Debbie Delahunty

Debbie Delahunty Interview

An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” ~ Martin Buber

DIEDERIK: I’m here today with Debbie Delahunty. Thank you very much for joining us. Let me ask you, what ignited your passion to become a vet and at what age did you make the decision?

DEBBIE: Well Diederik as long as I can remember, my only ambition was for either to be a vet, a zookeeper or an astronaut. And the last one being slightly impractical, and even the second one, the zookeeper, was pretty tough to break into. A vet, I became. And I honestly, for as long as I can remember as a child, I wanted to be a vet or do something with animals. I was always nagging for more pets, trying to get dogs to follow me home, and telling my parents they were strays. So it was just something, the Aussie in me, I think.

DIEDERIK: Just on to university, I’ve got a couple of questions about Uni now. What didn’t they teach you at Uni that you know now retrospectively is absolutely crucial to becoming a good practitioner, or a good practice owner even?

DEBBIE: What they did teach me was how to look for challenging medical cases and how to work those through. But when I first went into practice, I had no idea what a vaccine protocol was, I had no idea about skin allergies and the common things, so the simple things. And I didn’t really realize that so much of my day would be spent doing more routine things and not finding those complex cases. Dental disease, something that takes up a huge proportion of my day now, was very neglected at university.

Hopefully, things are a bit better these days, the new grads coming out, but I think there’s a lot of things that could have been done better.

The other thing, I think, is communication skills. And I don’t think it matters how good of a vet you are, if you can’t communicate well with your clients, then they don’t appreciate your skills. So, I think how to communicate with empathy and that sort of thing, we had no training in how to conduct a consultation effectively, how to explain to clients appropriately what we’re going to do their animals.

And probably the last thing is business understanding, which at the beginning for me wasn’t such a big deal, but once I owned my own practice, I really, really struggled with how little I knew. And, so, I know it’s not practical to teach undergraduate vets how to run a business completely, but giving them some basic understanding, and in particular how an associate vet contributes to the success of the business is something that I think could have been very helpful for me when I first graduated.

DIEDERIK: Thank you.

The other side of that coin. Was there anything that they did teach you that in the hard light of veterinary business has been proven to be incorrect in your mind?

DEBBIE: Well, a number of years ago, I would have said the high standards from the university were impractical for the real world. But, more and more, I’ve come to change my opinion on that, because it used to be a given that what was done at the university couldn’t possibly happen in the real world, it was too expensive and clients wouldn’t pay for that sort of thing. But, I don’t believe that anymore.

We’re in a country town, and we practice a very high standard of care, we’re an ASAVA Accredited hospital. And, yes, we don’t have access to some of the diagnostic equipment that a university has, but many of our clients are very happy to be referred for that.

I really think that I’ve changed my opinion on that and I think that we can do a lot of the things that we were taught at university.

Having said that, I probably haven’t used my pig medicine lectures very much.

DIEDERIK: Nor I. My chook medicine.

You’ve got a new graduate sitting in front of you, fresh out of Uni and they’re just starting to work for you. What are two or three things you’re going to tell them that they’ve got to do immediately in order to turbo charge their career?

DEBBIE: Well, first and foremost, I would say to find a practice which supports the highest standard of quality care. Don’t settle for going somewhere where corners are cut. It doesn’t have to be that way in practice. I think it becomes very demoralizing when you’re constantly forced to devalue what you do. So, find a good practice.

Take responsibility for your own development. So, don’t expect to be hand held the whole way. I do think mentoring is very important. But, the realities of practice are that you can’t have someone by your side the whole time, so I do think you do need to understand your limitations but also don’t be afraid to have a go and just… If you don’t know how to do something, well grab a text book, work it out and, as well as obviously, asking people but sometimes you can’t do that all the time. So, I would say to just make sure that you push your own development yourself.

The third thing is, I would say, go and work in a country practice or a regional practice. You get such, often, a vast range of experience which leads to more opportunities to have a go. I know many times over the years, I’ve given my clients the option of referral for a surgery that I hadn’t done before, and for whatever reason, they may not have been able to get to Melbourne. So, nearly always, they’ve been very happy to let me have a go. And I had been clear with them and explained to them “Look, I haven’t done this before. I don’t know how it’s going to work out,” and yet, they’re willing to let me have that opportunity, and through that, my skills have developed immensely. So I would definitely say to new graduates to not discount regional country practice because you often see a different range of cases that you may not get in a city and you might get a lot more opportunities to do things. And particularly after hours’ work, you get some exciting cases coming in after hours.

DIEDERIK: Hear, hear. I concur.

