Vets All Natural

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.

 Dr Bruce Syme outside his veterinary clinic in Castlemaine, central Victoria.

Dr Bruce Syme outside his veterinary clinic in Castlemaine, central Victoria.

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.

http://healthypetsvc.com.au/

https://vetsallnatural.com.au/


KERRY ANDERSON: Founder of Operation Next Gen and author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/about/

Quilt Station

 As a small rural business, Quilt Station has given Margaret Mew amazing opportunities.

As a small rural business, Quilt Station has given Margaret Mew amazing opportunities.

Margaret Mew can’t remember a time when she hasn’t made ‘fine little things.’ As a teenager she made her own clothes, then she sewed and knitted for her children … as mothers often used to do. Then, in 1992, she went to a patchwork class and her world dramatically changed. Today, thanks to her incredible work captured in her stunning book, Quilts from the Colonies, Margaret and her Elphinstone based business, Quilt Station, are recognised across the world by quilters.

Why patchwork I ask? Margaret barely pauses to answer. ‘I loved that it had unlimited possibilities of pattern, of colour and prints of fabric,’ she explains. And over twenty years later it appears that she is still mesmerised. ‘Fabric to me is the motivation every day. It still excites me sewing two pieces of fabric together and see how they look.’

Like all artisans Margaret has dedicated years to learning her craft and the journey has been an interesting one. With her newfound passion fuelled by continuing patchwork classes and as a founding member of Goldfields Quilters; she started working part-time at a patchwork shop in Castlemaine. ‘Some days I just got paid in fabric,’ she admits with a wry smile. She then started taking inhouse classes at the shop which helped attract more buyers of fabric much to the owner’s delight.

After a ten-year ‘apprenticeship’ in quilting Margaret also started producing her own patterns, with an emphasis on traditional antique American styles that she particularly loves, selling them inhouse and through the shop’s website. In what can be quite a long process, she begins by making the quilt, then works out all the technical instructions and produces it as a physical pattern for other quilters to purchase. ‘In the early days I literally drew the diagrams with handwritten instructions and photocopied them,’ she explains. ‘The early ones looked pretty basic but slowly and surely I’ve gained more computer skills and now I’m using a graphic designer and producing them with a bit more of an edge.’ Her most recent pattern was printed in full colour and retails for $32.

According to Margaret things first got really exciting around 2010 when a quilting shop in the Netherlands started buying her patterns wholesale. Suddenly Margaret’s name started appearing in European quilting circles and, in 2011, she was contacted by France based magazine and book publisher Quiltmania who were visiting Australia for a Sydney event. Carol the publisher, and Guy their photographer, travelled to Elphinstone, artfully ‘threw’ quilts around Margaret’s house, and took beautiful photographs. Over the next few years Quiltmania featured Margaret in articles and published some of her patterns.

It was clearly time for Margaret to capitalise on this world-wide recognition, only enjoyed by a handful of Australian quilters. She left her part time job and purchased a long arm quilt machine business that she could operate from home. Not only did this unique piece of machinery assist her to finish her own quilts, it enabled her to take on work from hobby quilters in the region, providing a small but steady income. Her first task was to write to the previous owner’s customers introducing herself. Quilt Station in the tiny central Victorian township of Elphinstone was born!

2017 was another significant milestone when Quilt Mania published Quilts from the Colonies by Margaret Mew with text in both English and French. Margaret enjoyed an all-expenses paid trip to France to attend the launch. ‘I sat and signed books for four days followed by a lovely holiday,’ she smiles. She also travelled to the United States, promoting the book and teaching even more obsessed quilters in what is reputedly a $3.7 billion annual industry according to figures published by the International Quilt Market.

Despite this incredible publicity on the world arena, it has still been up to Margaret to generate her own local marketing and publicity to keep a steady flow of income.  With a creative eye she maintains her own website. ‘I am very particular about how everything looks and am constantly changing my website,’ she admits. She is also an avid blogger and has recently embraced Instagram already enjoying a huge following. An online course has encouraged her to update her profile and better connect with potential customers. ‘I don’t think I could have built my business without social media,’ she admits. ‘All quilters are on Instagram which is so good for creatives because they are so visual.’

