Gary Turnbull

Gary Turnbull Interview

“Every boy should have two things: a dog, and a mother willing to let him have one” ~ Anonymous

DIEDERIK: I’m here today with Gary Turnbull.

Hi, Gary.

GARY: Hi, Diederik, how are you?

DIEDERIK: Thanks for joining me.

GARY: My pleasure.

DIEDERIK: What ignited your passion to become a vet, and at what age did that start?

GARY: From probably, an early teenager, I had an interest in the medical sciences. It was just, I think, intrinsic and I was drawn to human medicine, veterinary medicine and dentistry. And I did some work experience as a high school student in all of those areas, and that was when I realized—I was probably around 16 years old, that’s when I realized that that was my calling at that point in time, it was to go down that medical science pathway.

DIEDERIK: You’ve diverted, I guess, into a non-traditional veterinary type of practice. Can you just share a little bit of your journey?

GARY: So, it’s an interesting story. I graduated in 1995. My first job was in a small animal practice in Sydney. The owner of the practice at the time had recently purchased both practices I was working in. And so, she was around for about my first three months to mentor me, and she did, I will say, put a very, very good mentor in place for myself from a clinical perspective. But basically, after about three months of working, I was left to effectively run the practice and she moved away.

So, at the age of 23 and half, I was looking at a veterinary practice from an economic perspective, I was very glued into what the drug and consumable bill looked like, I knew what the electricity bill looked like. I had a fairly sound understanding of the financial realities of veterinary practice within 12 months of starting.

As a result of that, I guess, it lead to me wanting to own my own practice, or fast track me to owning my own practice. So, after two and a half years, and as a result of phone call, a cold call, from the yellow pages, ringing practices in the area that I wanted to move to geographically. Someone, said, “Yup, I’m interested,” and within 12 months or so, my wife who’s also a veterinarian, and I had purchased a practice.

That was about 2000. It was a four-person practice. It was kind of a one and a half vets and two support staff. That grew very, very rapidly. We had done a massive renovation to move to a purpose built ASAVA accredited facility in 2006. We were awarded AVA Hospital of Excellence accreditation in 2007. It was in 2007 that I started to be mentored, you being my first mentor. As my journey continued, I moved to a series of mentors that led me to, I guess, where I am now, which is a particular interest in leadership and management within veterinary practice and similar small business models.

I guess, along the way, also I developed a keen interest in Veterinary Dentistry, and I did a fair amount of continuing education there and developed a fairly sophisticated and highly successful culture around dentistry, small animal dentistry, which has been a huge positive impact financially on our business.

DIEDERIK: You now coach, mentor, train leadership in non-vet as well as in vet, don’t you?

GARY: Correct. We train practice owners and managers and senior people in the veterinary and para-medical professions, because the business models are so similar and the leadership principles that we teach are principle based so they apply across all industries. They apply across all professions.

DIEDERIK: Looking back, what didn’t teach you at vet school that you now know is crucial to being a good practicing veterinarian?

GARY: I think the biggest thing that they didn’t teach us at vet school, and ironically, probably a lot would say the same thing. I went into the veterinary profession because I ultimately wanted to work with animals. What they didn’t teach us is that you spend much more time working with people than you do with animals. And by that, obviously, the team in which you work and then of course the general public. We really had zero, zero training in preparation for dealing with the public. And of course, the work we do is, at times, emotionally charged, it can be very, very challenging from an emotional stand point. So we were really totally under prepared to deal with that.

DIEDERIK: The other side of that coin, what did they teach you at vet school that retrospectively, you now know to be incorrect?

GARY: I think what they teach at vet school is academic medicine, or what I was taught was academic practice. In other words, in a vacuum almost. In an ideal world, this is what we would do, but it’s not an ideal world, it’s the real world. And, we have to work with people, the public’s expectations, their limitations, their emotions. And so, I think at times, what we were taught from a clinical perspective is not necessarily always practically applicable.

I think the other thing, and I hope this is changing, we were not taught from a problem oriented or a problem based approach to practice. We were very much taught topic by topic, which I think has probably been changed now. So, rather than treating or approaching each case early on the way I think we should have, it was more of these huge drop down lists of information. Rather than saying, “Well, I know where to find the information,” well, it’s almost like “I’ve got all of this in my head.”

