An Interview with a Veterinary Leader From Down Under

by Guest Blogger on August 24, 2014


dave nicholDr. Nicol graduated from Glasgow University Vet School in 1998. He developed his veterinary skills taking charge of a busy branch surgery at Croft Vets, Northumberland. Later, Dave was appointed Director of Business Development and gained the Professional Certificate in Management. In 2009 Dave emigrated to Australia and completed the purchase of his first, solely-owned practice, North Ryde Veterinary Hospital in Sydney. Although now heavily involved in developing businesses, Dave’s passion for clinical practice burns brightly. In addition to clinical interests, Dave is a well known writer and speaker within the veterinary industry. He publishes a weekly management blog and hosts a management group on Linkedin, both of form the spine of the growing management movement for vets called The Hamster Wheel Veterinary Business Network.

 Dave Nicol: Both my parents are in teaching and academia. My father lectures medical students in Saint Andrew’s University in Scotland, and my mother was a local secondary school teacher. We lived in the country, so I was around both medicine and animals.

I also grew up at a time when All Creatures Great and Small was on TV. That show was one of the most popular shows, and it really fired my interest in veterinary medicine. I’m not sure it was the animal part that necessarily fired it.  It was partially that. However, it was also the fact that these guys were out there, looked to be enjoying what they did, and had the great camaraderie with each other. I was attracted to the comedy of it, because fun is an important central value in everything I commit myself to. Even at a young age, those things appealed to me.

As I grew up, I had the same desires all teenage or adolescent boys do. I wanted to be a fighter pilot and an astronaut. Eventually, the big ticker just went past ‘vet’, and my parents leapt on it and went, “Stop!” hoping that it would be the sensible one.

The more I got involved and immersed in veterinary medicine, the more I felt at home in the profession. I enjoyed what I was seeing. I also enjoyed the challenges, solving problems, and fixing things. What really became important to me was being part of a community. I was from a small village called Strathkinness in Scotland just outside of Saint Andrews. There were maybe only four or five hundred people who lived there.

There was an internationally known university there, so there was a good blend of people. They call it “town and gown” in Saint Andrews. It was a good community feel, and I wanted to be a part of that community. It was a bit like TV shows like Northern Exposure where the doctor from the big city ends up in the local backwater and actually stays there because it’s such a great community.

I really connected with that show, and that’s what I saw myself doing. I saw being a veterinarian as a great vehicle to being somebody who was important and respected – someone who could contribute to a community. It was actually a lot less about the animals than maybe a lot of people would think.

That’s how I got my start in veterinary medicine, but I always had one eye on business as well. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was kind of an early entrepreneur. All the things I do now and have brought me success – like blogging, networking and being able to sell stuff – all those skills I actually started practicing when I was much, much younger. I was around 11.

There was a bunch of kids in our village, and we used to skateboard.  Because of where we skateboarded, our boards would get all beat up.  I used to fix the other kids’ skateboards and to charge them a little bit.  Some kids would pay me in candy, and others would give me a bit of money.  I also wrote a newsletter for the local kids as well. I would interview other kids in the village and type that up and then pass copies out to everyone. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was blogging. I had started a business in doing that.

That came to a pretty sharp end, though. My mum found out I was charging the other kids money. [Laughs]  She made me give it all back, because Scotland’s kind of a socialist place. That was a very capitalist thing to do, so my parents were, like, in full revulsion of that. [Laughs]  But there it was, and I’ve always had that interest in business, or creating something of value for other people.

I worked as a chef through university. I also worked in sales at university in my summer jobs and things. I developed skills there that actually have been every bit, if not more important to me than the ones I learned at veterinary school.  That’s pretty much the formative years.

Rebecca: That’s great! What do you like best about veterinary medicine now?  

Dave: There’s always a conflict in me because I love the veterinary bit of it, but I also love the contact with clients. A vaccine consult never gets old, because the animals and the people on the other end of the animal are different. You’re always building relationships. It’s in the same way going to a bar with your friends doesn’t get old. It’s the same friends and the same bar, but it’s a relationship exercise.  And so, there will always be that conflict in me.

