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“One thing I’ve learned about myself over the last 15 years, is that I like a project,” says Dr Mark Matthews. “And every two to three years, I seem to get the itch to take on another project of some kind. When I look back at my life, I’ve done that quite a lot—whether it be with vet clinics or buying and renovating houses.”
While real life rarely fits neatly into folk wisdom, Dr Matthews, a New Zealand-born vet, seems to be a good illustration of the famous “rule of three”, the idea that things are more satisfying and enjoyable when they come in groups of three. While living in his third country, he’s bought three veterinary practices. He purchased his first after three years of working for others. After a couple of years, he became the sole owner, then three years later bought another practice, and three years after that, his third. They’ve grown to the point where he now employs 33 staff. He now finds himself in the third phase of his career, where he can pass on his wisdom and knowledge as a mentor to other vets.
Not that he had a plan to do any of that. In fact, had you asked a teenage Mark Matthews about his future career, he would have told you he was going to be an architect.
“I grew up in a semi-rural area in New Zealand,” he says. “I always worked on farms during my school holidays and we kept stock at home. I wasn’t one of those people who grew up with a dream to be a vet. I wanted to be an architect until I was about 16 or 17.”
Luckily for Melbourne’s pet owners, a school career’s counsellor dissuaded him from pursuing that dream. “He told me not many architects got to design cool houses, and in reality a lot of them ended up designing drainage systems for the local council. That wasn't where I saw my future.”
Instead he focused on his interest in animals, science and problem-solving to pursue a veterinary degree at Massey University, graduating in 1998. After a few years in mixed practice, he got the itch to travel. London was calling.
“And what was supposed to be two years in London ended up being closer to six,” he says. “At that point I made a deal with myself that I didn't want to do after-hours on-call work again. I enjoyed the city life in London and I enjoyed the small animal practice a lot more than I expected I would. That's how I fell into being a full-time small animal vet.”
London had another attraction, too. He met his partner, Antony, there. Antony worked in finance, and when the time came to move back to this side of the world, they looked for a city that offered opportunities for both of them. Melbourne was a perfect choice. “Ant grew up in London and Melbourne’s got a nice European feel to it, which he liked. We love the architecture and it’s big enough that it’s got lots to do and has a lot of character and culture. So it suits us very well.”
They moved there with two backpacks, not knowing how long they would stay. “We just saw it as a bit of an adventure and said to ourselves, ‘We’ll stay here as long as we’re happy here’. That was about 15 years ago now and we’re still here.”
Dr Matthews landed a job at an Eastern-Suburbs practice whose owners, he says, “taught me a lot about how to run a successful business that cares for its staff.” However, he always knew he wanted to own or co-own a practice. The opportunity to buy-in just didn’t present itself, however, and he left on good terms with a view to eventually spotting somewhere he could call his own.
He left to locum for a while and ended up at Hawthorn East Vet. It was there the opportunity came up to buy a shareholding, which he did in 2009. That was soon followed by taking on the Kew Vet and Cattery in 2014, and Alphington and Fairfield Vet in 2017.
“All of the practices we've bought have been long-established practices,” he explains. “It's been a big opportunity for us to go in there and renovate and upgrade them. And that's been where our approach has come from.” All the practices are in neighbouring suburbs too, so they’re far enough apart to not compete for clients, but close enough to share resources and develop a brand within the local area.
The basis of the shared brand lies in the relationships with clients, he says. “We have set ourselves a standard of customer and patient care that we expect to be consistent across all three practices. And although there are some slight differences, we want clients and patients to know that if they come to any of our practices, they will receive the same high standards of clinical care and service and be assured that our staff will work hard to develop an ongoing trusting relationship with them.”
At the same time as he was doing all this, Dr Matthews’ interest in architecture and property never waned. As a hobby, he and Ant have taken on the purchase of older residential properties, which they renovate, develop and sell off. He adds that BOQ Specialist has always helped with financing the projects.
“I've got to know Mark and Antony over the last few years,” says Trevor Knowles of BOQ Specialist. “We've been able to provide them with funding across their portfolio, which included their super fund acquiring one of the practice properties. These can be complex transactions that require specialist understanding. We've been able to develop trust and rapport with them over time, resulting in BOQ Specialist managing most, of their banking and their debt facilities. Antony, Mark’s partner, is a financial controller—which has been beneficial as he understands the financial side of things. Mark brings the practicality and skill set around running a successful practice, so they make a good team.
“Because of the financial knowledge Antony has, it made sourcing the right facilities and structuring the right pricing challenging and enjoyable. By understanding their busy schedules, I was also flexible in meeting with them after hours and at their home. We know that you have to be accessible to be able to make a difference.”
The appeal of BOQ Specialist, Dr Matthews says, is “the knowledge and experience of our industry and all the quirks. The professionalism and ease of communication really define our relationship with them. However, in saying that, I do expect that they are going to give us market rates and a good deal, too, particularly given the large numbers involved.”
The value placed on relationships also informs his approach to the veterinary profession. “I get my sense of achievement from building those long-term relationships with staff and clients. I also get a sense of purpose from looking back and seeing how the practices have changed and what we've achieved. What I get from renovating houses is a sense of achievement from seeing the physical transformation from a rundown house to a newly renovated design.”
As he grew the third practice, Dr Matthews made the decision to step back a little from clinical work. “I found that I was spread a bit too thin. My clinical role has decreased over the last couple of years, which has allowed me to be more of a mentor for the team. This has meant we can continue to develop our business processes whilst ensuring we're developing our staff so they get the most out of their roles. And that in turn adds to my quality of life, too.”
Thinking about starting or growing your practice, or investing in property? Click on the link to find out more about our tailored financial solutions for setting up a practice or our solutions for buying a property. 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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