Maybe it shouldn't happen to a vet but Andrew Sawyer has grown his practice into a major and thriving business, as Peter Jackson discovers.
ANDREW Sawyer can proudly boast that he has plunged his arm into the rear end of 42,000 cows in two years.
It was, of course, all in the line of duty, performing pregnancy diagnoses on vast herds in Zambia where he was one of the few available vets.
“In the end you were doing it in your sleep, you didn’t think about it,” he says.
Happily for him – and probably the cows – he was no stranger to farm animals, coming as he does from East Yorkshire farming stock himself. He still keeps a flock of sheep.
“I was brought up on a small tenanted farm and always thought I would end up going into farming myself but I got the grades to go to university to study animal medicine and have never managed to get back into farming since,” he says.
Now he is chairman of the Alnorthumbria Veterinary Group, the largest practice in Northumberland and one of the largest in the North East.
We talk in a windowless consulting room in the practice’s equine clinic on the outskirts of Morpeth. On the desk before me is a horse’s skull and on the wall above that an equine dental chart. Andrew Sawyer is a tall, spare man with weather-beaten face and countryman’s woollen tie. His voice is clipped and he is economical with words to the point of terseness.
After he qualified at Bristol University in 1982 he worked for a practice in the Welsh Borders. He stayed there for a year and a half and was then offered a job by a farming company in Zambia.
“I think that was probably my most formative job of all in that I worked in the biggest commercial farming area in Zambia and worked for all the farmers in that area.”
“There was no back-up, no lab work, no-one else, just me,” he says. “It taught me to experiment, to have a go at things. I did all sorts of operations out there which you would never have been able to do here, including single-handedly trying to operate on horse colics with no proper anaesthetic.”
On his first day’s work he had to give the old arm treatment to 350 cows. But it had its compensations.
“It was a very colonial life-style which was really good for a young bachelor. You could go out and do a dairy visit at 6am, then have breakfast, go the next one, stay and have lunch on the next then stay in the evening and play tennis. You could have lived without going home basically,” he recalls.
Two years, however, was enough. Zambia’s economy was fragile and strict exchange controls meant, at one point, that his effective salary was about £2,000 a year. He returned in 1986, although he had made a brief visit to the UK earlier to help with the harvest on the family farm.
He then took jobs around the country from Lanarkshire to the Cotswolds – where he met and married his wife Susie.
In 1989 they moved to the North East and he joined the long-established Hampden Veterinary Centre in Alnwick. A little over a year later Sawyer became a partner and the practice merged with another in Rothbury to become Hampden Simonside. The firm grew steadily, opened a small animal centre in Morpeth and took on another partner.
“At this point there were four partners, all in their 30s and all keen to see it grow. We followed any avenue and took any opportunity that came our way. We prided ourselves in giving a good service to our clientele and put a lot of effort in. You can’t just stand still.”
They went on to merge with a practice in Wooler, Ewing and Gidlow, and became the Northumbria Veterinary Practice.
“That changed the practice considerably. By this stage we were becoming more of a business and were having to think as a business rather than just a little partnership,” he says.
About five years ago Northumbria Veterinary Practice merged with Aln Veterinary Group to create Alnorthumbria. Since then, it has taken on new vets, and undertaken an investment programme, including the refurbishment of the small animal centre in Morpeth and the Wooler surgery, building the equine centre, rebuilding the Wagonway Road clinic in Alnwick and opening an Ashington branch.
Growth has been funded by borrowing and reinvesting. Now the group has about 100 staff, including 29 vets, with surgeries in Wooler, Seahouses, Amble, Alnwick, Rothbury, Ponteland. Morpeth and Ashington.
It has an annual turnover of about £5.5m. Sawyer believes there have been a number of drivers behind the firm’s growth.
In particular, in order to retain talented young vets, the practice has had to provide opportunities for career development.
“Because everyone wants more and more specialisation, the only way to bring on new graduates into the farming veterinary profession is to be of big enough size to be able to teach and find jobs for young graduates to gradually work their way into the system.