With experience Margaret is becoming more strategic in converting followers to customers. ‘You need to let people in, connect with them and build a relationship by offering something for free,’ Margaret explains. ‘By guiding them to my blog where I talk more in-depth, they are then on my website with access to my shopping page.

While the long arm quilting machine was a big part of her initial business, it has recently been surpassed by her more favoured activities; speaking and teaching, both of which help promote sales of her book, patterns and templates. A glance at her online calendar reveals that she is a regular guest speaker at guild events across Victoria and interstate, in addition to her own fortnightly inhouse classes. It is something that Margaret clearly enjoys and helps fund another of her passions, overseas travel!  In October 2018 she is off on another quilting adventure spanning the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom.

What surprises me most is that Margaret rarely sells a quilt, instead keeping them for teaching purposes. Quilts are only sold when her cupboards get too full and then, usually to friends and for only a fraction of the cost that it takes to produce them. As an accredited appraiser who volunteers at guild events to enable quilt owners to apply for insurance cover, she clearly understands their value. ‘It’s not unusual for a handmade quilt to be valued at $5,000 or even $8,000,’ she says, ‘but that doesn’t mean that someone will pay that.’

Likewise, Margaret has a large collection of old fabrics that are exceeding storage space and is next year looking at selling them through a booth in the United Kingdom. This is a strategic decision that will help gain new customers for her patterns and teaching classes, not to mention help fund another overseas trip!

One of the biggest challenges of being a home-based business, especially one that grew from a hobby, is friends not understanding that she has work to do. ‘Every day is a work day when you work for yourself,’ acknowledges Margaret who is busy producing new works for patterns and hopefully a second book.

Choosing not to analyse her personal worth and business too in-depth, Margaret is following guild and council standards when she speaks and charges fees that she is comfortable with. She also maintains the books for her husband’s business, Art Station, based in the outbuildings at their home. Although the two businesses are kept separate in an online accounting system, Margaret is grateful that they come under the one partnership requiring only one BAS to be completed for taxation purposes. She is also under no illusion.

‘As a business Quilt Station is not our main source of income,’ Margaret admits, ‘but the bottom line is that I will always make quilts because it’s what I love to do. It also gives me amazing opportunities.’

http://www.quiltstation.com.au/


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

The Broadway Challenge

BY KERRY ANDERSON

   
  
 
  
    
  
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  Partners in Bakery on Broadway: Amanda Gretgrix (Darren absent), Nikki & Adrien Coatsworth, Christine McKerzie (Chris Duffy absent), Ann & Marcus Durie.

Partners in Bakery on Broadway: Amanda Gretgrix (Darren absent), Nikki & Adrien Coatsworth, Christine McKerzie (Chris Duffy absent), Ann & Marcus Durie.

WHAT do farmers, teachers, truck drivers and community leaders have in common?  They’re partners in the newly opened Bakery on Broadway in Wycheproof of course! 

Wycheproof on the Calder Highway is a close knit agricultural community with a population of 789 and a strong volunteer component that works hard to support itself.   

Social events to bring the community together are immensely popular and it was on the day of the 2013 Wycheproof Cup that Amanda Gretgrix mentioned in conversation that it would be great for the community if it had a bakery.  At the time Amanda was President of Wyche Vision which is kind of a Progress Association. 

School teacher Chris Duffy, to whom Amanda's comment was directed, readily agreed, as did others.  In fact the conversation progressed so quickly that four local couples committed to the finance and purchased a building within a month just before Christmas!

Chatting with the partners more than two years after this momentous decision, it soon becomes obvious that purchasing the building was the easy part.  One of the advantages of rural real estate is that it is far cheaper to purchase than in the city, however, despite their best intentions, the bakery didn’t open its doors until Easter, 2016.

Now that Bakery on Broadway is now open and thriving I wonder what they have learnt along the way.

“So many people kept asking us ‘Why the delay?’” admits Ann.  “It was very frustrating for us all.”

Working on a set budget, the partners undertook as much of the work themselves as possible on weekends in and around their daily work commitments.  While structurally sound, the 1897 heritage building needed considerable refurbishment to become a modern bakery.

“We cleaned 100 years of dust out of the roof cavity,” recalls Marcus. 

An architect worked with them and local contractors were hired to complete the electrical, plumbing and concreting tasks that were outside their skills set.  

