Dr Jeannet Kessels: Excellence with heart

Excellence with heart is what motivates veterinarian, practice owner and climate action advocate Dr Jeannet Kessels.

 6 minutes
 


How do you define an ‘excellent’ practice? For any health professional, ‘excellence’ is what you strive for throughout your tertiary education, through practice ownership and practice growth. For veterinarian Dr Jeannet Kessels, excelling in business also involves heart: integrating the values of kindness and generosity, with strategic purpose and forward thinking, in everything she does. This has led her in two complementary directions: first, to co-found the organisation Veterinarians for Climate Action; and second, applying the concept of ‘degrowth’ to her business. Which, by the way, is not what you think it is.

“Degrowth isn't necessarily about limiting my business,” she explains. “Degrowth is about growing it sustainably. It’s saying, I have a business—am I going to sell that business for the biggest possible margin and sail away, or am I going to create something of lasting value that supports my people and my community long term, fostering a culture of enjoyment, embracing kindness, generosity and forward thinking?”

This is the logical result of Dr Kessels’ desire to be an excellent vet and practice owner, and a leader with heart. “Owning three practices and starting a not-for-profit was not something that I planned or dreamed of,” she explains. “I'm 57 years old. I would have been content to enjoy my family, be a veterinarian and celebrate a rich and colourful life. But, through being proactive in learning, finding mentors and surrounding myself with people who are smarter than I am in their areas of expertise, and growing and empowering the people around me, my life has been quite a surprise.”

Career path 

From Dutch migrant parents, Dr Kessels was born and raised in Queensland, and was drawn to veterinary studies because she loved animals. During her training she discovered she also enjoyed surgery. “I took myself to Indonesia at one point with bottles of intramuscular anaesthetics. When I arrived, we boiled instruments on the stove and I did surgeries on my own as a student.” She also used to volunteer with the RSPCA and spey dogs and cats. “I was already an experienced surgeon by the time I graduated,” she says.

Following graduation, she started working in the practice of Dr Simon Coates. “He was a brilliant surgeon who thought almost anything was possible, so he instilled in me the courage and confidence to do really nice work. Because back then not everybody could afford to see specialists, so you needed to be able to solve problems on the spot.”

Over time she moved into locum work and then, as client requests for help increased, she decided to set up a small surgery at home, for convenience while raising her four children. She learned quite quickly that there’s a whole lot more to running a practice than just being an excellent vet.

“One of the things I found helpful was the practice insight tours organised by the Australian Veterinary Association. You could go to another state and view hospitals that were operating really well. You could ask them any question you wanted, whether that was in relation to marketing, HR, operations, finance, what the set-up was or what equipment they had. It was a complete look at their practices. I've now since had two of those tours visit my own practices, and it’s been an honour to share.”

Dr Kessels soon learnt that it makes more sense to own a building to operate from, rather than renting rooms. From there, she looked at economies of scale to adjust to demand. “We'd always looked after our clients seven days a week, until nine or ten o'clock at night. And we thought if we built a proper purpose-built hospital, that might be a good idea. So that's what we did. We built a second hospital and, once again, we grew 50 per cent in a year. That posed a whole lot of problems because we required stronger management systems.”

Surrounding herself with a team consisting of a veterinary director, a marketing director and a practice manager, helped her scale the business in a manageable way. “After a while, I was thinking, perhaps if we build a third hospital, it might allow us to increase our vertical management,” she explains. “It might actually bring us out of what's called ‘the valley of death’, which we had been in, that of being big but not quite big enough. I thought having a third practice might put us in a position where we could add more streamlining to our management and that we might then be able to afford to do that. Unanimously, the team said, ‘We think that's a great idea. We'd love to do it.’ I suggested it might be better to think it over for a week, and not rush the decision! When we talked about it again, they were really excited. I asked, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ And they said, ‘Who gets to build a vet hospital from scratch? How fun is that?’ That’s the quality of the people that I have on the team.”

Driven to act

Dr Kessels now has three practices: Greater Springfield Veterinary Hospital, Edens Crossing Veterinary Hospital and Springfield District Vets. She puts her business growth down to people and systems: excellence in systems, and an empowered team who are skilled, motivated and keen to build the business. In doing so, she has created the opportunity and time to apply her energies and heart to Veterinarians for Climate Action.

For 31 years, Dr Kessels was invested in the health and welfare of all the animals brought into her care, and loved building relationships with their families. She was horrified to learn that since 1970, when she was a five-year-old, camping in the bush amongst the birds and animals she loved, the world has lost 70 per cent of its wildlife.

“For the remaining 30 per cent, the biggest threats are climate change and human encroachment,” she states. “Two years ago, we lost three billion animals in the 2019/20 Black Summer fires. Those who weren’t burnt alive were displaced. And we understand that animals that are displaced will almost certainly perish because they're territorial. Veterinarians work on the ground, as ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, picking up the pieces, treating koalas and their burns, but we are putting guardrails at the top of the cliff. We need to be part of a positive solution on climate change.”

So, in 2019, she co-founded Veterinarians for Climate Action, which now has 1500 members. “The organisation has three objectives,” she says. “The first is to reduce emissions within our own sector, the veterinary and animal care community, which we are achieving through our Climate Care Program. Our second is to inspire the veterinary profession and animal care community to become involved, informing the public on the realities of climate change.

“And then the third angle is to advocate for stronger climate policies. We’re scientific and nonpartisan, and engage with government at local, state and federal levels. We have members who are working with government and industry across animal health, welfare and production.”

“Livestock, wildlife and companion animals are already impacted by climate change. We need to reduce carbon emissions, for ourselves, and for the animals we all love and need. And there are many opportunities in that.”

The link between climate action and ‘degrowth’ is clear to Dr Kessels. “It's about having a conversation around what matters to us as a society and what it is that we value,” she says.

“I’d like to be an inspiration for people like myself; business owners who have built strong and beautiful companies with cultures they’re proud of. Leaders who think long term and want the best for their people financially, socially, and environmentally. And now, as a profession, we get to have that conversation.”

“I've known Jeannet for over five years while working at BOQ Specialist, assisting her with her previous finance requirements,” says Cameron Chater. “Over the past couple of years, I have been able to help her get her third vet practice up and running. It's been great to assist her over the years with the three practices.

“Jeannet's in a really fortunate position in that she put in the hard yards through the early stages of her career. She’s at a point now where she oversees the three practices in more of a managerial role with some great people working for her across the business. That gives her time to pursue Vets for Climate Action, which is her real passion.

“The value of having that long-term relationship with clients and seeing them through the different stages of their career is immense. It comes down to understanding where they are at in their career and catering to their individual requirements. That's really helped get her to this point and be able to devote so much time to her passions such as Vets for Climate Action.”

 

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