VetScript Editor's pick: December 2019 - A privileged career

As a child, Helen Beban was a “horse-mad science nerd” who was inspired by the local veterinarian. Approaching the end of a long and varied career, the retiring Ōtaki veterinarian reflects on changes in the profession she loves. Jacqui Gibson reports.

Ōtaki veterinarian Helen Beban is doing everything she can to make good on her retirement plans. But it’s not easy.

Three years ago she tried it (retirement, that is), but ended up filling in part-time for a veterinarian on maternity leave. This led to a permanent part-time role.

The problem is she just loves her job – so when she’s offered a way back in, she tends to take it.

“No more,” she says. “I’ve decided it’s time for me to move on and do other things. So I’m not renewing my annual practising certificate. We’ve booked our next overseas cycling trip and made plans to spend more time with our five lovely granddaughters.”

There’s one in Paekākāriki, two in Hawke’s Bay and another two in Scotland. Helen and husband Russ (also a veterinarian) will enjoy more time with their Scottish family at the cottage they own together in a tiny village in the mountains of Liguria, Italy.

It’s a fitting end to a busy and varied veterinary career that started in 1971, when Helen enrolled in a BVSc degree at Massey University. “I knew where I was headed from about age 10 or 11,” explains the self-described “horse-mad science nerd”, who grew up in the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville.

“We had family pets, and it was the exposure to our local veterinarian that inspired my career.” What she hadn’t counted on was meeting her future husband Russ at university, getting married in her third year and having their first baby, Corran, in her fourth. “I suppose I just thought I could do it all. Yes, expectations of women were changing back then. But, to be honest, it never occurred to me to give up study while having babies. For me, it was really a matter of wanting to learn as much as I could, as well as have a family. So I just went ahead and did it.”

In those days there were few female veterinarians in New Zealand. In Helen’s graduating class there were nine women in a cohort of 46. “People did talk about the number of women students being unusually high that year. But in those days having an interest in small animal veterinary science was also considered odd – and that’s what grabbed my interest, and what I ended up basing my career on.”

Helen left Massey with a BVSc with distinction, and the family headed to Taranaki, where she and Russ spent five years job-sharing at the Stratford Veterinary Club. “It was an unequal share, though, with Russ doing most of the work and all the after-hours,” says Helen. “I did two afternoons each week in the clinic. It was great for the whole family. It also set the tone for the rest of my career in companion animal medicine and surgery.” Their second son, Daniel, was born in Taranaki.

“They were interesting times,” she says. “There was an extreme shortage of veterinarians in New Zealand, particularly in rural farming areas like Taranaki. It meant people were really happy to see you as a new graduate. That’s much less the case now. Pet owners typically want the most senior veterinarian available. Today, people see their cats and dogs very much as members of the family. As a result, expectations of veterinary care are so much higher than when I started out.”

After a brief move to the Bay of Islands and the birth of their daughter Alice, Helen and Russ shifted to Palmerston North, primarily for Russ’s new role in the then Ministry of Agriculture’s training unit, and to be closer to family.

Russ was keen to get back into clinical practice, and became senior veterinarian with the Horowhenua and West Coast Veterinary Club in Levin, with Helen working part-time. Levin would be home for the next 23 years.

By 1989 they were ready for a new challenge, and bought the business from the veterinary club.

“Several veterinary clubs were moving to contract practices. It gave veterinarians the opportunity to run their own practices. It was an exciting time,” says Helen.

As the practice (it is now Levin and Horowhenua Veterinary Centre) grew, Helen and Russ took on a business partner, Hugh Bentall, and bought a 20-hectare property that Russ developed into a deer farm. Helen enrolled in a master’s degree in business administration (again graduating with distinction).

She applied her new-found skills and enthusiasm to the veterinary business, which in 1995 won the Kāpiti-Horowhenua Business Development Quality Award. (It was one of seven companies nationwide to be short-listed for the 1995 Gold Business Development Award.) Two years later it scooped the Kāpiti-Horowhenua Small Business of the Year Award, and in 1999 it took out the Kāpiti-Horowhenua Electra Rural Business of the Year award, as well as the title of overall Business of the Year.

Business had become a major passion for Helen.

“Veterinary science was always my first love, but I just found running a business so exciting. It’s like a living thing – everything has to work well for it to really succeed, and that’s what we became interested in. It sounds quaint nowadays, but we were one of the first practices to become computerised. We introduced an innovative staff bonus scheme that we extended to everyone, even the cleaner.

“After nine years, Russ was ready for a change in career, but I was really enjoying my work and my increasing involvement with the NZVA,” says Helen. “The children were growing up and becoming more independent, which allowed me to be more involved in my career.”

Russ sold out of the practice, and Helen and Hugh remained business partners for the following six years.

Helen served for three years as president of the NZVA’s Companion Animal Society (CAS, now the NZVA’s Companion Animal Veterinarians special interest branch [CAV]), five years on the NZVA Board and 12 years as the NZVA Commonwealth Veterinary Association representative, industry contributions that earned her the CAS Service Award in 2003 and the NZVA President’s Award in 2005.

Helen says the biggest achievement of her career is the 10 years she spent as convenor of the NZVA’s BESTPRACTICE committee (a role for which she picked up the BESTPRACTICE Service Award in 2007).

While most of Helen’s career has been in clinical practice, she has also worked as an international trade advisor for the Ministry of Agriculture, as a technical services veterinarian for Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and as a veterinary advisor for VCNZ.

“Veterinarians often say that working for industry is ‘going to the dark side’, but I found my corporate colleagues at Hill’s really respected any concerns I had regarding ethical considerations. I never had any conflicts between my values as a veterinarian and [the company’s] commercial interests.” Helen says working for Hill’s was a great job and that it allowed her to interact with veterinarians and veterinary nurses throughout New Zealand. Organising roadshows featuring international veterinary experts was a great buzz, she says. “When I left Hill’s, the head of Global Veterinary Affairs told me I had put New Zealand on the Hill’s world map. That made me very proud.”

It wasn’t necessarily all smooth.

“I’d say changing roles within the industry was challenging. I found it a big move going from clinical practice to an international corporate role. I’m indebted to people such as well-known feline medical specialist Pru Galloway who helped me on my way. If I have any advice for others in the veterinary industry, I’d say it’s important to nurture others in their careers, especially when it comes to paving the way for women who aspire to leadership positions within the veterinary industry.”
It was also challenging returning to clinical practice, and Helen says that the CAV Refresher Scheme was helpful in that transition.

“Veterinary science has been a great career for me. The BVSc opened the door to work in clinical practice, corporate and regulatory roles. I have most enjoyed working in a clinical practice team alongside my veterinary colleagues and veterinary nurses. It is a privilege to be trusted with the care of much-loved pets. I will miss it.”