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First steps to practice ownership

A few hurdles had to be cleared first before Dr Karina Graham and Dr Andrew Levien were ready to open their own veterinary specialist hospital.

  3 minutes

When building a new practice, there are really only two types of problems: those that solve themselves, and those that you need to solve immediately before everything falls apart. And unfortunately, it’s hard to know whether a problem is the first or second type until you have to solve it.

Like when Dr Karina Graham and Dr Andrew Levien were at the final hurdle of setting up Veterinary Specialists of Sydney (VSOS), their specialist veterinary hospital. After false starts with finding the right property, then dealing with DA issues and figuring out costs, they were down to the wire, sitting with the lawyers.

“We were just about to sign the lease,” Dr Graham recalls, “and the lawyers asked, ‘Do you have finance approved?’ And we said, ‘Yes, it’s been approved in principle’. And they said, ‘That's not the same as approved’. I said, ‘What?’”

That was a particularly stressful moment, as the development of VSOS was a big project, which was slated to finish at the beginning of June and open its doors one week later. But it was more of a hurdle than a setback. “I think Andrew and I always believed it would be okay, and it would work,” she explains. “The expense of it doesn't really compute in my mind very much. It's more, ‘Can we do it? How successful can we be?’ And we've both got the same drive and the same enthusiasm for it. We would just think, ‘We've got this’.”

Joining forces

Some practices are the result of a fierce individual vision that is pursued by the founders from the outset. That wasn’t the case with VSOS. “I graduated from vet school in 2006, and pretty soon became a small animal internal medicine specialist in 2013,” Dr Graham says. “I was working in private practice until a couple of years ago when I decided to do something on my own. I really didn't have much interest in doing mobile specialty work, but I didn't know what to do after leaving my private referral hospital. I didn't want to go and work for a competitor. So mobile ended up making the most sense.”

She knew Dr Levien from university, but he had followed a different path, training in London and the US before doing a three-year surgical residency at the Animal Medical Center (AMC) in Manhattan, New York.

When he returned to Australia, he started his own mobile specialist service, and when Dr Graham mentioned she was looking at starting her own business, they decided to become business partners. Although there are sound financial reasons for vets to embrace a mobile service, she still liked the idea of her own state-of-the-art bricks-and-mortar clinic. “I didn't really have a good solid plan to start with though,” she admits. “And I think what we've ended up with is a lot bigger and better than we ever thought.”

The challenge with running a mobile specialty service is that while 80 per cent of your work can be done in any clinic, the other 20 per cent — “the big stuff, the after-hours care and the MRI, the CT and all that sort of stuff that we're trained for,” says Dr Graham — can’t be done just anywhere. You need a building. And not just any building.

VSOS begins to take shape

The catalyst that set VSOS in motion was a practice ownership workshop run by Luke Truscott of BOQ Specialist. Dr Graham signed up for it because, she says, the thought of setting up a specialist hospital was overwhelming. “I had absolutely no idea how to run a business. I'm a vet. But having it explained step by step at that BOQ Specialist seminar was phenomenal. Right from the very start of it—how you look for a place, what you should look for when searching for locations—to right at the other end getting lawyers involved with contracts, it covered all the aspects you don't think about. So it was a great way to put it all together and have some clarity in my mind about how to move forward.

“It was really instrumental in lots of decision making. And in fact, lots of people we met that day, we ended up using for many of the aspects of the business model.”

The first priority was finding a location. There were specific power and parking requirements needed for the hospital. When they found an ideal building in the south of Sydney (with a substation on site), the council wasn’t keen on approving their development application. “The council anticipated that we were a high turnover clinic, like the GP who sees patients in 15-minute appointments,” explains Dr Graham. “But it was quite a different model. We see a few consults and spend a lot of time in procedures. So the process of finding the property and getting it through council was probably 12 to 18 months. Then once that happened, the next day we had a meeting with the builders and they said, ‘We're starting building tomorrow and you need to pay for it’.”

Success from the start

Which is when Dr Graham and Dr Levien found themselves in that meeting with the lawyers, who seemed to suggest their funding might not be approved after all. After admitting their finance was only “approved in principle”, the lawyer asked who their bank was. She already knew BOQ Specialist and Luke Truscott, and after a single phone call to him, the permission to sign was granted.

The process of fitting out the building took seventeen weeks, and was seamless, says Dr Graham.

“We just expected with COVID there would be delays, but the process was very smooth once we started. It all just came together. And I think the day we opened, we were so much busier than we thought, and we didn't look back.”

As to the final result, Dr Graham says it’s everything she intended — but somehow better. “So many times we thought, ‘This is really hard and it's the reason people don't do it’, but if I had to do it all over again, I'd probably do exactly what we've done.

“I remember talking to a mentor who's running his own business in another industry. And he said, ‘The way you envisage it now won't be the way it turns out’. And that’s definitely true. The partnership's changed and the dream's changed slightly, but it's still the practice I had hoped for.”


Thinking about starting or growing your practice? Click on the link to find out more about our tailored financial solutions for setting up a practice. Or ready to take the next step? Contact us to find out how we can tailor a practice finance solution for you, or call us on 1300 160 160.

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