Striking a balance...

01 January 2013, at 12:00am

VETERINARY PRACTICE hears how two busy vets cope with the demands of running a practice whilst still maintaining a hands-on clinical role

WHEN choosing a business partner to help develop an existing one-man mixed practice in Ipswich, Bristol graduate Charles Bagnall looked very close to home and in 1996 he was joined by his brother and fellow vet, James.

Together, the brothers have built up the small animal side of the Orwell Veterinary Group practice and in 2005 opened a purpose-built veterinary Tier 3 hospital. In 2008, the practice was named Pet Plan Practice of the Year.

Combining a full-time veterinary role with the challenges of running an expanding practice is one faced by many vets but so far Charles and James have managed to strike a balance between the two.

“It has been a huge advantage working so closely with my brother who is a similar age and whose career path and life goals have been essentially the same. As we’ve both wanted the same things at the same time, we’ve been able to spend time and energy on driving the practice forward without worrying about other partners or directors wanting to move in a different direction at a different stage in their career or life.

“Good working relationships with our clients are key to our success and we both still have a full-time role in the day-to-day clinical work of the practice, though I tend to spend more time consulting and James tends to be more involved with the surgical caseload. However, our schedule is tailored to allow time for an ever-increasing amount of management work.”

Charles and James divide responsibility and management roles within the practice, which they say is vital for their sanity!

“We have allocated roles according to our strengths and interests, but of course we cannot do everything ourselves. Where necessary, tasks are delegated either within the practice or outsourced. I am responsible for public relations and marketing, accounts and debt chasing as well as front-of-house management, property maintenance,buildings, contents and vehicle insurance and I am also fire and health and safety officer.

“We believe that offering our clients additional services is vital as we expand and provide an importance means of cash flow, thus supporting the rest of the business. It’s therefore also my job to oversee our Pet Care Plan in conjunction with Premier Vet Alliance (PVA) which keeps our customers happy and our costs down and so increases profitability.”

As the practice has grown, involving everyone in the business has also been important. Key members of staff have been given specific areas of responsibility such as practice manager and administrator and a recently appointed customer care manager.

Clinical director James’ areas of responsibility include business planning and strategy, payroll and banking, human resources, website and e-commerce, pharmacy, pricing and purchasing.

“The demands of managing a busy small animal practice are high and at times stressful. In our practice it has been achievable by sharing the work,” adds James. “Alone it would have been a very daunting and overwhelming task and by supporting one another, we’ve managed to maintain our focus and enthusiasm.”

Social media and the internet also have their place at Orwell and Charles’ marketing and PR role has become increasingly involved, especially with the frequent use of the practice’s interactive website,, and social media.

The practice’s most recent marketing initiative is the introduction of a client discount/loyalty scheme: “This has been a very successful scheme that was planned and implemented with full staff involvement from the start. We’re always looking for ways to attract and retain more clients and by working with Premier Vet Alliance, we’ve achieved one of the highest sign-up rates to date.

“This scheme forms a vital part of our business strategy helping us to maintain and enhance our bonded client base and make full use of an increasingly internet-based sales arena.”

Other services offered by the practice include a pet crematorium and an online VMD accredited dispensary, which are regarded as “add-ons” but which add further time pressures outside normal practice working hours.

“Time management is a constant battle and is a picture, I am sure, that is mirrored in many vet practices across the country, particularly at a time when practice incomes are being squeezed and there is increasing pressure on practice expenditure, not least on staffing levels and wages. During busy periods we struggle to achieve our management roles as effectively as we would like,” adds Charles.

The Bagnall brothers have considered the possibility of one of them stepping back from a clinical role to focus on managing the business but they both still enjoy being vets and are reluctant to make that choice just yet.

“There is inevitably a knock-on effect with work-life balance as work tends to tip the balance, particularly during the current economic downturn,” says Charles. 

“However while we still both enjoy what we do, gaining satisfaction from our veterinary work, and pride in our practice and staff, it is worth all the effort.

“Our employees help us achieve our goals and we must also acknowledge the usefulness of companies such as PVA in easing the non-clinical workload, by providing a range of advisory services to us as and when we need them in areas as diverse as accountancy, business planning, marketing and human resources.

“The hard work and long hours are made possible by having supportive and understanding wives and working with a great team of like- minded, caring and committed staff.”