The other side of that coin as well. Same new graduate, what are two or three things you’re going to tell them to avoid if they want to get ahead in practice really quickly?

DEBBIE: I would definitely avoid joining a practice that doesn’t sit right with your personal values, because I think then, you’re only going to be a square peg in a round whole, so make sure that the practice you join shares the same values that you do. And so, that probably means you have to examine your own values, what’s important to you in your professional life.

I think a mistake I’ve seen some new graduates make over the years is treating nurses and support staff poorly, or with a little bit of condescension. They absolutely deserve respect because they’re professionals. And quite often, they know a lot more than a new graduate does, so make them your friends. Accept the support that they can give, and treat them with respect.

And the third one, I would say, is avoid pretending that you know things you don’t, and don’t be afraid to ask question and don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes, and I think that applies to your fellow workers and even your clients. Honesty is always respected, I feel. So, many times, I’ve told a client “Look, I don’t really know,” or, “I need to spend some time researching that,” and I think, without fail, clients respect that.

DIEDERIK: Thank you.

If you were starting again, would you, in fact, be a vet?

DEBBIE: Absolutely. Having said that, though, there are times in my career when my answer may not have been so empathic. I’ve certainly been through times of burnout and wondering why am I doing this. But, yes, definitely I would be a vet again.

In fact, I really can’t image doing anything else.

DIEDERIK: What were three major challenges that you faced?

DEBBIE: For me, undoubtedly the biggest one was balancing motherhood and the long hours that I needed to work as a practice owner in a practice that was still developing and establishing itself. That was huge, and I think I always thought with that guilt, when we’re not at home with kids. We feel guilty for working. And, when you own a business, when you’re at home with the kids, you feel guilty for not being there running the business. So that was a big one.

And, there certainly have been times where my business has gone through some pretty tough financial times. A lot of it in the early days when we just didn’t know how to manage it properly so there have been some financial challenges.

And, certainly, one big challenge was building our purpose-built hospital, just the whole building process was a challenging time. Trying to keep running a business and manage a building site. Fortunately, my husband took on a lot of that. And now, I can’t believe that I’m crazy enough to be thinking about doing it the second time around.

DIEDERIK: You started that last question with motherhood and career, and that actually is the next question. You alluded to the fact that it was challenging, so how did you end up balancing family and motherhood?

DEBBIE: Well, for me, it definitely was made easier by the fact that my husband was a farmer and was able to be flexible in his working hours. So, if I couldn’t do school pickups, he could, and we were able to work it out between us. A lot of the times, being in the country, once my daughters were at high school, it was just around the corner, they could walk to work if I couldn’t get there to pick them up.

It definitely was a challenge, and there were times that I really resented work for taking me away from my kids. But, as my daughters have grown older, it’s certainly lowered that stress, and even now there are still times when I am frustrated when I have to work on weekend and there’s something that I’d rather be doing with the family. But, I think it is something that…there were many times where I chose to employ more vets than I probably needed just so that I could have more time at home, and so we probably did make some financial sacrifices in that way. We could have pushed the business harder and made more money, but I would not have been happy doing that. That was the compromise we came to.

DIEDERIK: What does success look like to you Deb?

DEBBIE: I’ve always jokingly said that when I can take myself off the after hours’, I will have achieved the highest pinnacle of success, and I still haven’t gotten there quite yet.

But, seriously, there does have to be a financial aspect to success, but for me, that’s not the be and all, but it has to be a level of financial success out of the business, so that I can educate my kids the I want to, I want to be able to travel and just feel financially secure. So that’s one part of it.

But for me, probably the biggest thing is just having what I believe to be a well-run business with a happy team, where we come to work each day and 99% of the time, people are happy to be here and we enjoy what we do, we feel proud of what we do, we’re respected in our community. And that, to me, is just as important, if not, perhaps even more important than the financial success.

DIEDERIK: What do you think is or are your biggest successes to date?

DEBBIE: I would definitely say my team. We have a really great staff, vets, nurses, receptionist, groomers, practice manager, the whole lot. And I’m not saying that everything goes smoothly every day. I mean, we certainly have our ups and down, but they are my biggest asset in the success of the business, and I do think that. We’ve worked to develop a good team, we put a lot of time into training and education of our staff, and I think that’s really paid off.

DIEDERIK: We’ve known each other for a fair while, and I’ve always seen you as being motivated and focused, and obviously you’re not like that every day, but from a general perspective, what are the methods or strategies that you use to keep one’s self motivated and focused?