At the end of the day it was modern day regulations that apply to a building changing business purpose that held the project up the most.

“While we had always planned for all abilities access we hadn’t anticipated some of the extra requirements so it took a bit longer to sort that out,” explains Ann.

Amanda points out how wonderful the new access is for their customers.  “On our very first day we had a young boy come into the bakery without assistance.  You don’t realise how difficult it is for many people with mobility issues in rural towns right along the Calder Highway.”

When it came to sourcing equipment a relationship between the Keilor Rotary Club and Wycheproof Township provided an unexpected helping hand.

“David Bourke from the Keilor Rotary Club was wonderful,” says Ann.  “When he heard what we were doing, he found a company in Melbourne that was able to mentor us through the process of setting up a bakery and to purchase the right equipment at the right price.”

Recruiting skilled staff was another challenge requiring lots of networking to find the right people.  The outcome has been extremely positive with a qualified baker relocating from Melbourne to Wycheproof.  His family and a nephew are about to follow.  In addition a trainee pastry chef and barista have been employed through the visa scheme, also moving to rural Victoria in the process.

For the locals it has also been good news.  Not only do they have an exciting new venue for coffee and food, the bakery has created 13 jobs in total with potential for more as the business starts to provide a return on investment and the partners step back. 

When 25 year old Cobie presented for an interview she had no idea that she was going to be offered the position of manager.

 25 year old Cobie has been appointed manager of the new Bakery on Broadway.

25 year old Cobie has been appointed manager of the new Bakery on Broadway.

“No staff should have to answer to eight different bosses so we decided it was best to appoint a manager for the Monday to Friday shift,” says Amanda.  “If Cobie tells me to wash the dishes then that is what I do.”

This enterprise has been a real team effort by the partners, each placing their own stamp of ownership on the building, always practical and sometimes creative.  Ann thought that the history was important so wrote a blackboard history for visitors to read.  Nikkie and Adrien created the stunning outdoor furniture utilising old pallets and truck axles.

“We all have our strengths.  Some are working behind the scenes but we’re all putting in,” explains Ann. 

Amanda agrees.  “The men took on the majority of the work in the building phase but now the bakery is open it is my time to help out.”

 Amanda and Ann learning new skills as partners in the bakery.

Amanda and Ann learning new skills as partners in the bakery.

As the business gets established the partners are all hands on in the business working the weekend and early morning shifts as well as taking on specific tasks.  Adrian opens up at 5.00am each morning for the bakers and Marcus cleans each night after closing.  Freight is taken care of by Darren the truck owner-driver.  Nikkie makes slices and Chris (aka Duffy) does the daily float.  Ann liaises with the accountant while Amanda looks after social media promotion.  Christine, Principal of Wycheproof P-12 College by day, picks up any number of tasks out of school hours.

As in any small business, extended family members have been recruited to assist wherever possible including design of the business logo by Maddy, the daughter of Marcus and Ann.  During the school holidays everyone took turns at trialing and developing recipes for sausage rolls and pasties.

Thanks to Amanda’s Loddon Murray Community Leadership network, the Premier and Minister for Agriculture arrived for coffee and donuts during a mid-April tour of the district to announce drought funding.  “That was phenomenal," she laughs recalling the tweets put out over social media by Minister Jaala Pulford.

Locals are also heavily invested in the new bakery.  The Pastor of Granite Church near Donald has created the legendary ‘Broadway Challenge’ on social media during his regular visits.  “He is eating his way through the pastry cabinet, one item at a time, and giving everyone a laugh in the process,” Amanda explains.

Hmm. Sounds like I have to build in a few more trips up the Calder if I’m going to keep up with the pastor.

So, what have I learnt from my visit to Bakery on Broadway?

Yes, the partners are understandably looking a bit weary. Yes, there has been the odd heated discussion with unexpected delays and eight different personalities.  And yes, most important of all, they have proven that a group of people with a diverse range of skills and a vision to strengthen their community can make a start-up business not only achievable but a success. 

PS.  Did I say that they live, breathe and love the grain?  Oh, that's right, they tell us themselves in large sign writing on the wall! 

Congratulations Wycheproof!

KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, philanthropist and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry Anderson is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace opportunities.

www.kerryanderson.com.au