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Three businesses, two sisters, one vision—Drs Audrey and Alison Shen have embraced their passions and managed to keep a healthy work-life balance. By Kerryn Ramsey
While it’s not uncommon for there to be competition between siblings, twin sister veterinarians Drs Audrey and Alison Shen have always helped each other out. Even when both were studying to become vets at the University of Sydney, they worked together to ensure they would both do well.
This cooperative attitude has served them very well. Since graduating in 2005, they have built a clinic from scratch, started a mobile vet business, taken over the running of a veterinary kids’ camp, and founded a company that designs and sells medical and veterinary scrubs. Being two like-minded high achievers has enabled them to build each of their businesses successfully.
After working in different small animal practices after graduation, they came together in 2007 to buy a building near where they lived in Sydney’s inner west suburb of Five Dock.
“On a whim, we purchased a glass factory and redesigned it into our purpose-built Happy Tails Veterinary Hospital,” says Audrey. “It had three levels that included consulting rooms, boarding for cats and dogs, and the main hospital downstairs.”
“Going straight into practice ownership as new grads forced us to grow up quickly,” adds Alison. “We learned the ropes about how to be a vet and how to run a business. Even though we made some mistakes, the practice was very successful.”
Nine years later, confident in their veterinary skills and business acumen, the twins felt it was time for a change. In response to a lot of demand for mobile vet services, they considered starting a mobile business. The only problem was that they were unhappy with how typical mobile vet services were being run.
“It all seemed a bit slapdash with vets carrying minimal medication and trying to guess what they would need,” says Audrey. “If the client revealed additional problems, the vet would have to return another time with the appropriate medicines.”
Hitting the road
Drs Shen sat down to design an efficient mobile vet service that was essentially a clinic on wheels. This was a novel idea at the time and a much better business model.
“We designed vans that were mobile consulting rooms with their own pharmacy and lab,” says Alison. “They had oxygen and could be used as ambulance transport. Nearly all procedures could be undertaken except for surgery.”
Drs Shen sold their hospital and since 2016, they’ve run Aussie Mobile Vet. They work with three partner hospitals in Sydney, using a surgery room once a week. When they started, they were both young mums so the mobile business allowed for a solid work-life balance. Today, they are working with a franchiser with three vans covering a large area of Sydney.
“Initially, we thought we would be dealing with older people, people with mobility issues, isolated people and people with multiple or aggressive pets,” says Alison.
“We soon realised that wasn’t our demographic at all,” says Audrey. “The majority of our clients are just working couples and families who are time-poor.”
Setting up camp
Sharing a love of teaching, Alison and Audrey have appeared on Bondi Vet and a kids’ television show called Get Clever. They also work as presenters at Future Vet Kids Camp, a five-day hands-on course for kids aged nine to 16. The sisters bring one of their mobile vans and give talks to the kids. When they had an opportunity to purchase the business in 2019, they jumped at the chance.
“The camp is a family affair now,” says Alison. “Our husbands and kids are involved. We’ve expanded Future Vet Kids Camp into three states and are hoping to add more soon.”
The camps give the kids a taste of what it’s like to be a vet. They attend surgeries, learn how to read a blood panel and help take X-rays and ultrasounds. Older kids are taught how to suture and take blood—though from fake arms and models. The young campers are exposed to all types of animal professions from vets and marine biologists to dog groomers and animal behaviourists.
“We’ve had three or four kids go on to join vet school,” says Audrey. “We celebrate that and use it as inspiration for other up-and-coming vets.”
The third arm of the Shen twins’ veterinary business empire is their company, 21 Scrubs, that launched in 2021. This online store sells fashionable, well-cut scrubs for all types of medical professionals.
“I was sick of scrubs that looked like pyjamas,” says Audrey. “When picking up my daughter from school, all the other mums looked great in their gym wear or nice corporate suits.”
The sisters connected with a friend who works in fashion and over lunch, 21 Scrubs was born. The first order of business was to find a hair-proof, waterproof material that breathed.
“We designed the first ever jumpsuit scrubs, which I love and wear every day,” says Alison. “We no longer feel all saggy and baggy when picking up the kids from school.”
Running three interconnected businesses makes for a very busy life but these dedicated twins enjoy what they do and the challenges they face.
“The three big loves of our lives are our kids, our work and fashion,” says Alison. “We’ve managed to incorporate all three into our businesses.”
Their work-life balance may have taken a bit of a hit recently but the sisters are still looking out for each other, ensuring they don’t become overwhelmed.
“I’m the workaholic,” says Audrey. “Alison’s the glue that brings us all together. We utilise each other’s strengths. While some days may be difficult, overall, we’re in a good place. Basically, we love what we do.”