Charlotte Covell is commercial business manager at Virbac UK, a role that gives her responsibility for the company's sales to corporate practices, some buying groups and internet pharmacies. She began her career as a veterinary nurse, but moved into industry and now has a role in senior business management
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ANIMALS were a part of my life from an early age. My mother trained racehorses and later married an equine vet so I was brought up with a menagerie and was already thinking about working in the veterinary world at the age of 11 or 12. I was diverted temporarily, leaving school at 16 and doing a secretarial course to equip me with ‘useful skills.’ After that, I worked as a nanny in Lincolnshire. While I enjoyed it, I was still thinking about working in the veterinary sector and decided it was time to make my dream a reality and start training to become a veterinary nurse.
It was a different world back then and I practically had to beg a local practice in Lincolnshire to take me on. I'm so glad they did – it was a wonderful mixed practice with a great attitude and rural clients straight from the pages of a James Herriot book. Having worked there for a year, I began my formal training and qualified as a VN in 1997.
During my nursing career, I learnt a huge amount about life in practice, especially the importance of team work, but I started to realise that what I actually enjoyed most was being front of house, talking to clients and educating them on subjects such as preventative healthcare, which was emerging at the time. I was also increasingly interested in the commercial and management side of the practice.
By this time, I was starting to run out of clinical career options. I enjoyed working with large animals but there were few opportunities for veterinary nurses in this area back then, so this spurred me on to consider other options. Every time a territory manager came to the practice, I would quiz them about their work.
In 1998 I spotted an advert for a three- and-a-half-month contract to sell Cyanamid's Cydectin cattle and sheep wormer through distributors in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and the Midlands. When I applied my parents thought I was crazy, resigning my respected head nurse position at a practice I loved to take a short-term contract doing something I had no experience of. Sometimes you have to go with your gut instinct.
I was invited for an interview and was among 30 applicants for a few roles. I found out that I would be a ‘high risk’ choice as my sales experience was limited, and, as I was so young, my car insurance premium would be ridiculously high. I reassured myself that I had my nursing skills to fall back on but, in the end, the sales and marketing manager, Alan Chadwick, saw potential in me and was prepared to take a chance.
As the contract came to an end, he recommended me to the then national sales manager of Fort Dodge (the parent company of Cyanamid), Phil Sketchley, and I spent nine happy years working with him and regional sales manager Bryan McCabe, as territory manager for the company's small animal range in the Midlands. The role, of course, gave me tremendous sales experience and a real understanding of the challenges of life as a territory manager, living on the road with success based on your ability to build relationships and to sell. I learnt about the intricacies of the sales process, how to negotiate successfully and how to build confidence and trust and, as time went on, I was given more involvement in the marketing of key products.
There came a time when I wanted to move beyond territory management and I had also had a baby so I wanted to work part-time. As there were no opportunities at Fort Dodge at the time, I moved out of the veterinary world to work with my brother-in-law, who was running a small family business producing fruit and vegetables for use in jams and preserves.
I was responsible for marketing our produce and, after working for a large company, the contrast was stark. I had nothing to work with and no team to lean on. It was tough but worth it because it taught me valuable lessons about what marketing is all about – the importance of understanding your product and its target market – as well as the need to keep a tight rein on the financial side of the business. Perhaps most importantly of all, it also taught me to be self-reliant. When, in 2008, one of our jams was awarded a ‘Great Taste One Star Award’ in a competition against the big name brands, the hard work paid off.
The veterinary world was still my first love, however, and later that year I had a call from former colleagues Alan and Bryan who had both moved to Virbac. Within weeks, I was back working with them as territory manager for the East Midlands and part of Lancashire. Eighteen months later I was appointed northern regional manager, responsible for a team of eight territory managers and, in 2014, I was appointed to the newly created role of commercial business manager at Virbac.
My role gives me a real stake in the running of the company day-to-day. I am responsible for most of our business with corporate practices, working with their headquarters to secure opportunities for our products and services, and working closely with the sales and marketing teams to deliver at practice level. I cover the whole of the UK so I am frequently in the car and away from home. Decisions are made more slowly in the corporate world than in independent practices and relationships are, as always, a key factor. Certainly, a transparent approach leads to fewer mishaps when dealing with professional buyers.
Looking ahead, my next goal is to be appointed to Virbac UK's board – and this is a step I am now very focused on achieving.
I have really enjoyed my career. It's been tough at times, especially given the need to juggle family life with time spent away, but it has been exciting throughout and I am relieved that I had the courage to follow my instincts and leave the comfortable security of my head nurse role and take that first industry job.
My message to colleagues who might be considering a change of tack is to never feel that something is out of your reach. You will always have a great set of skills to fall back on but, if you never try to follow your ambition, you will never know what you are capable of. If you have an interest in and aptitude for business, a role in industry can be challenging and very fulfilling. Many nurses, in my experience, have a great understanding of how practice works and excellent communication skills, as evidenced by the fact that so many are now taking on client-facing revenue-generating roles in practice, such as running clinics.
Effective communication is absolutely key to success in such a small sector which is still profoundly relationship-based. After all, in a market with so many generic products and large companies, which can all look the same, it is these relationships, your interaction with clients and the way that you look after them that will ultimately set you apart and lead to success in the long term. This is something I live by every day.