Achieving partnership was an early goal for Tim Davies. Having spent 20 years building up a group of practices, he decided to sell most of them and think about retiring. However, he was soon approached by CVS and is now its veterinary director. Nonetheless, he still makes time to practise surgery every week
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I QUALIFIED from Liverpool university in 1983 and took my first job in mixed but mainly large animal practice in Wales. Farm practice is a fantastic training ground for a new graduate because, once you're on the farm, you have to cope with whatever eventuality you find with whatever you have in the car. It taught me resilience and self-reliance, which are vital in our profession.
I soon realised that my real interest lay in small animal surgery and I just didn't see enough cases in mixed practice. I moved next to a leading small animal and equine practice in Somerset, where I could start to develop my skills. But settling in Somerset wasn't to be and, after a few months, I was invited to join the practice where I had done much of my EMS placement and there I developed a greater interest in small animal surgery.
Unfortunately, the practice was in an area which was, at the time, not particularly prosperous, and an affluent client base, willing to invest in their pets, is a prerequisite for a successful surgical career. With this in mind, I moved to the Home Counties and, before long, I was in Wokingham, Berkshire, running a new one-vet practice as part of a group of four veterinary hospitals. I became a partner in 1986, two-and-a-half years after qualifying. Achieving partnership early was always my goal because I felt it would help me take some control over the direction of my career – and so it proved. I bought out the other partners in my hospital and introduced a new partner two years later.
We worked hard and grew the practice, now called Nine Mile Veterinary Group. By 1999, we had five sites around Reading, employing 17 vets. Unfortunately, my partner and I then disagreed about future strategy and concluded that the best option was to split the business. So, in 1999, I found myself with the Nine Mile Veterinary Hospital and Burghfield Veterinary Surgery, and six vets.
I did what came naturally – I started building a group again! In 2000, I opened new practices in Fleet and Farnborough. In 2005, I bought several practices around Guildford and we were soon back up to eight sites and 16 vets.
So often in life you don't know what you had until you don't have it, and, looking back, these were great times. We had a strong surgical ethos, I took a certificate in small animal surgery in 2005 and encouraged staff to do the same. Today, former Nine Mile employees are in referral practice in the UK and around the world. I have always been an early adopter of new technology. We had an in-house lab in 1987 and we installed a practice management system in 1986. We installed digital radiography in 2003 and an MRI unit in 2004.
By 2005, I was also involved with veterinary politics and was privileged to be a university visitor for the RCVS; a privilege that became a challenge in 2007 when I was part of the RCVS team visiting the University of Bristol, which highlighted the need for major improvements. The RCVS advice was ultimately well received and major investment from the university has greatly strengthened the Bristol vet school. I also served as a practice standards inspector for the RCVS for several years and this allowed me to meet many other practitioners and visit many practices. I was president of the British Veterinary Hospitals Association in 2007 and this sparked an interest in practice design which continues to this day.
Time catches up with all of us and, after 22 years as a practice owner, I was tired and in need of a change. In 2007, I sold six of the eight practices to CVS, though I kept and, in fact, still own a share of the Burghfield and Goring practices. My plan was to take a backseat and think about retiring altogether.
As it turned out, CVS had other plans. I was asked to help some of its under-performing practices and I seemed to have a knack for turning them round. In 2009, I was appointed director of clinical services and, in 2010, CVS veterinary director, the role I hold today.
It's a varied role, which evolves as the company grows. I sit on the company's executive board and participate in the development and implementation of our strategic vision. I'm particularly involved, for instance, in designing practices and planning major building works and refurbishments. I try to visit all our new acquisitions and endlessly discuss where we should expand with other directors.
I also chair our clinical advisory committee and am responsible for clinical governance. I'm a great supporter of the RCVS Practice Standards Scheme and we help our practices to achieve the standards it sets. The scheme will, of course, be relaunched in 2015 and I'm waiting with some trepidation to see what changes are made.
These days CVS employs 650 vets and 1800 nurses, receptionists and administrative staff, so the development of training and career pathways is something I'm particularly focused on. I'm proud of our graduate and second-year graduate schemes although we constantly strive to improve them. Next year we hope the content will be even more case-based and practical. With the importance of actual qualifications over experience growing, graduates completing our programme can now move straight onto a certificate programme and, potentially, become an advanced practitioner five years after qualification.
I'm a passionate supporter of the ‘middle tier’ and am disappointed that the old-style certificate has not been given the recognition it deserves by the RCVS.
CVS offers a variety of career pathways. Vets can become clinical directors of small practices then grow to take on larger groups. If their interest is management, then a regional director role is possible. For colleagues taking on management roles we run an aspirational leadership programme, which teaches them about practice finance and the people management techniques needed to run successful businesses. I teach most of the practice management modules in the course. Clinically, we hope to develop pathways from graduation, through internship and residency within CVS referral practices. Our vision is that vets will ultimately move right through from graduation to become boarded specialists within CVS.
Oh, and I still practise surgery weekly. It's important to me, and I think it's important for any vet running a business to keep in touch with life as a clinician. I've learnt so many things over the years and I still learn every day, but three things stand out:
■ Get the clinical side of your practice right and business will follow. I've worked with many practices over the years, which had been judged to be ‘underperforming’ financially. On closer examination, it was almost always the case that there were issues around clinical performance and, once these were resolved, business invariably improved.
■ Value your people. We have some great people working in our profession. What's important is to take time to consider what their individual qualities are and ensure they receive the right opportunities to thrive. There are so many options these days, both in the corporate sector and outside.
■ Be ambitious! I was always driven and keen to get on and I think we need more ambition, particularly from women, today – after all, we are increasingly a female profession. We need the next generation of female vets, and their male colleagues, to step forward and take responsibility for the future of their profession. Don't be afraid of hard work, it really is the route to success. You may find that the harder you work, the luckier you get!
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