SuncoastVet’s measure of success

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SuncoastVet
Photography: Glenn Hunt

Dr Michael Woodcock’s unorthodox business model has seen SuncoastVet grow to five locations and a specialist centre with happy and fulfilled staff members. By Kerryn Ramsey

One of the biggest issues facing veterinary professionals in Australia is how to create a healthy work-life balance. Long hours and financial issues lead to stress and dissatisfaction with the job. This in turn leads to unhappy workplaces, a high attrition rate and staff shortages. At SuncoastVet on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, this is not a problem.

“I value my private time and that of all the staff,” says founder and owner Dr Michael Woodcock. “We‘re fairly strict that the working day starts at 8am and finishes at 5.30pm. An emergency or late surgery might keep some staff past that time but that’s rare. Lunchbreaks are scheduled and so are prescription requests, recalls and things like that. This system has worked awesomely well for us.”

The day starts with a Definition of Ready (DOR) so everyone is prepared for what’s going to happen throughout the day. Safety messages and basic priorities are shared, followed by praise for achievements from the previous day. Each of SuncoastVet’s five clinics has a clinic coordinator who organises and runs the day. Vets spend their time treating, diagnosing and performing surgery. It’s tightly regimented but ensures everything is complete and everyone is heading home by 5.30pm.

Setting up

After graduating from the University of Queensland in 1993, Dr Woodcock worked with mixed farm and small animal clinics. As his experience grew, he undertook equine work, running 20 dairy herd health programs. He also worked with SeaWorld and Dreamworld where he treated dolphins, polar bears and tigers. Prior to moving to the Sunshine Coast, he had owned practices on the Gold Coast that were all greenfield sites, started from scratch.

“I purchased an existing practice in Nambour in 2016 and that became the first SuncoastVet,” says Dr Woodcock. “A couple of years later, I moved that practice around the corner into a purpose-built facility. Over the next four years, I purchased practices at Caloundra, Marcoola, Battery Hill and Buderim.”

SuncoastVet’s five practices were originally standalone businesses. Each practice had its own culture that Dr Woodcock wanted to unify under one ethos. Up until three years ago, he was running all five practices and didn’t have enough time in the day. To unite the practices and improve his own work-life balance, Dr Woodcock employed Luis Marquez as business manager.

Building culture

Luis Marquez has a solid background in operations management within large animal welfare organisations and R&D facilities. Since 1995, his career has been fueled by a deep passion for animals and those who care for them.

Our strength is our people. We have a customer service team that looks after the front desk so our vets can be vets and our nurses can be nurses. They have the responsibility and make most of the decisions. Our staff have buy-in, and the business offers an attractive lifestyle.

Dr Michael Woodcock, owner, SuncoastVet

“At SuncoastVet, we want our staff to have a common goal and a unified mindset,” says Marquez. “We prioritise staff input and have instituted an annual meeting to identify things they want to start, stop or continue. SuncoastVet is not a top-down organisation. All our staff are important and are fully committed to our business and culture. It’s an attractive place to work and our turnover is low.”

One of the biggest challenges when running a multi-site business is how to bring people together. Dr Woodcock and Marquez wanted to break down the walls and get people interacting. They needed to create a strategy that would make people communicate. Marquez came across a broken washing machine in one of the clinics and had it repurposed as the ‘time travel’ machine.

“Michael and I put together a weekly video to inform staff members about everything that’s happening across SuncoastVet,” says Marquez. “Michael rides the time machine and we make a humorous introduction to get everyone on board. Other staff members also get involved and while the objective is serious, it’s also part of our playful culture. We want an environment where everyone feels safe when talking and sharing.”

People power

In a profession known for having many issues in regard to mental health, playfulness and fun is a common denominator in much of the SuncoastVet business model. SuncoastVet has launched an innovative online video commercial showcasing the transformation of vets and nurses into dolphins, pumas, and otters using cutting-edge CGI (computer-generated imagery). Meet The Team pages on the practice website are Barbie, Harry Potter and Cat in the Hat themed. Suncoast Vet Kids is a fun, informative online site designed for children interested in pets and animal care.

One of the big nights of the year is the black tie SuncoastVet Awards that brings all staff together.

“We’ve gained the support of business partners, and the rewards are not dependent on profit from our business,” says Dr Woodcock. “People need to be nominated to win an award, and the nomination has to include a spiel about why that person or clinic works as one team.”

With everyone dressed to the nines, Dr Woodcock jumps out of the time machine at one point. Meanwhile, a DJ and full dinner complete the event. “With more than 80 staff, it’s a fantastic way to bring everyone together,” said Marquez. “All staff from the different clinics mingle, interact and have a great night. It’s totally social but it also builds bonds that strengthens the culture at SuncoastVet.”

Getting it right

With five locations, a brand-new specialists centre, a growing client base, low turnover, and satisfied staff, SuncoastVet is an unequivocal success. Like all veterinary practices, they are diagnosing, treating, and performing surgery but there’s a joy and playfulness to the business. There’s also a willingness to think outside the box.

“Our strength is our people,” says Dr Woodcock. “We have a customer service team that looks after the front desk so our vets can be vets and our nurses can be nurses. They have the responsibility and make most of the decisions. Our staff have buy-in, and the business offers an attractive lifestyle.”

Marquez’s business background has given him a slightly different viewpoint. “The key to our success is creating a healthy environment for staff and clients,” he says. “I’ve often heard people in the industry say they love animals but hate people. That mindset needs to be changed; you’re not alone and you need to work and interact with many different types of people. Your place of work should not be somewhere you dread going. Staff should enjoy their work, be happy in the environment and have a healthy work-life balance. They need a life outside the profession. Everyone needs an opportunity to have lunch and conversations with colleagues or a lunchtime surf. The human factor behind the title of veterinarian and nurse is vitally important.”

Dr Woodcock and Luis Marquez have put what they believe into the practice and created a successful, profitable and enjoyable business model. While the potential for further expansion is possible, it’s not something Dr Woodcock wishes to pursue.

“The Sunshine Coast is our geographical location and I’m not looking to expand into other areas,” he says. “I need—and want—to be visible every week at our clinics. Five locations are effectively my limit. To continually expand the business doesn’t work when you’re trying to build a culture like ours. Many businesses measure success by revenue, profit and turnover. We measure our success by how our people grow. We encourage them to learn more, expand their experience, and be fully engaged. That’s the measure of success.”

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