DEBBIE: I think I mentioned earlier that I definitely have had times of burnout. I’ve learned over the years that I need take some time off, and this is advice I was given by Dr. Jim Stowe who is a Canadian practice consultant. He came in and did some work with us many years ago. I was not taking holidays, I was working long hours, and I was pretty over the whole thing. He said, “Look, you just have to have holidays, even if you don’t go anywhere or do anything, just take time away from the practice. It will survive without you.” And I absolutely did. And so, I think, definitely, knowing my own limitations, knowing that if I keep pushing too hard, I will burn out. The lesson hasn’t always stuck with me, there’s still been occasions where I start to feel a bit burnt out. But I do know that giving myself time away from the practice is really important and I can recharge and stay focused.

And I think the other thing that’s really helped me is my involvement with the AVBA, the Australian Veterinary Business Association, because it was an opportunity for me to get together with people who are doing the same thing that I am, like trying to run a successful veterinary practice. I gained a lot of inspiration from those people, so I think surrounding yourself with other motivated, enthusiastic people really helps as well.

DIEDERIK: Great point. 

If you had the chance to do it all again, is there anything you’d do differently?

DEBBIE: Perhaps if I knew what I was getting into when I bought the business. In the early days, I may not have done that. But now, yes, I’m happy that I own the business, but there were times when it was pretty grim, like I think I’d only been out in practice for three years when I bought the business off my previous employer. Fortunately, my husband was a farmer and had some business skills through running his farm, but I knew nothing. We muddled our way through, and for a while that was fine, but as we kind of grew rapidly, I think we didn’t know how to cope with that growth, and it was really quite challenging. So, we had too many years of not being profitable enough, and that was a struggle in the early days. So I think I’d definitely would have gotten business training and help and learned some management skills much earlier than what I did.

DIEDERIK: You’re in a bit of unique practice, I guess. You’re a country or rural practice, and you started off doing a lot of cattle and sheep work as well as the small animal work. Now, what’s the story behind that. You eventually got rid of the cattle, didn’t you, or gotten rid of the large animal component?

DEBBIE: Yeah. We did. Horsham had quite a bit of a beef cattle industry when I first came here, and that was back in 1988. And, there’s still sheep work, quite a bit of horse, but gradually over the years, the farming industry here change from livestock to cropping more and more and more. So that side of our business was declining and it was actually when Jim Stowe was here during his consultancy that one of his recommendations was for us to cease doing large animal work all together because it was down to a very small percentage of our turnover but it was creating a lot of our challenges and conflicts. So, we were finding it very hard to structure a productive day’s work in a small animal clinic, and then have a vet called out for half a day doing a calving or something like that. And because the workload was quite small, at the time our logic was “Well if we gave it up, that might help. It should become more beneficial or practical for the other practice in town to take on that work and make it more viable.” As it’s turned out, that probably hasn’t been the case because the amount of work in the area has continued to decline. That was part of the thinking at least.

The other struggle that I had, as I think I kind of said earlier, that you need to kind of lead by values, and my values were always to provide high quality. And I was finding it harder and harder to deliver that quality service to our large animal clients because it was hard to employ vets who wanted large animal work when we did such a small amount. And so, we had a lot young vets who just didn’t want to go out and do the large animal work. I couldn’t do it all the time. So, it was not sitting well with me that we weren’t delivering the kind of service that I wanted to deliver. And so, it had never occurred to me to actually just say out, “No, we don’t do it,” until Jim Stowe said “Why not? Send all your clients a letter”, and that’s what we did. It was quite tough because I do enjoy the large animal work, but I just didn’t want to do it all. So, it was a tough emotional decision but it has definitely been the right business decision for us to make. We still do some. We cover emergencies, after hours if they can’t get any other vets in the region, so it’s not like we’ve given it away a hundred percent, but we don’t do it routinely.

DIEDERIK: Do you think that tragedy or luck has played any part in you achieving your success?

DEBBIE: Maybe a little bit of luck, but to be truthful, I think it’s been a lot more hard work and sweat. That’s really been the end result. I think, yes, there had been the fact that my boss was ready to sell when he was and different things like that have worked in our favour. But, really, I think there’s been a lot more blood, sweat and tears, than just luck and tragedy.

DIEDERIK: If you were helping someone else, what pitfalls—and you’ve eluded to a couple already—what pitfalls should they avoid or make sure they avoid?

DEBBIE: I think as a business owner, I would say to avoid not setting your pricing correctly, and I think that was our big mistake, that we were afraid to increase our prices and that proved to be a totally incorrect assumption. But, I would definitely say charge appropriately, charge properly for what you do, and charge fairly, appropriately. And I think probably from just a personal management point of view, take time out away from the practice to give yourself some breathing time and to recharge the batteries, definitely.