“In the Herriot era they could go out and do simple jobs, now farmers do most of those simple jobs themselves, so if you get called out it’s a lot more complicated before you ever start. If you have a bigger practice you can find jobs to get new assistants used to the farmers, used to the methods and gradually bring them on.”
He adds: “More and more expertise is required. You’ve got to be really good at your job to keep ahead of your clients and to keep ahead of the internet. On the small animal side it’s not uncommon to have people coming into the surgeries where they have already looked on the internet, made their own diagnosis and decide what treatment they want. You have to say: ‘Well actually it’s not that condition, it’s something different’.”
On the farming side, the practice places great emphasis on looking at farms as a whole and on advisory work.
“Personally, it’s a failure if I have to go to see a sick animal, the aim is to prevent them being sick and that is a lot more of what my work is involved in – preparing health plans, devising vaccine strategies, preventing introduction of disease. All of those are more important than treating an individual animal. The individual animal you see sick is an insight into what’s going on on the farm and you want to prevent the rest getting it.
But there are clearly limits to his empathy with farmers.
“You have still got to be there to give advice and they want someone who’s efficient, fast, knowledgeable that’s going to give them a really good service.”
And not too expensive I would guess?
He groans. “It drives me nuts, absolutely nuts, particularly this last year or so. It’s interesting – for the first 10 or 15 years of my business life here, that [veterinary fees] was not a big issue, but they [farmers] just seem to have got worse and worse. In this last two years the livestock side of farming, apart maybe from dairy, has had a really good time and yet they have never moaned more.”
In 2000 the frustrations of the job got to him.
“In the spring of 2000 farming was really depressed, the clients were really depressed, everyone was as miserable as sin. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed work. Why do vets do it? Most of us are really involved with and enjoy doing the veterinary work and enjoy the contact with the clients. I went home one day and my wife said: ‘I’ve got you a job in New Zealand, are we going?’.”
He adds: “We had this desire to travel and to go and see other things and we had to do it, otherwise it was just a pipedream that was never going to happen. And it was probably the best year we have ever spent.”
He took his sabbatical and with his wife and three daughters he decamped to New Zealand for a year where he worked for a veterinary practice. He returned refreshed and full of ideas for the practice in Northumberland.
I ask him what his ambitions are for the group.
There’s a long pause before he replies. “The business is limited by the way it has grown, in that it has grown up from a number of smaller partnerships. The running of a partnership is quite easy… everyone knows everything that’s going on. To turn a business like that into a limited company where you have to have a management structure and you have to have managers to get on and drive the business is really quite difficult, particularly with people like vets who are fairly independent minded anyway.
“We are still in the process of getting the management structure right and mainly accepting the management structure.”
Alnorthumbria is now a limited company with 12 directors and himself as chairman.
He says: “Personally I think we have to run the company on a company basis because it’s a drain if we all end up doing this management instead of actually doing the work and my drive all the time is to get back to hands on clinical work and less time spent running the business.”
“We have moved quite a long way and it was quite a big change,” he adds. “But you can’t have 12 people sitting in a room each with a veto because nothing happens. It has been a fairly steep learning curve for a lot of us as to how to actually get things to happen. If you look back at the last five years I think it’s fairly impressive that we have done what we have done while still developing that structure. Particularly when, at the start, there was a fair number of directors who did not understand what was involved.
“It’s difficult for people to understand what they are doing because you are busy doing your clinical work and that is still the main driving force of all the vets in the business. The main thing for all the vets in the business is driving clinical excellence, that’s the bit that comes first.”
So there’s some tension between the demands of clinical excellence and running a clinically efficient business, but it’s clear where – for this farmer’s son who still keeps a flock of sheep – his heart lies.
“I think vets in general practice are actually quite bad businessmen. If you were a company you have accountants looking at profit. We have historically been very bad at that because the animals under our care and then the clients come before profit. I think we have been lucky that that has then led to a growing business, but it’s a slow way of growing a business.”