DIEDERIK: You’ve got a big practice. If you’ve got a new graduate walking into the practice today and you’re sitting down with them. What are three things you’re going to tell him/her that they’ve got to do to get started, to turbo charge themselves immediately?

GARY: I think the three things they’ve got to do, number one, they need to change their communication. Because they’ve learned, and often, unconsciously, they’ve learned a new language, which is the medical language. And that’s the language that their colleagues understand and their mentors understand, but it’s not a language that the general public understands.

So, number one, and one of the biggest challenges I see for new graduates is shifting their conversation style down to suiting or projecting in a meaningful way to the lay person. That would-be number one, is to change the language.

Number two would be to get comfortable with the notion that they’re in sales. Because at the end of the day, whether you like it or not, you are selling a diagnosis. You’re selling a diagnostic plan, you’re selling a treatment plan, you’re selling yourself, you’re selling the practice that you’re working for. So, I believe that we are in the world of selling all day, every day, and I think, often, that gets a bad name or bad rep. But, it doesn’t deserve it. Selling is a good thing because all we’re doing is helping people out. We’re simply ethically helping people in need, and that’s a real contribution, so that’s a good thing.

I think the third thing is to value themselves. They’re an expert. They’ve spent five years, dedicated their lives, or more, to becoming an expert. That is highly, highly valuable, and I think the more we can stop thinking about charging based on our time and think about charging based on the value that we add to the client, their family, that is somewhat of a paradigm shift.

DIEDERIK: That’s an interesting way of putting it.

And then, the other side of that coin, what are three things you’re going to tell them to avoid doing to really get started quickly?

GARY: Sure. I think number one, is avoid taking it home.

I think one of the biggest challenges that new graduates face is switching off. At the end of the day, it is a job and we want to have balance in our life and it’s very important when you walk out that door to leave it at work, and then to focus on the other really important things in your life. So that would be number one, is leave work at work.

Number two would be to not buy into other people’s emotions, and by that, I specifically refer to guilt. Because there is very easily a sense of guilt laid upon the clinician by the general public, be it on purpose or otherwise. I like to remind new graduates that we didn’t tell the client to get a pet. We didn’t make the pet sick. So, often, we may feel guilty because we can’t magically fix this patient quickly, within a budget that suits the client, and often that budget is free and they don’t want to spend any money really.

So, don’t take on any kind of guilt. We’re there to help people we should be appreciated and people should be very grateful for what we provide for them. And so, just have that emotional line drawn in the sand.

I think a third one would be to not hold, not keep things in. You’ve got to reach out for help. You learn such a small amount of it at university and that’s five years, and you’ll really learn it on the job. If in doubt, reach out and ask. Be it your mentors at work, colleagues, people from your cohort that are now working, someone that you did some internship work experience with perhaps.

One of the key things is that experienced veterinarians, I truly believe, get a real sense of purpose out of helping their younger colleagues, and there’s a real satisfaction in doing that. So, don’t be afraid to put your hand up and ask for help.

DIEDERIK: Thank you. Very, very nice points.

If you were starting again, would you do the same thing? Would you be a vet?

GARY: Absolutely I would. I have zero regrets. I love the profession. I love the sense of contribution to the community. I love the team that I work with. I love the work that I actually do. If have my time again, I would absolutely do it. I think we vets, we’re really privileged to be able to do what we do.

DIEDERIK: You’ve had some major challenges. What were two or three that you faced?

GARY: I’d say the biggest challenge that we faced was a situation ten or so years ago, where were expanding rapidly. We were about to build a new hospital and expecting additional expansion from that. And, having offered equity partnership to two of our associates. They chose to open their own practice about a kilometre down the road from where we were situated. They opened their doors right as the excavators moved in and started demolishing our site. That, without doubt was the most challenging experience on a range of levels. There was a real, I guess, emotional component to that, as well as a financial one as well.

The positive out of that was that I feel so resilient now that it wouldn’t matter what happened, it’s all insignificant relatively speaking. And that had a quite an impact on our business, but we survived and I find myself in the situation I’m in now where I couldn’t be happier. So, it was another really good lesson learned.

I’d say the second one would be raising a young family whilst working long hours, and being fairly deeply committed financially to a new business. I think that’s a very, very tricky scenario to negotiate. To be able to successfully manage a lifetime relationship, be it in marriage or otherwise, but to be able to be there for your life partner and still keep everything afloat at the same time, that was tough. There were times where it’s been quite challenging personally. Now, I’m fortunate in that my wife is also a veterinarian, so she has a good understanding of the commitment and the stresses that go with it. So that was tough.

