Dr Mark Matthews
Luckily for Melbourne’s pet owners, Dr Mark Matthews shelved his teenage dream to be an architect and became a vet instead.Learn More
A lovely aspect to owning a veterinary practice in a rural or regional area is that the community grows around you. Such is the case with the Wonthaggi Vet Clinic. When Dr David Beischer joined the practice 24 years ago, it was operating from a purpose-built site on the northern edge of town in Wonthaggi, in regional Victoria. As the region grew and changed over a quarter of a century, it became clear to him and his partners that the building they worked from had to change too.
“When I joined the practice, we were probably 75 per cent large animals with a strong bias towards dairy cattle work,” he says. “More recently, that’s become less than 25 per cent. So it’s really created a shift in the type of work we’re doing, the requirements of the practice building, and the people working in it.”
When the building was first constructed 30 years ago, it was fit for the purpose of a predominantly large animal practice. “It was a lovely clinic to work in,” Dr Beischer recalls. “It had two consult rooms, a wet area and a specialised surgery area. As the practice grew, we tweaked a few things within the envelope of the building to try and create extra space. But ultimately, the building was really restricting the amount of work we could actually carry out.”
That’s when Dr Beischer got stuck between a rock and a hard place. The building had three owners—all of them were partners in the practice. The practice itself had become part of a larger group. As they investigated what needed to be done, it became clear that this was going to be an expensive exercise. An expense one of the building’s owners didn’t want to take on.
When Dr Beischer arrived at Wonthaggi Vet Clinic, it was a three-partner practice based at Wonthaggi and Phillip Island, with a branch clinic at Inverloch. After a few years, he became the fourth partner. “And then about three years ago,” he says, “we merged with Tarwin Vet Group to become Gippsland Vet Group, and we’re now one of seven centres.” The merged group now had nine directors.
Three of the original partners of the Wonthaggi practice owned the building and leased the space to the new entity.
Two of those three, Dr Beischer and Dr Jenny Hibble, still worked in the practice, while a third was recently retired, but had been one of the owners since the early 1980s. “We approached a local draughtsman initially to help us to look at what our requirements were, and what the possibilities were to increase workspace,” says Dr Beischer. “But then our recently retired colleague indicated that he really didn’t want to be part of the redevelopment. So we then had to go through a process of building ownership, how that was going to be sorted out as well as looking at the actual design.”
After scoping out his colleagues, Dr Beischer found his best (and only) option was to purchase the share of the building owned by the retired practice partner. But while he was organising that, he was also finding that the renovation plans for the building just weren’t working.
“We played around with a lot of concepts and designs with the draughtsman and in the end, we just felt that it wasn’t quite right,” he says. “And then at that point, one of the directors in the combined group suggested, ‘Why don’t we get an architect on board?’” Which they did, and the architect solved the problem—but that solution was going to come at a cost.
“Once we’d reworked that floor plan, the architect suggested we get an outside valuing group to give us an estimate of what the build would cost based on the floor plan," says Dr Beischer.
“That figure gave us a bit of a fright, and took a while to digest, as it was a fair bit more than we had initially planned.”
So Dr Beischer found himself in the awkward position of wearing two hats—one as a representative of the building owners, and one as a co-director of the lessee. “The rental arrangement that we as building owners had with the group became a sticking point,” he explains. “As a group, we needed to know what income we would be receiving at the end of the build to cover the investment we were making. That was important for everyone because really, we needed to know what we were committing to. Particularly as the budget had gone up by almost three times from what we’d initially set for the build.” Further cost pressure came from the fact they had to move out—this was almost a complete rebuild, and they needed to find a temporary space to rent while the build was happening.
“So there were actually two processes going on side by side,” he says. “We also had to find an alternate venue for the clinic, work out a design for that space and get that approved by council.”
They found a warehouse space and hired four demountable medical buildings, then sorted out all the computer wiring, piping and plumbing. Luke James of BOQ Specialist helped finance the whole exercise. BOQ Specialist proved to be more flexible and accommodating than the practice’s previous bank in what was proving to be a tricky exercise. “We relocated over two days and operated out of a temporary building for eight months while the rebuild took place.”.
But throughout all of that, one of the most rewarding aspects was the response of the community—both the clinic’s staff, and the broader community of Wonthaggi. “The staff had to put up with a fair bit of discomfort and inconvenience while we were in that shed for the eight months,” says Dr Beischer. “And a concrete bunker with a galvanised iron roof and no insulation in the middle of winter was pretty jolly cold and uncomfortable. But they were terrific.
“The other thing was our clients. Dr Hibble’s husband is a builder and he suggested, ‘Why don’t you put a copy of the floor plan of the renovation in the waiting room of the clinic, so people can see what you’re doing’, which we did. And that was great. They came on board and were as excited about it as the staff.
“It made me realise that yes, you’re running a small business in a small community, but it’s a service that a lot of people hold in high regard. They were really complimentary about us making that investment and being able to expand the range of what we could offer to their animals through a refurbished and enhanced clinic. It was nice to have people comment about that as something they valued.”
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