Or, at least, this used to be the case. Today, many private practices are being bought up by corporate ventures. David Tomlinson bemoans the loss of the personal touch
Few industries have changed as radically as the veterinary business has in the last twenty years. David Tomlinson bemoans the loss of smaller, private practices and family vets.
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I was chatting recently to a retired vet who was bemoaning the changes in his old industry. “If you phone the vet on a Saturday afternoon because your dog has been injured out shooting, the chances are that your call will be passed on to a practice 20 miles away. What’s more, the vet you talk to will more likely be a member of PETA than BASC. The old days of knowing your vet are fast disappearing.”
Few industries have changed more in the past 20 years than the veterinary business. It started in the late 1990s, following amendment of the Veterinary Surgeons Act (1966) that finally allowed practices to be owned by people other than qualified veterinary surgeons.
Before long, around 400 of the 4,115 veterinary sites across the country were under corporate control. By 2018, Independent Vetcare (IVC), Vets4Pets, CVS, Linnaeus, Medivet and VetPartners had bought up a total of 1,781 practices out of a total of 5,068, putting 35% of all practices into the control of the corporates.
This figure continues to rise and it is generally reckoned that the great majority of practices will be under corporate control within the next six or seven years. Whether this is a good thing is debatable and depends, of course, on whom you talk to. When James Herriot joined his first practice, he did so with the expectation that he would eventually become a partner in the business as, of course, he did. This was the normal career course for most family vets but it is no longer the case today.
The simple reason is that the corporates are prepared to pay top prices for practices, making it unaffordable financially for a young vet to buy into the business. The senior partners, looking to their retirement, will be much better off selling to the former.
For many family vets, selling their practice for many thousands of pounds has been like winning the lottery, something they never even dreamt of. Another retired vet told me that when he arranged his private pension early in his career, his pension consultant told him that there was no point in considering his practice as a major asset. At the time, nobody had ever considered that things would change so radically.
There are, of course, numerous advantages for practices that are corporately owned. It means that the vets can concentrate on what they are best at – looking after animals – and not have to worry about the financial side of the business.
They don’t have to invest their own money in improving the surgery or updating the equipment. Corporate ownership allows bulk buying, reducing costs, while there is a general view that competition from the corporate practices has made the independents improve, offering a better, more efficient service.
On the other hand, many of us prefer to see a vet we know, and whom we believe understands our dog and its history without consulting their computer screen. We don’t like seeing a different vet each time we visit the practice. We like the idea of family-owned businesses, rather than faceless corporate bodies. For many small, independent practices these are major selling points. I have also heard claims that the corporates are often not as efficient as you might believe, that they often lack coordinated purchasing, their marketing strategies are sometimes suspect and that they are not very good at what we now call human resources or even IT.
One also has to question why the practices are being bought in the first place. Presumably the buyers believe they can make money. But are they long-term investments from companies that intend to remain in the veterinary business or will they be sold on again before too long, so we eventually end up with just one or two giant operators?
This article was partly prompted by my own recent experiences. I have been using the same practice for many years and came to know the senior partner and his small team well. The service was excellent. Three years ago the business was sold to a corporate – I don’t even know which one. Fortunately, my spaniels are healthy, so their visits to the surgery have been few.
However, this past summer I took them along for their annual health check. Because of corona I wasn’t allowed into the surgery but was greeted in the car park by the receptionist, who asked aggressively if I had an appointment. As I arrived within minutes of my allotted time I thought it reasonable to assume that I might have been expected. Minutes later a vet whom I’d never seen before came out and took the dogs one by one. I wasn’t able to watch them being checked. Each was returned after a few minutes and I was assured that they were fine.
When I take my car for servicing I’m given a completed checklist of what has been looked at, but I didn’t receive anything of the sort. What I did get was a bill for £80, which works out at a rate of around £500 an hour.
A week later I received a message from the practice, reminding me that my dogs were due for their annual health check. You will not be surprised to learn that I’m moving back to a privately owned practice.