I would say you’re never done learning in this profession, though I feel like I’ve gotten a handle on the medical bits. What really fires me up now is seeing the business grow.

That means it comes down to people – which is about two things.  It means being able to attract people into your business as customers and keep them happy. It’s also being able to attract people into your businesses as employees and keep them happy. My really big passions now are in marketing and in people management. I love the process of each, start to finish, and doing both in a way that’s sustainable.

The more I focus on that, the bigger and the better my practice gets. The more stuck on my hamster wheel I get, where I’m just doing all the work, the more stressed I become. As a result, it’s harder to balance up the two roles. There’s so much for me now to do. My job has changed. I think that’s a conflict for many business owners, is that they don’t see that the job has changed.

They don’t see themselves as the leader. Their responsibility is putting bums on the seats – be that customers in the wait room, or people in the consult room or in the OR who are good at their job. They get stuck doing probably quite a good job with the clients, but a pretty bad job with the rest of their teams. That causes huge amounts of friction and stress.

My practice is a little sandbox, and I try stuff out here. I find what works, then I go out there and I help other people do it. Sometimes that means doing a speaking gig, and other times that means somebody says, “Hey, I’ve got this problem. Can you come and help me fix it?” I’ll fly out and do consulting gigs someplace.  It’s nice to be able to mix those two things up.

 Rebecca: Yeah. That’s a great thing. I think so many business owners tend to focus on working in the business and not on the business. They get caught up in medicine.  To me—I’m a surgeon—the surgery part of it is not the complicated part, right? [Laughs]  It’s all the other things, at this point, that make it a challenge and give the headaches.  But also, I totally agree with you. It can be the most rewarding point when you have the right team members.

Dave: I heard a great quote:  “Small business is an exercise in letting go and delegation if you’re doing it right.” That can be pretty hard, especially if you’re the person doing surgery. I’m one of those people who’s not happy just staying the same.  I think people who don’t let go are going to get run over in this world now.

Rebecca [laughs] It is for everyone. But the thing is, the magic is happening when you do that. I found that when you find the right people and you delegate, it’s amazing what you then can work on because you’re not focused on what you had to focus on before.

Dave: I sometimes say I’m everything in the business – from the tea boy, the door opener, and the floor sweep to poo picker, the doctor, and the manager.  But the truth is there’s a dollar value to every task we’re doing. A whole bunch of the tasks are $10-an-hour-value tasks, then there are hundred dollar tasks, and a $1,000-an-hour task.

There are also $10,000-an-hour tasks. Most of us do not even get started with the $10,000-an-hour tasks because we’re stuck doing, at worst, $10-an-hour tasks.  We’re told we must set an example. There’s a certain amount of truth in that, but a lot of people wind up with a day full of busy stuff, but not value stuff.

I’m trying to make sure I’m doing $10,000-an-hour stuff whenever possible, and then $1,000-an-hour stuff. I’m not doing that $100, and certainly not that $10-an-hour stuff. The guys who are paid to do the $10-an-hour stuff, sure, it helps once in a while to see the boss doing a $10-an-hour task. However, it takes two minutes to do that. Then I want to get back to the strategic stuff.

The strategic stuff is the $10,000-an-hour task. It’s the power conversations with people in your business who matter, and who you want to bring in as an equity partner. It can also be a conversation you have that opens a door and brings you a $50,000 piece of business. It could also be the key opinion leader you can go have a coffee with who will sing your praises from the rooftops – that’s $10,000-an-hour stuff.

Surgery’s $1,000-an-hour stuff, and $100-an-hour stuff is probably a consult or yearly exam.  A team training session might be $1,000-an-hour stuff.  But I want to be up there where the big stuff is. You hit the nail on the head when you said, “Get good people and delegate”. That’s such an easy sentence to say, but it’s such a hard action to deliver.

