How to survive in a hostile environment - Veterinary Practice
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How to survive in a hostile environment

INVEST in your employees, treat
them well and they will help your
business to grow, delegates were
told at the SPVS/VPMA congress
in Newport at the end of January.

It’s a simple formula but one that
has worked for the managers of two
of the British retail industry’s great
success stories, the John Lewis
Partnership and the Waitrose
supermarket chain, said Tracey Killen,
group personnel director for the
combined operation.

As the wife of a practising vet, Mrs
Killen was invited to deliver the
opening address to the congress and
explain how lessons learned from one
of the most innovative service
providers in the UK could help
veterinary practices to survive in a
hostile and changing environment.

No business has an automatic right
to exist, she warned, noting that
around 80% of the companies that
formed the Financial Times 250 index in
the early 1980s were no longer trading
under the same name.

The John Lewis company is about
to celebrate its 150th anniversary and
since the early 1950s it has followed a
business model unique among major
British retailers in being owned by its
own staff, called partners.

The retail philosophy adopted by
John Spedan Lewis, son of the founder, has allowed
it to enjoy
considerable success
as the favourite
provider of clothing
and food for
“middle England”
and to expand into
new markets
throughout the UK.

Over the past 10
years the company
has doubled in size
and now has 86,000
partners and a
combined turnover of £10 billion a

Common purpose

The success of the business is a result
a team ethic built on a sense of
common purpose. “Vets have an
incredible sense of common purpose:
use that to engage with the people
who work in your practice,” she said,
adding: “Your people are your biggest
asset. A lot of companies say that but
they don’t really mean it. We do and so
should you.”

Whatever sector they are involved
in, the factors that will motivate
employees to perform better for the
business are the same: knowledge, self-
determination, the opportunity to
create value and a feeling of being valued, she said.
Her company put great effort
into ensuring that
its partners are
kept fully
informed about
the company’s
performance and
any changes in

“When people
are better informed they know why we
have to make certain choices and work
with us to achieve them. It also creates a culture of incremental improvement and internal competition
in which they look to
beat the previous week’s

Guiding the

To achieve self-
determination, the
partners are given a real
say in guiding the
company strategy with a
partnership council of
80 elected representatives
who can scrutinise the company’s
organisation and policies. There are
also five representatives who serve on
the company board.

Veterinary practices could learn
from the way that the John Lewis
Partnership uses the three Ps –
performance, productivity and pay –
to monitor, improve and reward
each partner’s individual contribution to the business.

All staff need to know if they are doing a good job, they should be
regularly offered retraining or new
responsibilities to develop their skills
and their salary should be discussed
fairly and openly, and be linked directly
to their contribution to the business.

“That seems obvious but very few
businesses do it well”, she said. Mrs Killen also urged veterinary
managers to be alert to changes in
their business environment. They must
appreciate the growing power of the
internet. In relative terms, the UK has
the largest and most sophisticated
online retail market in the world.

“People will research you on line, they will buy products
on line, they will want
to book their
appointments on line.
If that’s not where
your clients are now,
it is certainly where
they will be within the
next two years,” she

Whatever the
field, a successful
business will also have
to be able to gather information on its customers’
behaviour in order to meet their needs,
be aware of changing markets,
demographics and even international

But the most important task is to
retain an active curiosity about the
market they are operating in: “If you
stop asking questions, it is then that
things will go wrong for you,” she said.

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