And I think the final thing personally was when we took on the business. Because we’re in a regional area, there was no support with after hours. There was not a great relationship between the practices, so we were pretty much on call 24/7 for several years, and that was incredibly taxing.

DIEDERIK: Back to what you said about balancing family and career and fatherhood, and that’s actually the next question. How did you and Pricilla make that worked?

GARY: I guess it was by identifying the best ways to grow the business. So, as to put in additional human resources that would free us up to start living our lives without a hundred percent commitment to the business. The order was to build the business financially, build it in terms of the resources by way of the people in there, and that would then allow us to step back.

DIEDERIK: What does success look like to you?

GARY: Success to me is living life on your terms, and by that I mean doing the work that you’re passionate about, doing the work when you want to do it, doing the work that you want to do, having the time to spend on everything else in life that’s important to you and having the financial results to give you the freedom to do all of those things.

I’m very much of a believer that money beyond a certain baseline doesn’t make us happier, but boy oh boy, it takes a lot of stress out of life.

DIEDERIK: So, what were the keys to you creating those successes?

GARY: I think, again, finding the most effective ways to make the practice financially successful, and that was a combination of—and whether the order was right or wrong. It’s probably a point that one could argue—but it was learning how to develop very, very slick systems for marketing, very slick systems for managing the client experience. And then quite separately to that was learning how to lead very effectively, so that it wasn’t just me pushing this thing on my own, it was in fact 20 people doing it together; that we’re all highly engaged, highly aligned, highly motivated and treating it like it was their own business.

DIEDERIK: You’re always motivated, up, focused, how do you manage that? How do you manage to keep that going?

GARY: That’s a really good question. I often ponder this myself. I’m a highly-disciplined individual. I have a high level of self-discipline. I’m a true believer that our most precious resource is our own energy, more so than time. Because if you’ve got time, and you have no energy, then the time is effectively wasted.

So, I guess I look after myself first, from the point of view of I keep myself fit, I’m very wary about my diet. I meditate. I spend time in the morning preparing for each day and just 20 minutes a day to recalibrate and prepare, it can be incredibly powerful. I have continued a fairly dedicated journey of personal development. There’s an awful lot of people out there who are not highly successful and effective in life, and we can all do it, we just got to learn.

I do a lot of reading, a lot of learning, a lot of self-education. And probably then—and I’m not sure the magical answers—but I implement. I don’t just learn stuff; I then actually do it. And I find that’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more you implement, the more success you enjoy, and success breeds success. The more willing, it’s almost like the more you extend yourself outside your comfort zone, the bigger that comfort zone gets. That development becomes addictive.

DIEDERIK: I think that those ideas Gary, would really blow some people away. I think anybody that’s watching this, if they just replay that three, four, five, six, ten time, I think there’s Gold in what you said.

GARY: ‘Pleasure. ‘Pleasure. It certainly works.

DIEDERIK: If you had the chance to do this journey again, would you do anything differently?

GARY: It’s interesting Diederik, I thought long and hard, I really thought long and hard about that question, and ultimately, the answer is no, I wouldn’t.

I’ve made some terrible, terrible mistakes, both personally and professionally, probably more so personally than professionally. I’ve been fortunate enough that none of the mistakes had life changing sequelae or outcomes, which I’m very fortunate and grateful that they didn’t. But the reality is that those biggest mistakes have also been my biggest learnings, and without them, I wouldn’t be who I am and where I am today. So, as much as there’d be parts I’d prefer to avoid, really, they were instrumental in getting me to where I am.

So, no, I’d do it all. I’d have to do it all the same.

DIEDERIK: What do you think holds most… You’ve achieved, you’ve kicked a lot of goals—what holds most people back?

GARY: That magic word, implementation.

I think this is the biggest killer, is I think so many people are so busy in life, they don’t work on their life. At a practice level, practice owners are so busy working in the practice, doing the technical work, which is all important, but they don’t stop and take the time out to work on the business, I think it’s the biggest mistake in practice.

I think personally, it’s the same thing. We get so caught up in the day to day chaos of being pulled in five different directions that few of us actually stop and really look, evaluate “Where am I going? Why am I going there? Do I want to change this trajectory? If I do, how am I going to do that?”

