How (not) to build a veterinary practice: part 1 - Veterinary Practice
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How (not) to build a veterinary practice: part 1

Gareth Cross begins a new occasional series looking at his experiences of attempting to create a new practice, highlighting the pits he falls into as he goes…

LIKE MANY PRACTICES, WE CURRENTLY WORK IN AN OLD RESIDENTIAL BUILDING whose form does not entirely sit at ease with our function – steps in awkward places, light switches in the corridor outside the consult rooms, the small stream that runs through the basement after heavy rain…you know the kind of thing.

The light at the end of the tunnel (in the well-known form of an oncoming train) was that our lease was due to expire in two years and so, love it or loathe it, we would not be working there much longer so needed to find a new home for the practice PDQ.

The building was built as a hunting lodge sometime in the 1800s and had functioned as such for many years, then a large home and more recently a dental surgery. We still have an old dental light fixed to the ceiling in the back consult room and many of the older clients remember staring up at it while they had their teeth pulled.

The vets took it on about 30 years ago and it functioned well as a base for a two to three-vet mixed practice for many years. Wind forward 20 or so more years, add in the fact that our local district has had one of the highest residential building rates in the country over the last five years and we find our four to five-vet small animal practice bursting at the seams.

The hunt for a new location was on and for a couple of years we had been looking at various properties and bits of land. One day I was circling the roundabout near the practice and saw a “For Sale” sign on the edge of a field just down from the current site…

A few phone calls later and we learnt that the field was owned by a large corporate retail business and they were selling the land off to raise cash. And so it began, nearly three years ago from my first idle comment to my business partner that “we should look into buying that” to where we are now (June 2016) with the building just watertight.

I thought a brief review of the process might be interesting for anyone thinking of embarking on such a venture. Although the corporate march on veterinary practices is ongoing, about 75% of practices are like us – still independent, and have to organise their own premises. Also the sole trader setting up from scratch (as covered in this column with the story on James Cadwallader setting up a one-man practice in a former pub) is still happening.

To deviate for a moment…we are often told that the veterinary profession is about 15 years behind the opticians in the corporatisation of the businesses. Our finance broker (more of him later) mentioned in passing that the opticians are now seeing a return of customers to independent practice as the allure of the corporate clinical practice is wearing off.

I discussed this in depth with some opticians I know who had just refused a corporate takeover themselves and they confirmed that this is the case and their industry figures are showing that for the first time in 10 years, growth in the independent sector is rising quicker than in the corporate practices. I will be following this up and liaising with their equivalent of this magazine (it’s called Optician, which is even less imaginative than Veterinary Practice) to discuss it in a future column.

The field was being sold via sealed bid process which, when you are planning the future of your business, led to a very stressful wait for the result to come in. We had the field valued as a field and as a development site, worked out what we could afford and still have enough ability to borrow to build something, took all those figures, stirred them up in a pot and came up with a figure to offer.

Time and money

This is the first point to make for anyone considering doing something like this: it takes a long time and you spend a lot of cash in preparation. So two months of activity (valuations, etc.) and waiting (for the sealed bid auction to end) passed and we had our first real high point of the project – we won the auction!

It was even more exciting than winning something on eBay. This is the next point to make: the whole process does have real high points that are very rewarding and occasionally exciting.

We now owned a three-acre patch of grass; oh wait, no we didn’t, we just had our offer accepted on it. The offer was accepted on the condition that we got planning permission – we had no use for three acres of grassland. Time to find an architect.

We had a few of the well-known names in the design-and-build-a-vet category down, but found they were quite downbeat and I was also aware that due to our location they were not familiar with local issues and planning, etc.

We picked a local firm that has a strong track record of successful development in the area and who I knew would know the best approach to get planning permission. I also was quite keen to have someone who had not designed a vet practice before and to not have any pre-conceived norms enforced on us.

So we sat down with the staff and the architect over a few sessions and worked through our work-flow patterns and the journey a patient takes from initial consult through admission, surgery, hospitalisation and discharge.

We based our building layout on this process.

I also have spent too many hours of my life in windowless small consult rooms that practice designers always seem to stick in the centre of a vet practice. They have obviously never spent two to eight hours in one of these rooms in a day with a load of animals and members of the public. You need space, daylight and ventilation!

The architect and I also looked round a few local practices to give her an idea of what we were aiming for. Thanks to Simon at Charter Vets who we visited and was too busy for a full tour but gave us a whistle-stop tour of what he didn’t like about his own place (not much, but some useful tips) and left us to look round.

So Rebecca from Fearnley Lott architects designed us a beautiful building with curved sedum rooves, larch cladding, large windows (some round) and a great layout.

We then worked out (later on) that curved anything in a building costs a lot extra and sedum is an expensive folly, so we made her re-design it a bit straighter and less sedumy. So she re-designed us an attractive building with a straight roof, larch cladding and square windows!

Planning for planning

Planning was duly submitted and the neighbours duly complained. For anyone not familiar with England’s planning system, it works thus: planning applications are submitted to a council department full of people who have a degree in planning and assess applications objectively in accordance with planning law and the local plan and duly issue an objective decision.

However, if there is anything controversial it is called into the planning committee which is a local council committee of elected councillors with no formal training in planning and who do not necessarily have full knowledge of either planning law or the local policy. This is called democracy. Just as the man who is currently Chancellor of the Exchequer has a 2:1 in History but no formal training in maths or economics.

We sat through the planning committee with dread as several other hopefuls had their dreams smashed or delayed. I knew how much time and emotional investment (a lot) and money (a lot++) we had spent to get here and to watch someone up before us with a good project having it refused because one member of the committee didn’t happen to like the design of some of the holiday cottages was quite depressing.

However, we got unanimous approval and it was time for high point number two – we had permission to build our dream! Hooray! But hang on; anyone reading closely will have noticed that we still hadn’t bought the field, and so we had permission to build someone else’s dream or had just spent several months and a large amount of cash getting a huge corporate permission to build a vet practice.

It all ended well and we exchanged contracts soon after. The problem is that once you have started the planning process there is no real pause button, and it turned out the vendors were not willing to sign the contract of sale until we had the permission as they didn’t want two sets of paperwork to do. But readers, please do not try this at home. Have a contract of sale or legally binding agreement to buy in place before getting into the planning process. Listen to what your solicitor tells you, even though you may be champing at the bit to get on with things.

I can highly recommend Rob Davies of Davies Murray-White solicitors for this kind of malarkey and thank him for his patient and steady support at very reasonable rates through that particular phase.

So end of part one – we owned a field and had plans with permission to build a vets in it, another major high-point. Find out in part two how I met a man in a pub and consequently got my hands on the necessary cash, plus more tips on what not to do unless you really do want that nervous breakdown for Christmas.

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