DIEDERIK: In a practice perspective, what’s your passion?

DEBBIE: In the practice, my passion is most definitely continuing to raise our standards. If you ask any of my staff, you’ll find I’m a bit of prolific procedure writer. But I find that unless we have processes and things written down, then it’s very easy for Chinese whispers to take over. I might start to by saying, “Well, look, this is how we’re going to do this particular process,” and the next person teaches the next person, then the next person, and somehow, it doesn’t look anything like what it started with. So, we have a lot of written procedures. I can’t say to you that they’re all followed perfectly every single time, but it’s always something to come back to and to make sure that we’re maintaining our standards appropriately. So, I love seeing our quality improve all the time.

DIEDERIK: You’ve got a perspective on the business side of practice versus the clinical side of practice, when did you made that distinction?

DEBBIE: Well, there’s a really clear cut point. In the early 90s, we were going through some pretty tough financial times—actually probably a bit later than early or mid-90s. I had my first daughter and I had taken time out of the practice, we put extra vets on to cover that workload, and we were struggling to pay the wages. It was a fortnight by fortnight situation “Will we have enough to cover the wages?” And I never ever want to go back to those days. Anyway, my husband was doing a lot of the practice management at the time, and we put on one of our receptionists on as a bit of an assistant to him. And they both went and attended an AVA conference where I think it may have been Bernie, and they came back with just like their eyes wide open about practice management. And one of the things they said, “We’ve got to do a 20% across the board pricing increase.” And they fully expected me to jack up and say “No, we can’t do it,” but I had gotten to that point where I thought, “Well, this is not working. What we’re doing, we can’t go on this way.” But we did it, 20%, across the board, and waited for the complaints to come in, not a whisper, truthfully, not a whisper. Our clients didn’t appear to notice. And from that moment on, we started thinking about the practice in a much more business side manner. I then got involved in going along to practice management training, and it really was a turning point.

And, you and I have mentioned this already, the book, the E-Myth, is something that we read, I think it was around that same time. And that was a revelation, too, about not just being a technician in your business, but you needed to take a bigger picture.

Definitely, there was a little turning point.

DIEDERIK: So, that was a turning point, a snap point, a line in the sand, a defining moment. Have there been any others, or was that the one?

DEBBIE: Yeah, there actually was. In one of those periods where I was quite burned out and we were struggling just with balancing the family and the business, and my husband and I said, “Let’s just sell it. Let’s just get out. We’ll do something different.” So we put the practice on the market. We had it valued and were disappointed in the figure that came back to us, and we said, “Oh, anyway. We’ve just had enough. Got to get out.”

So, we had some buyers that were very interested and we came very close to selling, but at the last minute, they pulled out of the deal, and at the time, instead of feeling disappointed like I thought I should have felt, if I truly wanted to sell the practice, I should have been very disappointed when the sale fell through, I actually felt relief, and I thought, “Hang on a minute. What’s this? What’s going on here? And why do I feel relief instead of disappointment?” And I realized then that I didn’t want to give it all away. I did want to still be a vet, and I did still want to own my business, but I was burned out and I hadn’t been taking care and making sure I had time away from work and that sort of thing. I had most definitely taken my eye off the ball with the practice. Our figures weren’t as good as they should have been.

And so, from that point on, I really realized the impact of what burn out can have, and I have been much better at sort of being aware of it. I just made a conscious decision that I would rejuvenate myself. I thought I was bored with doing consultations, the same old same old, and I realized that was just an attitude that I developed. Every client that comes in, for them, this is an important event. They’re bringing their pet into the vet. I could choose to make it a really special interaction between them and me, or I could choose to be bored and not interested anymore, and I realized that I didn’t want to be that person. Like anything I do, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it well. And I have maintained that, ever since that time—I can’t tell you exactly when that was, but it was a lot of years ago. I just decided, “Well, this is what I want to do, and so long as I do take time away and give myself timeout, I can keep doing it for as long as I choose to,” and at this stage I have found it will fit me for a while yet. 

DIEDERIK: And that’s really interesting because that leads us really nicely into the next question, and maybe you’ve already answered it, if so, just say so. As you well know, our industry has a reputation. What do you think has kept you sane?

DEBBIE: I’m glad you think I’m sane.

I do definitely think having a very supportive husband… I could not imagine working the hours that I have at different times if I had to work with a husband who resented my work, who gave me a hard time when I got home. So, I definitely think having a supportive husband.