DIEDERIK: I think we both know a lot of those people, don’t we?

GARY: It’s that classic, ‘Go to a conference, get great ideas and hit Monday morning running’, and it just slowly disappears. And we’ve all been guilty of it too.

DIEDERIK: Has luck or tragedy paid any part in you achieving what you’ve done?

GARY: Definitely. I think there’s been some luck by way of that first job that I mentioned. I didn’t take that job to learn business, “Oh, here’s a great opportunity to understand to the profession better”, it’s just the way it worked out. When we took on our practice, it happened to be in an area that was rapidly growing already at the time. That was not even something we took into consideration.

I guess I’ve been lucky enough to be introduced to the right people along the journey. I reflect on being introduced to yourself, the people that you’ve introduced me to. All of these things have been critical in my journey.

For me, fortunately, I couldn’t say that tragedy has played an important role or a critical role in my journey. I’ve been very lucky, I guess in that regard.

DIEDERIK: if you were helping someone else, someone who’s four, five, six years now as a practice owner, what pitfalls are you going to tell them they need to avoid?

GARY: They need to avoid spending all their time working in the business, if they’re a practice owner, I guess. Is this a question specifically for practice owners, or are we talking more about just someone who’s five or six years out?

DIEDERIK: Well, I think a practice owner. I think with your skills and experience. I think it’s worthwhile talking to practice owners.

GARY: Well, for practice, owners, I think number one is you’ve got to work on the business. You must create time and focus to work on it, not just in it. And two, and I think this is just as important, have a mentor. The reality is that your needs will change as the journey continues, but there is always someone out there who knows more about where you want to be than you do, and they will get you there faster. They will illuminate the pathway for you and they’ll be a secure base for you to rely on when you get out of your comfort zone.

I’ve been mentored now for ten years, and I will continue to have a mentor I think until the day I die.

DIEDERIK: Yes, all the greats have mentors, don’t they?

GARY: Yes.

DIEDERIK: What’s your passion?

GARY: My passion? I probably have two passions. My personal passion is my family. I have a wife and three children, and they are the centre of my universe. And it is indeed a privilege and a pleasure to watch them grow and be a mentor to them at times. That would be number one.

My second passion, which relates to my work is helping people. I’m so fortunate that I get to help at different levels. Through my practice, I get to help the pet owner with the stresses that they have that go along with that family member. I get to help grow and develop a team of people that are passionate about our profession, playing a part in their life’s journey. I have some staff that have been with us for 15 years, they’re really like family. It almost sounds like cliché, but they really are like extended family.

And then I get to work with business owners and business managers and just help make their lives a whole lot easier by up skilling them in how to lead and manage others. So that sense of contributing and making a difference in people’s lives is my real passion.

DIEDERIK: You’re aware that our industry has a reputation. What’s kept you sane?

GARY: That’s a really good question.

I think what’s kept me sane is working to keep my life balanced. So, throwing myself whole heartedly into work when I’m there, but also stepping away for significant periods of time and pursue my other pleasures, which is certain sporting and recreational activities, my family as I mentioned, and to travel. And creating space to pursue those things, I think is what’s kept me sane.

If I was working the hours as clinician that I was working 15 years ago, I don’t think I would be sane, I don’t think I’d be doing it now. That would not represent success and enjoyment for me.

DIEDERIK: What’s the biggest think that you’ve given back to your community?

GARY: There’s a couple of different levels, I guess.

I feel like we contribute all day every day to the community in terms of providing a critically needed service, and that’s on one level. I guess on the other level, we get involve in a variety of different projects. We’ve been lifelong supporters of the RSPCA, for example, and we do a lot of work for the RSPCA. I spend a lot of time supporting and helping their mission and vision. There’s a variety of other both animal and human related causes that we support as well both domestically and abroad.

And one of the nice things, I think, about owning a successful business is it creates a financial security that allows you to help give to others that are in great in need at a range of levels.

DIEDERIK: You may have answered this question already, but what do you consider to be three key attributes or key drivers to success for someone?

GARY: I think the key attributes are discipline. Number one is self-discipline. It is a long road. It’s all relative I guess, but success doesn’t come over night. It takes time. I’m a true believer that success is a culmination of a myriad of minor decision that take place day after day after day. And often, you don’t see the benefits of those minor decisions quickly. You see them much further down the track. So I think just being disciplined and sticking to the plan is probably number one.

