VetScript Editor's pick: October 2019 - Care trumps knowledge

They're out there in the provinces and the cities, veterinarians doing the everyday work in neighbourhood and country clinics. For October's issue of VetScript Bette Flagler visits Geoff Woodhouse, Director and co-owner of Arrowtown’s Remarkable Vets.

When did you open Remarkable Vets? Why Arrowtown?

We started the practice from scratch in 2004. I had been out of veterinary school for about 15 years when we opened. My partner and I are the sole shareholders. Karen is from Central Otago and my first job was in Alexandra. I grew up in Auckland, and when I came down here I fell in love with this place. After a time we went overseas, and had been in the UK. When we decided to come back to New Zealand, we thought about where we wanted to raise children. Central Otago ranked high.

Did you always want to be a veterinarian?

Absolutely not. I really wanted to be a pilot, but I discovered that, back then, colour-blind people couldn’t be pilots. I was heartbroken. Being a veterinarian had been on the list, but even when I was going to veterinary school I was unsure about it. I saw people who were really confident, seemed experienced and knew farming, whereas I was a green-as-green city boy. But I did love the smell of hay!

My decision to go to veterinary school was partly driven by a desire to do a difficult degree that was a little bit unusual, and I sensed it offered enormous variety. As an aside, I also actually love the word ‘vet’, the way it looks, sounds and what it represents. That wasn’t a main driver, but it certainly helped.

Has it been smooth sailing?

After I graduated I had a great ‘deep immersion’ job in mixed practice. I did a lot of things I was pretty unprepared for, but I grew a lot during those three years. I gained invaluable base skills across the species that set me up to take on anything. However, it was tough enough to make me wobble a bit in terms of carrying on. I thought about taking an academic path, but one of my first bosses said something that resonated with me; he told me I’d be wasted taking that route. Perhaps it was a backhanded compliment on my people skills, but I wasn’t quite sure! However, the immunology professor I spoke to said pretty much the same thing (he probably just didn’t want me cluttering up his lab!). So I took a year out, focused on a multi-sport event goal, then did two years’ travelling and lots of locums. It was during that time that I discovered a lot about what the profession offered, and the entrepreneurial flame started to burn. I also began to really love the clinical role and what we offered. Growing in confidence probably played a big role there.

How is it being the owner?

As a business owner I love having the ability and power to create change, be adaptable, fix problems and make mistakes and resolve them.

We have an open-door policy for suggestions from staff. We don’t always get it right, but every time we make a mistake we take steps to correct it. We’re constantly learning and searching for ways to innovate and improve. Our team is stacked with motivated and talented people. My job is to give them the platform to perform in a safe and rewarding environment, with minimal stress.

You were featured in the television programme Remarkable Vets. Did that have much impact on your practice or on how you practise?

The television programme still gets talked about. It came about within months of our opening, so it certainly raised our local profile, but that was from a very small base! Whether it made a tangible difference to us would be hard to say, but what it did do – and I have conviction on this – is vindicate my style of practice. Everyone doubts themselves, wonders if they do a good job and if they are providing what the public wants. Through doing that show I had one of those moments when I thought “What we do is okay; it is the right way for me for to do this”. It was an emotional observation for me.

What’s your style of practice?

Care trumps knowledge in our profession. Obviously both are really important, but I find that if you have the desire and ability to engage with people, then searching for answers and expanding knowledge come much more easily. Having said that, the ability to care becomes our platform for using the technology and skills that the staff bring to the table. We collegially push and support each other to extend our knowledge and improve results.

Keeping relaxed and informal has always been part of my style, as has being communicative. We focus on communication and making the client feel special and cared for. Nothing happens without them on board.

What’s your clinic ethos?

We want clients to trust us, as individuals and as a brand. It’s probably as simple as that. We want them to trust our clinical abilities, as well as the way they will be communicated with. There’s a saying, ‘Before I want to know what you know, I want to know that you care’. I think that’s so true. We need to ensure that clients know their experience with us, while it may not always be pleasant for obvious reasons, will be the best that it can be.

Did the business grow quickly?

Not really. It took a long time to get traction. The area is vast and the population is small. It’s geographically ring-fenced by mountains. There’s no way of attracting clients from the hinterland, so we needed to provide services that the people who were here wanted to use. Having a mixed practice was without doubt the only way it was going to start.

The first seven or eight years I truly did do all the after-hours, barring some holiday times. That was just getting tough enough; it would have been extremely hard to carry on with that low level of staffing for too much longer. The growth of the practice happened at the right time.

How many staff do you have now?

We have 20 staff, including five veterinarians and two full-time kennel nurses for the boarding facility. All of the veterinary nurses are qualified. I wouldn’t rule out someone if they weren’t qualified, but the quality of our veterinary nursing staff is very high. Knowledge is empowering. We give our veterinary nurses a lot of responsibility and a lot of ability to maximise their clinical duties.
For a regional town we’ve managed to attract and retain a phenomenal calibre of staff but they are certainly not easy to find.

Do you roster after-hours?

Our five veterinarians look after the afterhours. Everyone here is capable of working on all species, but we have our biases based on interest. There are three of us who do most of the large animal work and two who do more small. The skill set for everyone on small animals is really high. For large animals everyone has capability, which is really rare these days.

What is the mix?

We have a few lifestyle blocks, 80% small animals and 20% horses and farm animals. Because we are somewhat isolated, our referral options are slightly more complicated; it can be a hurdle to refer, but we send animals everywhere. Sometimes our situation allows us to take charge of a case that we wouldn’t otherwise do. It’s a plus, but it comes with its stresses. We’re all litigiously aware, and we all have to work within our capabilities. With good communication come opportunities to extend ourselves in ways we might not in other places. In recent years we’ve invested heavily in surgical and diagnostic equipment and training. This allows us to perform to the highest level in emergency and elective circumstances.

What about lifestyle blocks? Do you anticipate growth there?

No, it’ll be less if anything. Land values are so high here, and so much land is bought by people who don’t live here full-time, so they don’t have animals. Our core farms have remained exactly the same from day one. We hope they never change. We hope they continue to farm and to utilise the beautiful country for what it can offer. The farming model is a sustainable farming.

Do you offer much advice around sustainable farming?

It’s certainly my ethos, but it’s not really my role to advise on that. The farmers themselves have taken on that role of environmental sustainability. They have evolved into that and taken that on board. Because of the tourism and the part-time landowners, the farmers here know they are on display. They are aware that people will see if there are things that are not environmentally or ethically appropriate. Not only are they aware of it, but they are proactive. I’m really impressed by the farmers who manage these properties; they truly take that custodial approach.

Everyone loves to visit Queenstown and Arrowtown. What’s it like to live and run a business here?

The location is amazing and the natural beauty is incredible, but the fact is it’s a very small place in terms of population. The number of people who need core veterinary work is even smaller. A lot of people here don’t make big incomes.

Even though the area is growing, the animal ownership level is not growing that fast. There are a lot of rental properties that won’t allow tenants to have pets. There is a big transient population, and people don’t have much job security. It looks like an affluent place, but it’s not what it seems on the outside in terms of average wealth. These are business challenges for us.