My daughters are incredibly supportive as well. They’ve always been understanding that I can’t always go to everything they want me to go to, and they’ve been very, very supportive and understanding of my work. So, I think that’s probably number one,

Secondly is having that great team that I mentioned before. There’s nothing worse than coming to work with people you don’t want to be with. Surrounding myself with good people, good, competent and capable people, I think they’re the two big factors that have helped me.

DIEDERIK: What do you consider to be the three drivers to success?

DEBBIE: Never compromising your values, would be number one. And so, therefore, to do that you need to know what’s important to you, what are your values. And, there are many years that I never gave that any thought. As part of my past management training, it’s made me think about those things. But, I now understand that the times I’ve been unhappiest was when my values are being pushed and compromised, when I get the balance wrong and I’m working too many hours and it’s compromising my values of wanting to be home with my kids, that’s when I burn out. So, try not to compromise your values and being honest with clients, and just making sure that you are working in the kind of practice that reflects the person that you are. I think that’s definitely one of the things that I think that has been most important.

Second, I think, is to treat people well, and I think that applies to definitely your staff, of course, but also to your clients. We all have frustrating clients, and we all let off a bit of steam at times. But, they are so important to the survival of your business. if you don’t enjoy your clients, if you don’t enjoy your staff, then it’s going to be a bit of battle, so I think you need to treat people well. Treat them how you would like to be treated.

And I think that third it, and it sounds like corny, these things, but they really are true. When you gave me that question, I put some thought into it. The third one is just keep learning and striving to improve. I think as soon as you think you’ve done it, which is where I got too at that time I mentioned earlier when I was selling the practice, I thought “This is too easy. I just know what I’m doing. It’s not challenging anymore.” How stupid is that? There’s always something to learn, and I think as soon as you start to coast, then you’re going to slip behind, and so continue your education in both businesses but also in your technical work as well. It’s really critical.

So they’re my three things.

DIEDERIK: Thank you.

The last question. What’s your vision for the future of the veterinary industry?

DEBBIE: Look, I have a pretty positive vision for the veterinary industry. I think that it’s a great industry to be in. And when I say that, I’m thinking of the small animal practice because that’s what I do now.

My vision for the large animal practice is a little bit—I really put some thought into what that is going to look like—and I worry about that because I know that my community here finds it very had to get vets to do large animal work and that is a frustration for them, and so that’s why we kind of almost do a bit more than we used to because there’s just no one to do it. So I’m not sure about how that’s going to work in the bigger picture for the large animal.

But, small animal, I think the future’s bright. But, I think what we really need to do is get vets to leave Melbourne. I’m hearing a lot about so many new graduates being produced by all the different vet schools, but yet, we’ve been advertising for a couple of months, and I’ve had two inquiries from vets about job. We’re an ASAVA Accredited Hospital of Excellence and I’m finding it very hard to attract vets that want to look at the position we have on offer.

We’ve have no problem with nurses and so forth because there’s lots of people who would like to work for us here in our community, but it’s a challenge to get vets to come to—well, it’s seems to me, anyway, to leave Melbourne’s borders.

And I would also like to see more men coming back into the industry. I don’t think it’s healthy for a gender imbalance, either way, too many women or too many men in any industry and that certainly seems to have been skewed in the opposite direction to what it was for many years. So I’d like to see a bit more of that gender balance return. And maybe for that to happen, we need to get the whole industry slightly better compensated. I think that has improved. Over the years in my involvement in the AVBA, I think people are generally getting paid better for the work that they do, but there’s still a way to go in terms of what we’re paying our new graduate vets and particularly our support staff. I think veterinary nurses are one of the most underpaid and underappreciated sometimes sectors of the industry.

I think the community needs vets. I think pets are so important to people’s lives these days. I think that there’s a bright future, but I think that we really just do need to manage a few of those little issues that I’ve mentioned.

DIEDERIK: Thank you. That’s a really excellent place to stop. So, Debbie, thank you very much for joining us today.

DEBBIE: Thank you Diederik it’s been a pleasure.

Key Take-Aways

  • It doesn’t matter how good a vet you are, if you can’t communicate well with your clients, then they don’t appreciate your skills
  • You need to live by your values and work in a practice that has your values
  • My passion is most definitely continuing to raise our standards
  • Treat people well, both your clients and your staff – they are what make your practice. Treat them like you’d like to be treated
  • There’s always something to learn, and as soon as you start to coast, then you’re going to slip behind. So ensure you continue your education in both businesses and in your technical work

“As an industry we’re brilliant at getting better patient outcomes, but what we’re really bad at is charging adequately for our time and expertise in achieving those outcomes and understanding how valued and valuable those outcomes are for the pet owner and that they are happy to pay us what we deserve for achieving those outcomes for them.” Diederik Gelderman