The corporatisation of veterinary practices is a growing trend; the UK’s biggest veterinary group CVS has acquired 32 equine practices over the past two years alone, the latest including two of the country’s most prestigious - B&W Group and Bell Equine. However, it remains a controversial process with strong views from both sides about the potential advantages or drawbacks to veterinarians, their clients and their patients.
The, robust, good humoured debate, moderated by Madeleine Campbell, saw Keith Chandler, former BEVA President and member of the acquisitions team at Independent Vet Care and Karl Holliman, partner and director at Cliffe Veterinary group and past chairman of XL Equine, arguing for corporatisation. Their supporting witnesses were Lesley Barwise Munro of AlNorthumbria vets which was sold to CVS in 2015 and Julian Samuelson a former managing partner of Bell Equine, which was sold to CVS earlier this year.
Andrew Harrison, a partner at Three Counties Equine Hospital and Tim Greet, who recently retired as an equine partner at Rossdales, took the opposing corner. Their supporting witnesses were Louise Radford, a qualified vet who now works in the pharmaceutical industry and Nenad Zillic, partner at the Barn Equine Surgery.
With a relatively even balance of views at the start of the debate with 44% of the audience agreeing with the motion and 56% disagreeing, an hour of candid discussion served to strengthen the tide of opinion against the motion.
The pro corporatisation team advocated that obvious commercial and business advantages, together with the scale and diversity of a corporate, can give vets greater potential for a more flexible career path and advancement within the industry, and a more sustainable working career in equine practice. Karl Holliman pointed out that corporates enable greater purchasing power, better health and safety resources, improved career structure and the freedom for employed vets to focus on clinical expertise rather than becoming bogged down with practice management. Keith Chandler went on to argue that selling to a corporate is a solution to the problem of succession planning. In a climate of unwillingness for younger vets to buy in to practice, selling allows partners to realise the value they have built up and release that equity to do something else.
This is all vey well, said Tim Greet, on the anti corporatisation panel, but the good reputation the profession currently enjoys is based on service to clients and above all the animals in our care. Clinical rather than commercial elements drive practice and partners are light on their feet and can respond quickly to decisions without referring to “a ponderous corporate hierarchy”. Tim argued that clients like continuity and the quickest way to lose them would be to send in different vets. A bespoke approach to client care was needed rather than hard targeting.
Andrew Harrison went on to suggest that the only vets who really benefit from selling out are those who have one eye on retirement. Younger partners may be able to pay off the loan they took out to buy into practice in the first place but are then likely to take a considerable drop in salary and be given a middle management job, moving from the “pilot seat into the passenger seat.” He purported that young vets cannot afford to buy into practices because the industry is being “fuelled by the corporates who are falling over themselves competing to buy equine practices and squeezing out our fellow professionals.”
Pro corporatisation witness Julian Samuelson maintained that since Bell Equine has been sold to CVS there has been no change to client service, no restrictions on clinical performance and that no targets have been imposed to achieve set revenues. Anti corporatisation witness Louise Radford made the point that big corporates could exert pressure on pharmaceutical companies to drive down prices, which would reduce their capacity to invest in research and development trials and CPD, to the ultimate detriment of the veterinary industry.
The session closed with a significant majority of 72% of the audience disagreeing with the motion Corporatisation is inevitable and will benefit vets and their clients.
BEVA President Jon Pycock said: “Whether we like it or not corporatisation of equine practices is on the rise. But it shouldn’t mean that the future isn’t going to be viable for independents too as there is a role for both to co-exist. Importantly, this should mean that vets and their clients will both continue to have choices.”