British Vets Debate Corporatization of Clinics

Majority of vet association members don't see the benefits

The corporatization of Britain's veterinary industry was debated during the British Equine Veterinary Association Congress, held Sept. 13-16 at the Liverpool Arena Convention Center, with 72% disagreeing with the position "corporatization is inevitable and will benefit vets and their clients" and 28% of voters agreeing.

The aggregation of veterinary practices is a growing trend in the United Kingdom where its biggest veterinary group CVS has acquired 32 equine practices over the past two years. CVS's latest acquistions include two of the country’s most prestigious clinic—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.

A robust, good humored 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 corporatization. They were supported by 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 position. They were supported by Louise Radford, a qualified vet who now works in the pharmaceutical industry, and Nenad Zillic, partner at the Barn Equine Surgery.

Prior to the debate, the position of BEVA Congress attendees was much closer with 44% of the audience agreeing that corporatization was inevitable and beneficial and 56% disagreeing.

The pro-corporatization team advocated that commercial and business advantages, together with the scale and diversity of a corporation, 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. Holliman pointed out that corporations 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. Chandler went on to argue that selling to a corporation is a solution to the problem of succession planning. In a climate of unwillingness for younger vets to buy in to practices, selling allows partners to realize the value they have built up and release that equity to do something else.

Greet countered that the good reputation the profession currently enjoys is based on service to clients and above all the animals in its care. When clinical rather than commercial elements drive a practice, he said, partners are light on their feet and can respond quickly to decisions without referring to "a ponderous corporate hierarchy." Greet continued that clients like continuity and the quickest way to lose them would be to send in different vets. 

Harrison suggested 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."

BEVA president Jon Pycock said this corporatization: "Whether we like it or not corporatization 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."