Number two, focus. Often, we move through life without clear goals. There’s a great saying, “Vague goals lead to vague results”. And I truly believe that. At a business level, an individual level, we’re just not clear on what we want. So if we start with that motion of beginning with the end in mind, let’s look at what does success look like, now I’ll map out the pathway to get there.

So, number one is self-discipline, and number two is focus and clarity around what you want.

I think number three, and this has probably been the hardest one for me and taken the greatest learning, and that is to listen.

For many years, I thought that I had all the best ideas, and I spent a lot more time talking and telling than asking and listening. And the more I questioned and the more I listened, the better the results I get. So, just having the humility to recognize that you don’t have all the answers, and in fact, so often those around you have far better answers than you’ve got, just learn to ask the right questions.

DIEDERIK: I remember you telling me a few times of the awesome ideas that came out of your team in team meetings.

GARY: Absolutely. In my early days, it would be a case of “Sit down, shut up, listen, I’ve got the best ideas and you’ll hi-five me at the end because you’re going to love it”. Let me tell you, that’s changed pretty drastically. I’m much more centred around “Here’s the outcome, and here’s why we want to get here or here’s why I believe we need to go in this direction. Please tell me how we’re going to get there because I don’t have the answers?”

DIEDERIK: Was there, ever for you a turning point, a snap point, a line in the sand, you drew a line and said, “I won’t cop it anymore”?

GARY: There probably wasn’t one single experience or one single moment that I would say “This is it.” It was probably more evolutionary for me and it was a number of steps along the way.

I was always driven to wanting a large successful excellence accredited hospital and so forth. So, it was probably more some two or three realizations along the way, as supposed to one all defining moment.

And a good example of that I would say is for many years when saw the industry and the market place start to change from being able to rely significantly on the sale of merchandizing over the counter products to no longer rely on that income. As the internet developed and the large pet stores develop, we saw a significant loss of income. I spent probably two years with my head in the sand, just fighting that thing with “This can’t be so, who’s going to stop it?” Rather than recognizing that it was reality and it wasn’t going to change and focus my energies on alternative strategies. That was a good example of a big shift in gear.

Changing my routine personally around work to free myself up to spend the time I needed to with my family. They were all big adjustment along the way.

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

GARY: My vision, I guess, would be one where veterinarians are valuing themselves as they should as a profession. Recognizing that there is an incredibly high level of expertise required, there’s an incredibly heavy financial burden to establish successful high quality veterinary practices. They require a labour-intensive skilled, engaged work force and that comes at a hefty price. So, being really comfortable in their own skin to sell what we have and charge appropriately for it without fear or guilt and reap the benefits that go along with that by way of personal financial rewards but also to be able to then reinvest that into the practice so that there’s a win-win. We’re developing our people where we’re investing in better equipment. And I suspect that the continued growth of pet insurance will be integral to that kind of change.

I think if we can be in a situation where we can think more about the clinical job we need to do and less about the money or costs that go around that, because the client doesn’t have to worry either. I’d say that’s where the sweet spot is for the profession in the future.

DIEDERIK: I think that’s a perfect place at which to finish. So, Gary, thank you very much for some brilliant answers. Thank you.

GARY: Thanks Diederik.

Key Take-Aways

  • What they didn’t teach us at University is that you spend much more time working with people (your clients and your team) than you do with animals and we were never prepared for that
  • Do not buy into other people’s emotions, I specifically refer to guilt. Because there is very easily a sense of guilt laid upon the clinician by the general public, be it on purpose or otherwise
  • Get comfortable with the notion that they’re in sales. Because whether you like it or not, you are selling a diagnosis, a diagnostic plan, your selling yourself and you’re selling the practice
  • Don’t hold, don’t keep things in. You’ve got to reach out for help
  • Success to me is living life on your terms, doing the work that you’re passionate about, doing it when you want to do it, doing the work that you want to do, having the time to spend on everything else in life that’s important and having the financial results to give you the freedom to do all of those things

“Is owning a pussy-cat or a puppy-dog a right or a privilege? Yes – it’s a privilege. So then how about having people working for you, a right or a privilege? Yes – again a privilege. So if it’s a privilege to have people working for you – are you then rewarding them with your gift of leadership?” Diederik Gelderman