How to run a successful vet practice

25 May 2018

Sydney alumnus offers advice on operating a vet clinic

Building a thriving veterinary practice takes skill. Success stems from a deep knowledge of animal health and welfare as well as sound business acumen. To learn more, we asked alumnus Dr Diederik Gelderman for some pointers.

Dr Gelderman graduated from the University of Sydney with First Class Honours in 1977. Upon completing his studies, he invested in Greenhills Veterinary Hospital - a practice his parents had been attending for years for the treatment of their horse stud.

"It was just an assumption that I'd take over the practice from the previous owner when I graduated. I walked straight out of university and into the practice. When I stepped in, the previous vet retired so I had to learn the ropes on my own. I paid $10,000 to walk in and walk out and $40,000 for the property," said Diederik.

Over a period of six years, Diederik transformed the practice from a one-man operation to a thriving business with over 35 employees. The regional surgery won many awards including the Australian Veterinary Association's Practice of Excellence in 2004.

So how did he do it? Diederik offered five tips for aspiring veterinarians.

1. Become a good communicator

"My studies at the University of Sydney gave me strong technical skills but when I started working in the practice I learnt I wasn't a good communicator - clients actually told me that. In order to improve my rapport with clients, I really worked on establishing open and clear lines of communication and building strong relationships. Once you become a great communicator it makes everything else possible."

2. Put your patients and clients first

"Sometimes you have to make personal sacrifices for the job. Unfortunately, I did all the wrong things and this meant putting my family and myself last. I've learnt that it's a balancing act, but in order to build a good reputation it's important to do everything you can for the patient."

3. Consider employing a practice manager

"At first, I didn't focus on the business side of my practice, I was more interested in being a good vet. As a result of this I almost went broke. Then I got a practice manager in and did a business management course through Gerber, and things really improved."

"Working in a regional practice is quite different to a city location. You're on call 24/7 and do all your own after hours. You also have minimal opportunity to refer, therefore you have to learn to do most things yourself. Given the amount of work that's required, getting a practice manager to assist with operations can take some of the pressure off."

4. Complete a business course

"One of the hardest parts about running your own practice is learning to manage a team," said Diederik. "It took me a while to get comfortable hiring the right people, paying them well and letting them get on with it. Micromanaging is rife in the veterinary industry - don't do it!"

"To get better at these elements of the role I would suggest completing a business course much earlier on in your career than I did - do further study in your first or second year out of university."

5. Word of mouth is everything

"In 1977, when I first started running the Greenhills Veterinary Hospital we weren't permitted nor did we have access to traditional forms of advertising. New clients came to the practice as a result of word of mouth."

"Even with the new promotional pathways available today, clients still seek out most providers by word of mouth, whether that be a mechanic, a cleaner or a veterinarian. In fact, according to Nielson research, 77 per cent of consumers are more likely to use a service or buy a product from a new provider when learning about it from friends and family."

"Word of mouth also works two ways. An unhappy client will tell 20 people about their negative experience whereas a happy person might tell five, that's why it's critically important to be a good vet, with good communications skills."

Selling his practice in 2009, Diederik now focuses on helping other vets to realise their potential by offering professional coaching seminars. Having lived out the highs and lows of running a practice over many decades he has plenty of insights to offer.

Final words of advice from Diederik?

"Learning to do surgery takes time, if you don't know something, start from the beginning, get in and have a go. Don't expect to be perfect, get a mentor, set boundaries, take time off, interview the practice you are looking to work for as hard as they interview you and remember to go easy on yourself."

Dr Diederik Gelderman has now published a book, 'Veterinary success secrets revealed'. It is available at all major retailers. If you would like to win a copy, please message us on Facebook @SydneyScience explaining in 25 words or less why you decided to become a vet.