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Chris Kelly became CEO of Tropical Vets last year, without a day of veterinary profession experience. Ever since, he has been revolutionising how the Queensland organisation does business. By John Burfitt
At first glance, it might seem Chris Kelly really has no business working in the veterinary profession.
Kelly is not a vet, does not have a medical background, he spent 15 years in the Australian Army, and has since then held government roles in housing and public works, followed by those in the aged care and retirement sector.
Even he admits he was an unlikely candidate when early in 2022 he applied for the CEO position at Tropical Vets, which employs approximately 30 vets in nine practices across northern Queensland.
But the Tropical Vets board quickly snapped him up for the role, and he has since guided a major managerial and structural transformation of the organisation.
In a profession where many vet businesses are struggling due to skills shortages and supply issues, Tropical Vets has gone from strength to strength, including earning an Employer of Choice accreditation from the Australian Veterinary Association.
At the beginning of his tenure, Kelly admits he may not have known a great deal about the workings of a veterinary practice, but he did have extensive experience in business management, leadership growth, mentorship and delivery of services to people from a range of demographics. In 2015, he was part of the Department for International Development team that guided the response to the Ebola virus outbreak in Sierra Leone.
But it was seeing the world of veterinary care through the eyes of his daughter, Townsville vet Dr Taylah Phelps, in the early years of her career after graduation, that gave Kelly a sense of what he could offer the profession.
“From listening to some of her stories I thought I could make a real impact,” he says. “I could see a gap in leadership and management. From what I could tell, vets go through their clinical studies but they have either no, or very little, business modules in their degrees. So when they graduate as skilled practitioners, they then learn by osmosis about how to manage a clinic, and some do it really well while others struggle and then get into trouble. It was recognising this was a repeat pattern that made me decide to pursue work in this area.”
During his 15-year stint in the army, Kelly studied leadership and graduated as an officer at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. He claims the military training he received in that early stage of his career has been foundational in all the work he has done since. In particular, he learnt two lessons that he’s never forgotten: one, to always approach any situation with a contingency plan; the other, to always develop the skills within a team.
“The directors of this company had a number of great ideas, but as a progressive group, they wanted someone external to the profession to provide a fresh lens on how they could move forward,” he recalls.
Within the first few months of taking on the role, Kelly restructured Tropical Vets so that each clinic had a senior vet appointed as manager to oversee the team of practitioners, and an appointed clinic co-ordinator responsible for nursing staff and the support team. This was done to set up a system of mentoring and training, so all staff are provided guidance in their roles and afforded the opportunity for career progression.
“This is about empowering staff members so they feel they are actively involved in the success of the business, but they also feel their own skills are constantly being developed,” he says.
An important part of this program includes staff surveys at the beginning of each year to gauge what the entire team believe should be focused on in the months ahead. The results from those surveys are then discussed among the clinic managers and the clinic coordinators and shaped into new strategies.
“It was quite extraordinary to go through all these brilliant ideas that the people on the frontline of the business knew we needed, such as improved utilisation of nurses, more effective scheduling of vets, a team-based approach to care, facilities’ upgrades, better reminder processes and reducing gaps in our consultation schedules.
“These weren’t ideas the board or I came up with; it was all from the team. So when we came up with clinic plans, the various teams were invited to develop them further and, in the process, you could see people taking ownership of the approach.”
Staff wellbeing has also been high on the agenda with an extensive range of mental health training provided, so each of the Tropical Vet clinics now has a trained mental health first aid officer.
New partnerships were also established, including a triage service that deals with an external provider to handle after-hours calls. “That was important to reduce some of the stress and burden to our vets,” Kelly notes.
But it’s the topic of staff empowerment that he comes back to time and time again as he discusses the business. He believes it is an area that many professions lag behind in.
“People want responsibility and they’ve been screaming out for it,” he says. “Seeing our clinic managers and clinic coordinators stepping up so they are basically running their clinics has been phenomenal to watch. And at some stage in the future if they want to go off and start their own business, they have got the capacity to do so, and hopefully, partner with Tropical Vets to keep our team growing and moving forward.”
At the end of his first year on the job, in December 2022, Tropical Vets completed the AVA’s Employer of Choice (EOC) Accreditation program. The EOC is an intensive auditing process, recognising employers with exceptional standards of staff recruitment, engagement and retention.
At a time when too many practices are struggling to fill their vacancies, Kelly states Tropical Vets has retained its veterinary team across all their clinics.
“Part of that is making sure we’re paying the appropriate amount, so we’ve had a big increase in salaries over recent years as we want to encourage our people to stay and it encourages others to come to work with us,” he says.
With staffing structure now under control, in recent months Kelly has turned his eyes to the real estate side of the business. Of the nine properties in the Tropical Vets group, only two were previously owned and seven leased. Today, Tropical Vets owns eight properties.
This has been part of a longer-term strategy for Tropical Vets to diversify its investments and offer future options to its owners.
“If the directors ever want to get out of the vet game, the properties will be in a completely separate entity and will remain as assets,” he says. “We now have two arms of the group—Tropical Vets Services and Tropical Vets Properties, with a third repro company currently being finalised. The different entities are starting to establish themselves and what we’re trying to do is to diversify the business interests, so that we always have opportunities in the future.”
While the future looks bright for Tropical Vets in a professional landscape where many others are struggling, Kelly believes now is the time for innovation and bold moves. Top of the list, he states, is for the profession to be working more closely together.
“This is the time to think outside the square, so instead of deciding you’ve had enough and want out, think instead about reaching out to others as it might be a perfect opportunity to partner with another vet business and help each other out,” he says.
“One thing that originally impressed me about coming in as an outsider is how tight-knit the veterinary community is. For us to grow and be successful, we need to support each other more. Great things can happen when you reach out, and possibly even greater things when you help out.”