Rebecca: In the United States we have a lot of issues going on in our profession right now with student debt, and with a lot of graduates coming out. Do you have similar challenges in Australia?

Dave: We have very similar challenges. I think they’re global challenges, and not just the US. I’m pretty familiar with both the UK and Australia markets, and increasingly familiar with the US market from the time I spend there every year.  The challenges are really similar. If anything, in Australia though, they’re a little bit accelerated in some ways because of the number of people here.

There are 22 million people who live in Australia, a place the size of the US, which has, what, 650 million? There are, I think, seven or eight veterinary schools in Australia.  How many in the US?  Are there around 30?

Rebecca: Yes, a little over 30.

Dave: So you see the problem. The numbers are hellish. I think if you’re looking for a leadership problem in our profession, you should look at what’s happening at university level. I don’t think there’s a strategy. I would say it’s the leadership – not just at the university – but also from our governing bodies.  I don’t mind chucking a rock at these people, because we have sown the seeds to become rather like the legal profession has.

That’s dumb for veterinary medicine, because you already have to do your entry-level degree in the US, and then do something else. Then you come out with crippling debts. It seems to me to be driven by financial need of the schools rather than market demand from pet owners.

We are losing the exclusivity of the degree by flooding the market with grads. I feel sorry for the new grads because there isn’t a good job market here. We advertise technician positions, and we regularly have doctors applying for those.

That’s the market these grads are now coming into in Australia, and it sounds really similar in the US and the UK. The numbers that are coming out, the inflationary pressures … well, it isn’t inflationary, it’s deflationary on the wages, compared to the costs of the degrees that you guys are burdened with now.  The sums don’t add up, and I don’t think that’s a healthy place for the profession to be.

A profession that is already top of the suicide list, let’s just add in that extra financial burden. Let’s see where this goes in 10 or 20 years’ time when those people finally figure out that they’re never escaping that debt trap.  Recently, I saw an interview with others in the US saying it’d be a good option for people to go into business.  And I thought, “How is it a good option for a new graduate who doesn’t know how to do the job to go into business and open up?”

But that’s what’s going to happen. They’re going to do it because there are no jobs, and they’re going to get burnt so badly. They’re going to be cannon fodder, because they’re not going to do anything right. I don’t know. I think that it can be a depressing avenue to go down, and I would have to think twice if I were entering any profession under those circumstances.

Now, in Scotland, we’re lucky because tuition fees for home students are free.  And that was a commitment from the Scottish government. They wanted to keep education open to all.

It can be a depressing route to go with that conversation, and you sort of think, “Well, where are we? What’s the 40,000-foot view of the profession, and is it all doom and gloom?”  The flip side is [chuckles] that if you’re an employer, it’s not all doom and gloom at all. You’ve got more challenges because you have to learn how to decipher the good people from the bad and filter them out, which is harder than ever.

But with the right processes and procedures, that can work in your favor. There’s not an inflationary pressure on wage demands. And people are going to be kind of nervy to move because there’s so much competition for jobs. I think if you’re a business owner, this is potentially okay news.  I think the thought of us going to a new graduate opening up a shop on the corner, like every block, which is distinctly possible, doesn’t fill me with any great joy as a business owner.

I don’t think established businesses would have a whole lot to worry about for too long. I just think there’s going to be a lot of hand-to-mouth veterinary clinics with no profit and very low turnover. The basic laws of the jungle are still in play – if you’re good at what you do and you’re committed, you’ll find a way and you’ll make it work. Talent always rises to the top one way, or another. It’s just going to be a little harder fight to get there.

This has happened to a lot of other industries, and there’s really no use crying about it, because it’s happening. I wish that our leaders had taken more care of that, but we are where we are now.

So we’re where we are, and we just have to get on and do our thing.  And if you’re good at what you do, you’ll still thrive because pet numbers are still going up, particularly in the US. There’s cheer in the market as well. Let’s not get too gloomy!

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