Working for and with the profession... - Veterinary Practice
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Working for and with the profession…

JOHN ALBOROUGH talks to David Ellerton, managing director of Virbac in the UK and Ireland, about his career and what makes him tick

IT’S quite a journey from depot manager in a pharmacy to nightclub owner to managing director of a rapidly growing veterinary company, but that’s the career path taken by David Ellerton.

Now MD of Virbac Ltd in Bury St Edmunds, David started his career with Rowlands, a wholesale and retail pharmacy operation in North Wales which his father had taken over. It had a small agricultural division which tied in with family interests as his mother’s side had farms in Warwickshire.

He worked there for about eight years as depot manager. After it was bought out by Wynnstay Farmers he stayed for a further 18 months but being uncertain about future prospects went looking for fresh opportunities. He teamed up with an old school chum and bought a nightclub in Preston but, after moving up there, discovered it was an industry he didn’t want to be in – especially with a young family – so after a few months he sold his share.

He returned to industry to work for Grampian Pharmaceuticals from 1988 to 1996, finishing as marketing manager; he then moved to Animalcare as business development director before joining EVS (a division of Dowlhurst which had bought White Rose Pharmaceuticals) as general manager in 2001 and moving to Virbac in 2004 where he now has responsibility for all aspects of the business in the UK and Ireland.

JA. How well do you think the name “Virbac” is known?

DE. Before I joined Virbac I went to a friend of mine in practice who said he didn’t use any Virbac products. Then he opened his cupboard and found five or six products there that he hadn’t associated with Virbac.

We have worked hard over the past few years to develop the Virbac brand as a true business partner with practices.

JA. The UK has several French businesses operating in our industry. Sitting here in the middle of Suffolk, how “French” is Virbac?

DE. Virbac is a relatively young French company that is developing very fast. It is based in France and the entire supervisory board is French. As part of our expansion plans we have just bought a fairly big stake in a company in South America and we see the United States as a major platform.

JA. And Virbac is purely veterinary?

DE. Yes. It was founded by a veterinary surgeon and his family is still involved, with three family members sitting on the supervisory board. We have no interests outside the field of animal health. In the UK we have 52 staff of whom 11 are veterinary surgeons, which is quite a high ratio.

In France we have an R&D department but with a small “R” and big “D”. We are always thinking how we can use and improve a product that is already there.

We work hard on innovating new products: for example, we have Suprelorin which is an alternative to surgically castrating dogs – so you can have an implant and you don’t have to put an animal through surgery.

We were the first with a leukaemia vaccine. We are the first with a vaccine against leishmaniosis which although not too big in this country is important for people travelling with pets and in the Mediterranean area it is a real problem.

JA. How do you differentiate yourself with the vet who is often not particularly interested in a company by name?

DE. I am married to a vet. I know when she has had an interesting day at work, with an interesting case of this or a cure for that. She would never come home and say she has had an interesting visit from a rep.

So we have to recognise where we sit within the practice and work with them to develop easy to use, reliable products and a good service.

And we must work to improve practices, getting more people through the door and holding on to clients because the channels of distribution are growing rapidly and we have to help vets maintain and grow their business.

We are very much into CPD. Our event in south-west England recently involved some CPD and a bit of surfing – to avoid “all work and no play”. We also do lunchtime meetings and we use webinars frequently.

JA. What makes you look forward to each day?

DE. The fact that no two days are ever the same, but most especially it is when I am allowed out of the office and go and see the customers. I get a tremendous kick about visiting them. I go out with one of our territory managers as often as I can as I feel it is very important to find out what motivates them.

JA. What winds you up?

DE. Travel. I get fed up with the time wasted sitting around at airports.

Business-wise there are two things that wind me up. First is lack of ownership of issues and topics. We can all think of issues in our lives when we just wish someone would deal with it rather than just trying to pass it on; the other thing is that I get frustrated with meetings for meetings’ sake.

JA. Isn’t that a common business problem?

DE. It is, but in the UK we try to minimise it. We have two formal meetings a month: one senior management meeting and one sales and marketing meeting. We are in a small office so we interact very frequently and we just get on with things.

People should be with clients or developing services, rather than sitting in meetings. Internal communication is vital, but we should never get away from the fact that being able to understand our customers’ needs is the main part of driving a sustainable business growth.

JA. Virbac does seem to be a friendly and approachable business…

DE. That is my hope, and we sincerely try to be. When we take staff to France I get a lot of feedback from my French colleagues that the UK team is very friendly and very open. And we need to be. We are in this for the long haul. Our customers must also see us as very approachable.

Virbac is a company that is actually working for the vet and with the vet. We are an animal health company. The main board has four vets among its seven members. We are dedicated to veterinary, dedicated to providing good quality products – and clever products which are going to make life easier.

JA. What’s in the pipeline?

DE. We expect two to three new products later in 2013. In addition to our own new products we are also open to the possibility of acquiring other brands or indeed other companies.

We are also looking long term at what the global needs are going to be in 20, 30, 40 years time.

We have taken a big stake in a fish vaccine business in South America, for example, because we recognise there will be a big demand for more protein to be available to feed the rising world population.

So that is what we are about. It is not just today or tomorrow: it is about the long term and for me that is actually very refreshing.

JA. Small animal versus food animal: how is the company split?

DE. The UK company is a little out of kilter with the rest of Virbac. As a whole the company is around 55% small animal and 45% large animal but in the UK we are nearer 75% small animal and 25% large animal (including equine).

JA. Any other comments?

DE. On the business side: we have to make things happen, none of us can expect growth without putting in the effort. On the personal front: fortunately my wife and I share an interest in animals, having a dog, cat and two horses. I really enjoy the change from being in the office, putting on my boots and working outside and being with our horses.

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