The veterinary industry has seen serious investment over the past two decades. An industry that is still in its growth lifecycle phase, it continues to attract new entrants and investors. But how well do newcomers to the industry understand it and what can they expect? In this article, we will examine the important aspects of the market, the stakeholders within it, and how in some cases, normal business conventions just don’t apply.
1. Understand the veterinary market
Obviously, your view of the veterinary market will depend on where you are investing. At a glance, the veterinary ecosystem consists of pets, pet owners, first opinion and referral veterinary organisations, supporting organisations such as laboratories, crematoria, wholesalers, equipment and pharmaceutical companies, veterinary service organisations such as software providers or business development companies, and finally organisations concerned with compliance and governance such as the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in the UK. However, it is important to look below the surface to see who the big players are and what their strategic behaviour indicates.
Many big players have spent years integrating up and down the veterinary value and supply chains and continue to look for further expansion and consolidation opportunities. Often, this is done quietly under the radar and unless you really delve into ownership, you may not understand just how far reaching your competitors are. It is important to not just make assumptions based on reports or raw data. A holistic view of the industry, with all its interconnecting parts is worth its weight in gold when you’re looking to invest. You need to understand where you sit in the value chain, who your competition is, and what your target audience truly values. Of course, all this information can be difficult to obtain, such is the clandestine nature of industry data. If you can, do your own research and network extensively within the industry to get sub level insights as to how the industry ticks and what the overall sentiment is towards the profession and its future.
2. Understand the veterinary mindset
An area that is often overlooked when investing in the industry is the importance of marrying veterinary and non-veterinary within senior management. Whilst a non-veterinary commercial lens can be extremely valuable, a veterinary lens is needed to navigate the nuances of the veterinary mindset, where corporate cynicism abounds, and core values revolve around patient care over profit. It is important to understand that encouraging what some might consider to be normal commercial behaviour, may actually lead to resistance. So, forecasting rapid growth due to improved financial management or improvements to top and bottom line is unlikely to be as simple as it sounds.
If commercial decisions are to be made, they have to align with veterinary values and evidence a win-win for patient and business. If not, companies risk silent sabotage of their strategy by employees. Alongside patient care, vets value professional reputation, track record, and longevity in the industry, to name but a few criteria for respect. They can get on board with a figurehead who has been there and done it. Whilst this will be evident to varying degrees depending on the country you’re investing in, the core veterinary mindset is the same, so be prepared to speak to these values and priorities in order to be heard.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast, as Peter Drucker famously said. And within a primarily clan-oriented workforce in an emotionally driven industry, never more does this ring true. The critical driver in the industry is job satisfaction. This can be difficult to navigate in a large organisation, particularly one that holds professionals from different generations, but this highlights the critical importance of authentic vision and values work throughout the organisation to create an ethos that all can buy into. Doing this work as a priority upon backing an existing veterinary organisation or investing in a veterinary start up is essential. Quick business wins are relatively easy to achieve whenever one lays a fresh pair of eyes on an organisation, however long-term prosperity lies in getting the cultural foundations right.
3. Understand common organisational structures
A common misconception among investors in the veterinary industry is that there are sound business processes in place. Anecdotal history clearly shows this often to not be the case, with even the largest of corporates experiencing flux and mismanagement, chopping and changing personnel, structure, and direction. Most organisational structures are relatively flat and catered towards patient care or professional excellence. In many cases, organisations in the industry do not prioritise efficient processes, consistency, or an emphasis on client satisfaction, and like most professional service organisations, there is a complex power balance between the professionals who generate income and the bosses. There will obviously be a difference in structure depending on what part of the industry you will be investing in. However, it is important to be aware that a significant proportion of veterinary organisations will have qualified vets in key positions. This once again emphasises the importance of marrying business expertise with industry expertise. Ensuring that you get a detailed stakeholder map of the organisation you’ll be investing in is critical, as this will determine the feasibility of any plans you wish to implement in the short term. You may find that a careful restructure (with culture and capability at its core) is first on the agenda.
4. Understand stakeholder values
In most cases in the veterinary industry, the end user/recipient of veterinary related products or services will be the patient/pet owner. Therefore, it is equally important to understand what pet owners truly value, but especially important to examine the discord of values and priorities between pet owner and vet. Pet owners value seeing the same vet; getting value for money. They do not fully understand varying degrees of expertise or, if they live in the UK, the cost of healthcare. Whilst vets are cynical about corporate intentions, pet owners are already cynical about the expense of veterinary care, often feeling that certain costs are unnecessary (although this is more likely down to poor communication between practice and client).
From a veterinary practice perspective, vets are often caught in the middle between clients and corporate bosses – neither of which they are particularly enamoured with. They will get grief from clients for “ripping them off” at one end, whilst being told to sell more and charge better by bosses at the other. All whilst trying to do what is best by the pet with the budget afforded, and trying to avoid confrontation, complaints, or worse still, being reported to the Royal College. It’s little wonder that there is a recruitment shortage in the industry due to many becoming disillusioned and leaving the profession. As such, the savviest of investors will demand very clear and detailed value propositions for each stakeholder group, so they can see that a business’ potential offerings align to what is truly valued. Potential recipients of investment should be able to clearly narrate how value is delivered and the basis for such.
The veterinary industry remains an attractive proposition for investors. There are plenty of exciting and innovative projects to get involved in. However, if you’re serious about investing in the industry, it pays to get expert insights, not only into the market and how businesses operate, but into the mindset and the cultural fabric of the veterinary profession. Leave no stone unturned! Getting to the core of the industry may just give you the advantage over other external investors.