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‘I’m not sure I’d change too much’: Lorna’s journey to practice owner

Written by: Lorna Clarke
Published on: 14 Mar 2023

Lorna ClarkIf we roll back nearly 20 years ago to the final yearbook of the RVC 2004 graduates, in response to the question, “where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?”, my answer was something along the lines of “old, knackered and with my own thriving practice”.

Fast forward to 2023 and the time scale is a bit longer, but I’m definitely old, I’m frequently knackered – and am proud to say that I do have my own thriving practice. Essentially, I’m where I said I’d be. And I’m not sure I’d change too much about how I got here, either.

Following graduation, after a couple of years in small animal practice and a stint as a locum for a bit (a very short bit; I found I preferred to be a more permanent fixture), I joined PDSA, which I absolutely loved. I made friends for life, learned huge amounts – including how to work quickly and efficiently, and with a pragmatic approach to cases – and, to be honest, after spending some time in various leadership roles within the organisation, all thoughts of setting up on my own had kind of drifted away.

By this time, I’d also got married and started a family, and it was very soon after my youngest son was born when circumstances changed and the idea of setting up a small animal practice in the village where we lived evolved. It seemed bonkers: two small children, husband working full time with his own practice.

But the thought nagged at the back of my head and, from a market research perspective, I knew it would be a good idea. I’d always fancied the idea of running a small animal practice of my own; doing things the way I wanted to do it; really caring about the pets, people and community. Essentially, developing a practice with the kind of ethos that was important to me.

Still unsure of taking such a big step and setting up, though, the clincher was when my husband said, “well, if you don’t set up here, how will you feel if you have to drive past it every day when someone else does?”

Sometimes, you have to flip the question, from “shall I?” to “what if I don’t?” From that point on, it was a done deal.

Partnering up

One thing I did know is that I didn’t want to do it alone, so I approached someone I knew and had worked with previously to see if they’d be interested in setting up with me. It was someone I liked and respected, would complement my skill set and, in my opinion, would be a great co-director.

From our first meeting, it was clear we both had the same sort of vision for the type of practice we aspired to own and run. We have quite different skill sets, which I think is vital (he does the finances, I do Facebook), and so it just seemed like the right thing to do.

I could write volumes on the process of setting up the practice – there’s so much to cover, from registering a limited company to stocking the shelves ready for the first day. It was a massive learning curve and we learned huge amounts about all sorts of things, but that’s the nuts and bolts of setting up a practice (which hopefully, one day, I’ll get round to writing a manual about), but what’s more important, I think, is the fluffy bits around the outside; the good, bad and ugly bits; the highs and lows of practice ownership.

Autonomy

Job satisfaction and work-life balance are important buzzwords in our profession, and running your own practice can enhance both. Working for yourself gives you the autonomy to set your own agenda and work by your rules. Financially, it is ultimately more rewarding, which you can argue is offset by the big responsibility, but actually, the trials and tribulations of day-to-day management and problem solving are often less stressful than you think, and sorting stuff that practice ownership throws at you can be a bit of buzz.

Particularly when my children were small, the flexibility in determining the structure of the day worked really well for me. Fitting the workload around school runs and setting our own rotas meant we would combine a couple of late finishes with some earlier ones that left us free for when children were back from nursery or school. It still works pretty well now, too, although over the years, work patterns have evolved to suit an increasing workload and growing business. But when you’re in charge, it means you can make sure any changes suit you personally, too.

I am very adept at fitting in my life admin in between office work, and reckon I can do a full weekly shop and be back in the practice in less than 40 minutes.

Setting up from scratch meant that we built our own team, and eight years on, many of the original staff are still with us, and are now very valued work colleagues – and also firm friends. Building a practice together is an incredibly rewarding experience for all, and I think that many of our staff who have been with us from the early days feel that the practice is a much theirs as it is mine and Rupert’s.

Community spirit

This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning our customer base. I live and work in the same village – many of our customers are, or have become, friends. I see our clients in the Co-op, I’ve been known to carry out a clinical examination in the local pub, and dog walks take ages as I’m regularly stopped to chat. To some, this may sound like the ultimate nightmare, but, it’s given me roots, somewhere that I now most definitely call home, and a network of friends and acquaintances that gives me a real sense of where I belong, which does wonders for personal well-being.

I’ve not had people knock on my door (people generally respect my privacy, more so than I initially thought they would), and while I do occasionally get asked for advice when I’m not at work, you reap what you sow, and I’ve had plenty of people help me out when I’ve needed something in return.

Being a vet is part of my identity and a huge part of my life, but at the end of the day, it is just a job. One of the reasons I work as hard as I do is because I have a huge appetite for fun and adventure outside work. Personal fulfilment comes from a mixture of my professional responsibilities, but also life outside.

Go your own way

I’m seeing more and more small independent practices springing up, which thrills me. It’s honestly not as hard to do as you think, and the support and advice I’ve received from fellow members of the profession have helped me out hugely along the way. It’s great to be able to offer advice to others now who are thinking of doing similar.

Lots is changing in our profession, but one thing that won’t is the need for caring practices that are dedicated to providing a good service to the local community.

Practices come in all shapes and sizes now – traditional, mobile, cat-only, even ones that provide only end-of-life services. There really is plenty of opportunity to be the type of vet that you want to be and to reap the benefits of running your own business, enhancing job satisfaction and financial reward.