Twenty-five years ago, Dr Bruce Syme, a young veterinarian fresh out of university, developed a new raw food-based diet in response to the epidemic proportions of skin diseases and allergies presenting in cats and dogs. Determined to take a holistic approach he relocated his pet food business and set up his own practice in central Victoria. Today Vets All Natural products can be found on pet supply shelves in multiple countries.
Catching up with Bruce for a coffee at Guildford on his day off, we reminisced about how much has changed since 1999 when I drove out into the bush to interview him the first time. Having just moved from Melbourne to start his own practice in a more receptive community, he had rented rooms behind a dog kennel business at Muckleford, a rural community between Castlemaine and Maldon. It was quite a challenging mud map I had to draw for the photographer to find him later that week with a creek crossing being the major landmark.
I remember writing that Bruce was ‘a new breed of vet with a passion.’ His focus was on keeping pets healthy instead of treating the disease. That hasn’t changed but much else has. For a start we are both older and wiser, the single vet practice has grown significantly, and there are now many more competitor brands on the shelves of retail outlets emulating the Vets All Natural products.
‘I started on a wing and a prayer, just flying by the seat of my pants,’ Bruce admits reflecting on both his practice and pet food manufacturing business. ‘Things just grew and grew.’
Two years after his move to central Victoria, he was able to buy out an existing practice in nearby Castlemaine and farewell his remote location. As his pet-food business gained traction he also built a shed and rented a second one. ‘It was quite rapid growth. I took on another vet and the head nurse as partners and we employed another full-time vet and support staff. I had to focus on the practice and relied on employees to look after the food manufacturing.’
When it came to finances, in the early days Bruce admits that he was a novice. ‘I wasn’t financially motivated. If there was money in the bank I thought that things were going good.’ His sounding board was a best friend who had studied commerce. As a young vet still with a student debt, the banks weren’t interested when he first approached them to set up his own business. His father provided a loan which Bruce is quick to clarify has been repaid including interest.
Bruce surmises that there were three trigger points that forced him to study his business finances more closely.
Starting a family at the same time he bought the Castlemaine practice in 2000 was the first trigger point, both bringing with them more financial responsibilities. Second was the realisation that his pet-food manufacturing business was creating 80 percent of his income from a 20 percent output. ‘I started paying more interest then,’ he says. And, lastly taking out a $1 million loan to build a new home for the growing practice with a fully equipped veterinary hospital in 2014.
Bruce admits that the veterinary industry is not as profitable as many would like to think. ‘It’s a rewarding but a tough industry. In comparison to a doctor’s surgery, the overheads are massive. As a clinic we provide everything including two surgical theatres, and all modern equipment including in house blood testing, ultrasound, endoscopy and radiology.’
‘I knew I couldn’t muck around anymore,’ says Bruce who took on a business mentor and coach and signed up for a business management course. While it was important to understand his businesses Bruce also found it frustrating that ‘best practice’ as prescribed by the expert trainers was focussed on getting maximum profit. ‘My ethics are not very profitable,’ he admits. ‘There is this horrible thing called integrity and emotional health.’ While many vets are now refusing to visit properties for large animals because it is not profitable, Bruce believes it is part of their community service and he gets to enjoy the beautiful countryside in the process.
On the bright side, as a result of all the training, he now knows exactly how much it costs to run the practice on an hourly basis and how much he has to earn to cover his debts. And, while it was important for him to remain hands-on in the rebranded as the Healthy Pets Veterinary Clinic, it was equally important for him to nurture the more lucrative Vets All Natural business and reassess his role in it.
‘It’s all about effort and return. I started analysing the retail pet market around the time of the big corporate mergers and realised that it was important to get involved with the franchises. We started by getting our products into 15 stores through one franchise and now it is 120 stores.’
When it came to marketing Bruce sponsored many cat and dog shows and, in the early days, spent a good deal of time on the lecture circuit, talking to fellow vets, animal breeders and owners. ‘We targeted the key influencers and developed some core believers,’ he explains, and it worked beautifully. He recalls that once a dog owner drove all the way to the Castlemaine practice from Melbourne after a passer-by noticed her dog scratching and recommended that they google Vets All Natural and go see Dr Bruce Syme!
The irony of being successful is that your competitors quickly follow. ‘For the first 15 years of my business I spent more time convincing people that raw food is an option; now it is about which brand is best,’ says Bruce. All along he has paid attention to what customers need. Handling raw meat on its own was problematic so a line of dry grain mix products was introduced. New styles of packaging including a peel and serve option also helped keep Vets All Natural ahead of its competitors.
The dilemma of any business owner and parent is getting the right work-life balance, and on reflection Bruce suspects that he could have done better. Developing new product lines also required big investment.
As a result, Vets All Natural has changed significantly as a business. It is now a company with shareholders and operates from a head office in St Kilda Road Melbourne under the guidance of a General Manager. Manufacturing is outsourced to three other businesses leaving the company to manage warehousing and distribution. ‘Brand and intellectual property are our biggest assets,’ Bruce says. ‘We distribute nationwide and overseas to Japan and Singapore. Currently we are going into China with a massive deal; clean and green products are very big there.’
Surrounding himself with smart people has paid dividends for Bruce who continues to hold the position of Executive Director. ‘I handed over a business with a $1 million annual turnover and they’ve increased it four times over.’
‘One of the hardest things was letting go and trusting other people,’ he admits; however there have been many advantages. ‘I was able to pull back from the marketing which I wasn’t very good at and focus on the science.’ He also drives a lot less miles and can spend three quality days a week in his veterinary practice where it is important that he has a presence.
Finally, Bruce has hit his perfect work-life balance.
Bruce’s top business tips:
- Choose something that you enjoy.
- Do your homework and understand that the environment rapidly changes.
- Don’t become blind to something you are passionate about. If you have a great idea, challenge it and get other people to challenge it as well.
- Get advice from people who know what they are doing.
- Take care of your physical and mental health.