SME Stories speaks with veterinarians, Dr Rob Webster and Dr Simon Lemin on how they have grown Animal Emergency Service from 6 staff to 180 employees.

Hello! What’s your background, and what is your business?

Hi, my name is Rob Webster. I am a veterinarian and I specialise in emergency medicine and critical care. My business is developing the discipline of emergency and critical care so that pets receive the care they need when they need it.

We operate out of hours veterinary hospitals and intensive care facilities, but the major driver of my business is developing career paths for veterinarians passionate about this field of medicine and surgery so I can staff the hospitals with competent and enthusiastic staff even in the middle of the night or on XMAS day!

What motivated you to get started with Animal Emergency Service?

I took the typical route from technician to owner. I knew emergency medicine was for me from the first day I tried it as a vet student. I worked an overnight shift for practical experience with an enthusiastic young veterinarian called Simon Lemin who became my business partner 6 years later.

After graduation I worked in the practice, then progressed to management responsibilities, then decided to buy it and approached the board with my colleague Simon who was still working alongside me. We thought we could run the practice better than the current owners, and when they said ‘yes’ we borrowed more than we should from the bank, knuckled down, and went without sleep for about 5 years!

Who is the ideal customer for Animal Emergency Service? Why would they benefit?

People in cities with a population larger than 150k who own small animals and need help for them outside normal business hours.

If you are not passionate about it and driven to do better every day, don’t even bother.

Looking back, how has your business evolved from initial idea to now?

We started with 6 staff and turn-over of $1.2m. Now there are about 180 staff and we turn over $21m. The biggest changes have been in performance of our core functions, and team development.

When we started we were a single suburban after hours vet practice, and we have grown into 5 locations, and practice critical care at a world class level. Our veterinarians now undertake some of the toughest training programs in the world and we are acknowledged widely as experts in providing life support to the sickest patients. We have some of the most highly skilled professionals in our field working at AES.

If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?

If you are not passionate about it and driven to do better every day, don’t even bother.

How do you market Animal Emergency Service to attract new customers?

We market by building awareness amongst veterinarians and potential clients (the pet owners). Veterinary practices may choose to refer their patients to us when they are closed. Our aim in B2B marketing is to be identified as independent, trustworthy experts in emergency medicine and critical care so that veterinarians within 1 hour of location will divert their phones to us when they are closed. We run a primary care vet relationship program build personal relationships with the primary care vets who support us.

We actively engage daytime vets through social contact, professional visits, and providing continuing professional development for them. We undertake to refer their patients back to them after treatment (we don’t operate a practice when primary care veterinarians are open), and leading the profession in EMCC through research, teaching, and providing professional development courses for them.

We mainly market to clients through online mechanisms because apart from finding us after calling their primary veterinarian. Google is the second most likely way we are found. We used to use paid adverts but have moved away from that to using content more effectively to maintain a google rating. Our Facebook and website are actively managed but are designed for displaying content and for clients to browse after they have decided to use the service and want to know more. We use FB to engage previous clients, but there is not a high re-visit rate because we refer every patient back to their primary vet.

Finally, we send monthly newsletters to veterinarians and to previous clients.

What do you attribute your business success to?

Passion, people, and luck!

I worked one shift as an emergency vet student and knew I would do this for the rest of my life. It is a hard job but incredibly fulfilling. You see the sickest vet patients- car accident victims, snake bites, and other horrible situations, and you have to challenge yourself to deal with the situation effectively despite the multitude of other responsibilities you have in the hospital at any one time. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now and every week I see a situation that has never occurred before.

Running the business is twice as challenging as the professional role! I’m driven to do it better, and to teach others to do it in an effective way, and this buzz still keeps me in the zone. I couldn’t devote myself to this extent to something that couldn’t make me laugh and cry throughout one shift!

I have been fortunate to work with some incredible people and their energy is inspiring. Several years ago I recognized that my business had changed as it grew, and is no longer an after-hours vet clinic, but a ‘career home’ for emergency vets and nurses. The business took off as we started focusing more on the people.

Finally, we were very lucky. In previous times every vet did their own after hours calls and could be up all night after an exhausting day. We started our business in a time that the baby boomer generation of vet practice owners was starting to wind back and selling their practices to larger corporates. Vets started to say ‘no’ to working all day, then being up all night as well and we were the beneficiaries of that change. It is now almost impossible to hire veterinarians to do ‘on call’ duty when there is an after-hours facility available, which is the case in most capital cities.

People who do great work with us are very different to ‘typical’ veterinary professionals, and by being true to our principles we have attracted some of the coolest and skillful square peg vets in Australia. This focus on emergency people remains one of the differences between us and other businesses within the sector .

What is unique about your business?

There are three uniques:

We focus purely on emergency medicine, and doing it better each day. While our business competitors are running out of hours general practices, we are challenging ourselves to provide life support capabilities to sick pets, perform complex emergency surgery, and to be able to deliver cutting edge health care at 0200 in the morning.

Rather than run a vet hospital, our business makes a home for emergency vets. We can only do great medicine by finding and developing the people who want to do it the best, and we actively seek out and develop the ‘round pegs’ who take to this branch of medicine and choose it over a 9-5 job. As we train the veterinarians they get more and more freedom to develop protocols, and we encourage additional qualifications at every level.

We remain independent from general practice and specialist practice so that we can do our job with minimal conflict of interest, avoiding competing with any of the primary veterinary clinics who refer to us. We treat patients for the condition they present for, and everything else is handled by the pets primary vet.

LocationsBrisbane, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, West Brisbane and Perth.