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Following the Tony Blair years we're now all familiar with the term ‘spin doctor’…, we understand both the negative side from WMD and remember also the rosy glow of Cool Britannia. After meeting Alastair Campbell the ultimate spin doctor at a SPVS/VMG Congress, hearing his stories about overcoming mental illness and reading his book about how winners succeed I had the chance to reflect on how ‘putting a positive spin on things’ can help both teams and individuals to succeed.

Without wishing to offend numerous friends who are professional marketers and managers in the veterinary and healthcare sectors, the same expression may be applied to marketing generally in that promoting what you'’ve got on its benefits helps not only to sell it but also the buyer to understand how to use it to his or her best advantage: So as marketers and professionals we emphasize the benefits of our products or services whilst managing any potential negatives for the benefit of our clients. And as customers we get used to raising our gaze above the rosy tint and filtering for the bits of information that seem most relevant to us.

Those of you who work in independent veterinary practice will be aware of the gloss and sparkle or ‘marketing hype’ that is part and parcel of the corporate story: Flick through the latest copy of Vet Times and count the ads extolling the virtues of this particular veterinary corporate or that one and read what they have to say. You’ will find that they all offer the most amazing work experience and support meaning everyone lives happily ever after, amen. Yes, all of them, …not really a big surprise though.

So I will leave you then to imagine what my expectations might have been when, as a prominent member of the veterinary media… - yes, I do get around a bit… ☺… - I was invited to a meeting with Andrei Balta, the man responsible for the Vets4Pets business as the new Head of the Pets at Home Vet Group, earlier this week.

First, I was given a guided tour around their offices; this met expectations as I thought they would be rather special if Vets4Pets were proud enough of them to invite guests…; they are indeed rather funky. And then I had a face-to-face with the top man himself….

As I prepared myself for the ‘marketing spiel’ I was somewhat taken aback by Andrei’'s demeanour, as here is a man in a senior role who is not only overtly friendly, down-to-earth and very enthusiastic but also very open about the challenges of his new position within the company. It became clear very quickly that Andrei has his feet firmly planted on the ground, understands the profession, while acknowledging the cynicism within the vet community about what they refer to as ‘the corporates’ and why that is. One of his priorities is to do some myth-busting about the JVP model, about which he is so passionate.

It was refreshing for me to find that Andrei is remarkably candid, talking honestly and openly about the areas where Vets4Pets excel and where he and his team “could do better”. He gave complete answers to challenging questions such as “how do you square getting the best deal out of manufacturers with offering true clinical freedom for your partners?” I left not just satisfied with his responses to what are quite difficult questions for vets who relish their professional independence, but wondering if Vets4Pets have processes that may well benefit the veterinary profession as a whole?

For those of you who are unclear, when you become a JVP it is a true partnership in that it’s a 50:50 split, so neither party has a ruling share that allows it to out-vote and dominate the other. Typically, new Vets4Pets set-ups break even within 4-5 years and by 8-10 years they are debt free. These are average figures, so of course some achieve these goals faster whilst others take longer. Where the latter happens I was told that Vets4Pets will continue to provide financial support until the corner is turned and the new business finds its’ feet.

So I asked about those businesses that continue to under-perform and was candidly told “"we shut them down”". Andrei added that this is not a great outcome for anyone but at least the JVP does not lose their house - fair point! –- and he added that when it happens, it’s because it has to happen for the benefit not just of Vets4Pets but also to end the pain for the JVP if it just isn’'t likely to work out.

The following question was an obvious one as I then probed deeper, asking "...“how many practices have you shut down?”", to which the answer was 4. I’ would invite you to make your own judgement about this but put in context… that the UK a high proportion of SME start-ups fail.

Given that the total number of Vets4Pets practices is 450 this means that <1% of their practices fail. And given that poor cash flow is well up the list of why SMEs fail in the UK, unless you are a member of the privileged minority that is blessed with being awash with working capital at the start line, the advantage of having a business behind you that is committed to provide additional support until you turn the corner is something that shouldn’'t be overlooked. It’s worth considering …fast growing businesses actually absorb cash before they turn their proprietors into successful business people….

So what next? Well, we ran out of time so another meeting is being set up when I shall probe deeper, asking Andrei how he intends to overcome the ‘perception hurdles’ that exist between Vets4Pets and the rest of the profession - which ties in with his myth-busting objectives. I’ would also like to find out more about what he intends to do to rise to the ever-greater challenges the profession faces such as the worsening recruitment crisis and harnessing the growing power of the internet, both as a source of (mis)information and as a buying platform. And herein lies an opportunity for you…...

Please do let me know what questions YOU would like me to raise with Andrei at our next meeting. I shall endeavour to ask them on your behalf and report back on the responses by way of another blog. Contact me via the comments boxes below or email me -

In the meantime, if you get the opportunity to meet Andrei Balta in person, I think you'’ll be glad you did…. :-)