haven't had to do any nasty human resources tasks yet. I'm also starting to get to grips with the extra jobs that I'm required to do in order to keep the business ticking over, as well as the full-time vet job. Even with the extra work, I still enjoy sitting back at the end of a day looking at what our little team has achieved and I look forward to what we can achieve in the future.

I have found working with the various departments at Vets4Pets very refreshing. It's one of the first times in my professional life that people have been discussing a veterinary practice like a business, including marketing support and building your client base. The marketing team has been great; we've got a multifaceted marketing strategy going forwards that will hopefully keep the local people interested in what we offer. The main aim of our practice is to offer a high-quality service that's deemed to be value for money. If we can continue to give great customer service then word of mouth and recommendations should also help in growing our client base.

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