James Howie is veterinary director at pet supplements company, Lintbells. It’s a huge change from the careeer he originally planned in large animal practice. Here, he discusses how it happened.
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I grew up on a small farm in Essex with a mixture of arable, soft fruit and livestock and was always keen on the livestock side. I seemed to have a natural affinity with the animals under our care, but didn’t think it was financially viable to become a livestock farmer on a small farm. After briefly considering becoming a nature reserve warden, or perhaps a helicopter pilot, I settled on being a vet.
After qualifying from the Royal Veterinary College in 2000, my vet college girlfriend (who is now my wife of 10 years) saw a notice on the final-year noticeboard calling for new graduate volunteers to help the equine charity SPANA (the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad) in Morocco during August, where temperatures reached the high forties! And so it was, we found ourselves stationed in the middle of nowhere for four weeks, existing on a diet of bread, jam, yoghurt and fruit. It was possibly one of the most inspiring times of my life, helping to treat and prevent the suffering of animals in real need.
Stepping onto the career ladder
My first proper job was in mixed practice in Warwickshire, but after about four years I realised my real interest was in dogs and cats.
My girlfriend and I both had ambitions to travel, so after saving hard we set off on a round-the-world trip. We explored the incredible fauna in Madagascar, volunteered at a neutering clinic in Thailand and did a period of paid work in small animal practice in New Zealand – the place where I had thought I would be practising large animal medicine.
Everything changed in 2006 when my brother came to me with an idea for a small animal supplement
However, everything changed in 2006 when my brother – who worked in industry – came to me with an idea for a small animal supplement.
Some of his initial ideas were unlikely to have worked, but then he came up with what was to become YuMEGA (essential oils for itchy dogs). He asked me to get involved with trials for the product and I was so impressed by the results I just had to join the company. I knew straight away it was going to be a success and I’m not at all surprised that Lintbells is in the position it is today.
I think we have a great rationale – not just the products, but also how they are positioned. Back in 2006 there were cheap, low quality products or really expensive ones – we wanted to be in the middle with a very high-quality product at an affordable price. Having worked in practice I knew that would be the perfect fit for pet owners.
Funnily enough, our biggest product, the joint supplement YuMOVE, almost never got launched. There were concerns that the market for joint products was too crowded, which led to much debate, but it kept coming back to the criteria that we now match all our products against – it has to offer something different and it must work. In the end, it ticked those boxes so well that we went ahead and have never looked back.
Ways to work
My job as veterinary director is very diverse.
I am mostly involved with research and development, but I also work closely with marketing on veterinary initiatives and with our experts on ingredient sourcing and quality assurance. I am the back-up support for our veterinary tech team and liaise with key opinion leaders.
Sometimes I travel internationally, since new distributors often want to meet the veterinary director as it helps build trust and relationships.
The closer we get to market with a new formulation the more the pace of work increases. It’s always a proud moment when it’s eventually out there and we get positive reports back from pet owners and vet teams alike.
I am lucky in that I also have time set aside for ‘blue sky thinking’. We have an anything’s possible mentality at Lintbells, but I also have to apply my experience and expertise to decide if there is a need for a product and if it will have a positive benefit. It’s very different from practice where we always tend to be busy dealing with the day-to-day demands that present themselves and which are often very time pressured.
I found that working in a company demanded lots of commercial and managerial skills that I hadn’t learned at vet school. I quickly realised that in a purely commercial arena I was out of my natural comfort zone so my focus is very much on technical aspects and research and development where I have most to contribute.
My biggest challenge is scepticism. As vets it’s something that’s trained into us and rightly so – we have to evaluate and apply critical thinking before we make a clinical judgement. It’s often when vets see the benefits that they make the switch and become advocates for our products. I know that their opinion has worth, as a positive recommendation isn’t given lightly, so it’s very rewarding when it happens.
Even now, after 12 years with Lintbells I continue to work in practice at weekends. It’s important that I know what’s happening in the real veterinary world and I enjoy working with the animals and doing what I trained so hard to do. Unfortunately, I developed allergies to several animals, which limits contact somewhat and means I could not have continued a full-time career in practice, so it’s perhaps serendipitous that my brother came to me with his ideas all those years ago.
We have strong core values, but when asked who our products should make a difference to, my number one answer is always the animals
It has been a fantastic experience working at Lintbells as we have strong core values, but when asked who our products should make a difference to, my number one answer is always the animals. If we get it right and the animals feel the benefit then I’ve done my job. If we do something good for the animal, the owner’s gratitude comes back to us.
The bigger a company gets the more concerns there are that it grows distant from its values. The unwritten part of my job description is that I act as a moral compass when it comes to the direction we take and would always make sure that we never stop putting the animal at the centre of all we do.
The people that we attract to work with us all have that focus – they want to improve the wellbeing of animals – so I don’t think I’ll ever have to worry about it being an issue.
Coping with the stresses of clinical practice should never be underestimated.
Long unsociable hours, life and death decisions and handling grief daily inevitably wears people down. That’s why recognition of these challenges and support in coping with them within our profession is so important.
Transitioning from being a clinically-focused vet to an industry-focused one brings its own challenges. I learned the hard way that everyone needs a good work-life balance – years of never switching off took its toll.
I now realise we must be strict and sometimes say ‘no’, no matter how tempting it is to just check our inbox and do the 101 tasks on our to-do list.
Downtime is sacrosanct and we perform better when we’re fully rested. I now use an Eisenhower matrix to grade tasks on importance and urgency and create weekly to-do lists on this basis. I also take regular breaks and lunch and although I have some very long days, I also have plenty of nine-to-five days too.
At home, my kids keep me busy with their various activities. They are at an age where we can start to go on longer walks in the beautiful Sussex countryside, which I love. I like getting out on my bike and playing the piano to relax too. We also have two guinea pigs and a sweet and rather ancient cat. And, yes, I’m allergic to all of them!
I’d recommend the career path I’ve taken to anyone. However, had I made a different choice, I might have become an author of adult fiction or children’s stories. I haven’t really grown up (so my wife tells me), so it would seem like a perfect choice.
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