Empty shell transformed

01 October 2010, at 1:00am

visits a recently opened branch practice in Somerset

OPENING any premises will always involve some element of risk for any business.

But Tom Gliddon and his colleagues in the West Lodge veterinary clinic in Minehead were on pretty safe ground when they opened a new branch clinic at Williton in February of this year. That is because Tom grew up on a farm in the village and many members of his extended family still live and work within the parish boundary. 

Williton lies about nine miles to the south-east of the Somerset seaside resort and its residents had been without a local supplier of veterinary services after another practice closed its branch in the village in March 2009.

So when Tom and his partners, Philip Browne and Simon White, spotted a suitable vacant building they saw an opportunity to provide an easily accessible service for pet owners in the neighbourhood and out as far as Bridgwater, about 12 miles further east.

White Lodge is a traditional mixed practice with about 45% of practice turnover in the small animal area, 40% equine and a farm animal workload that has actually grown over recent years as neighbouring practices have vacated the field. 

The practice has a history dating back to the 1950s but its current incarnation began in 1994 when the business moved its main premises to a light industry estate on the east side of Minehead. 

At that time it was still unusual for a veterinary business to choose to base itself in an industrial unit but the decision was clearly a sensible one as the practice has grown from three to seven vets. So the partners had no doubts about basing the new branch premises in two empty units on the Roughmoor trading estate in Williton. The attractions of plentiful parking spaces and a highly visible setting in a busy thoroughfare outweighed any advantages of moving to a more photogenic building. 

Specialist company

Having found the right spot, the partners handed over responsibility for designing and managing the conversion work to a specialist veterinary property company, Vetbuild Solutions, set up two years ago by Derek King, formerly chief executive of a Wiltshire referral practice.

He maintains that his experience of managing a veterinary practice gives him a better understanding of the practical requirements of a small animal clinic and the legislative framework governing their function than a general building firm.

The firm’s designer produced a set of plans for a clinic with one consulting room, a small prep room and operating theatre and separate waiting and kennelling areas for canine and feline patients.

The idea was to have the unit run by one vet with a nurse and receptionist. Routine operations such as spays and minor wound repair would be handled in-house but more complex procedures would be referred on to the main site where there is the high-end digital radiography, ultrasound, endoscopy and laser surgery equipment, etc., that is increasingly becoming part of mainstream veterinary practice.

A planning application was submitted in September 2009 and by December the project was ready to go ahead.

As the site was effectively an empty shell the conversion work was straightforward and was completed on schedule in early February.

Not even the unusually fierce winter conditions at that time managed to disrupt the work. “We only lost one day when the snow was too deep for the builders to get through. They managed to finish the job on time and within budget and so we were very pleased,” Tom recalls.

Since then, Vetbuild Solutions has gone on to manage a number of other projects for practices around the country and has even been hired as an adviser on a project to construct a new feline-only clinic serving the expatriate community in Abu Dhabi. 

“I think the secret of our success has been that we understand issues like the health and safety rules affecting veterinary businesses and the criteria for registering premises with the RCVS practice standards scheme.

“A general building firm would have to get that information off the senior clinicians in the practice. But because we know the territory, the clinicians can get on with doing what they do best and leave the rest to us,” Derek King explains.