Geoff Golovsky

Geoff Golovsky Interview

“There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.”  ~ Robert Lynd

DIEDERIK: Hi, I’m here today with Geoff Golovsky from VetHQ.

Hi Geoff.

GEOFF: Hi Diederik, how’s it going?

DIEDERIK: I’m good. How are you?

GEOFF: Never better.

DIEDERIK: Thanks for taking the time to chat today.

What ignited your passion to be a vet? And at what age did that actually start?

GEOFF: I don’t remember wanting to be anything else Diederik. I think I went through the policeman and fireman stage, and then I was going to be a vet. From about seven or eight, it’s all I ever wanted to do, and my whole time at school, it was all I desired and it was all I focused on.

DIEDERIK: What didn’t teach you at vet school that now that you look back, you think, “Hey, they should have taught us this?”

GEOFF: I think, unfortunately, vet school is all about learning your science and the anatomy, and it completely forgets the fact that vets are and have to be a communicator. If you can’t communicate with your clients, you will not be a successful veterinarian. And so, we went through five years of vet school without any course in communication, and to be honest, it’s very hard to find vets these days who can communicate to the level that I do, and I learned it nowhere near vet school.

DIEDERIK: Where did you learn it? Out of curiosity.

GEOFF: I don’t know. That’s a good question.

I think I’ve always been able to talk to people. I think the school that I went to had a very, very broad focus. It wasn’t academic, in terms of it was encouraging you to do drama and to do sport and do teamwork. I think that to be able to communicate with everybody, my father said to my kids the other night, the best thing that you can do as a child to go and work in retail, so you can learn to communicate with the masses. I’ve never heard him say that before, he’s 75 and I’ve never heard him say that before.

I don’t know where I learnt it. If only I had a retail job, I was scrubbing boats as a kid, but it was something that just came innately to me to be able to communicate with everyone on their terms.

DIEDERIK: And, the other side of that coin. What did they teach you at Uni that has proven in your mind to be incorrect in the big cold hard light of veterinary practice?

GEOFF: I think it goes along the same as what I was just saying, that if they don’t teach you communication and they teach you that it’s all about being a scientist, I think it’s not an education. And, it’s very, very hard to employ the right staff. All my staff, or a lot of my non-veterinary staff, have come from hotels.

It’s about communication, and apparently it’s starting to come on the radar in vet school now, but I don’t believe it’s fully on the radar in Sydney, where I graduated from, but it’s certainly starting to. And so, the concentration on anatomy, the concentration on being able to do surgery and do able to do medicine; you’re never going to be able to do surgery if you can’t convince the client to like you, respect you and trust you.

DIEDERIK: It’s interesting you say that; almost everyone that I’ve interviewed to date has said exactly the same thing in some sort of similar vein.

If we had a new graduate sitting in on a three way Skype call, what are three things that you’d suggest that they do immediately to turbocharge their career?

GEOFF: I think anyone who can get into vet school can do the science and stuff, that’s not what is important. But they have to be open to be taught. I think what they need to do is learn communication. Go and do an acting course, go and do a toastmaster’s course, or just get out into the public. They need to find a veterinarian that they like and trust. And I’m a big believer in these mentor programs that are coming out of the AVA and out of the university. They need to be able to find someone who can communicate, and they need to be able to watch them and learn practical skills. They need to just go and look people in the face and talk to people.

I spent all day yesterday, we were there from 10 until 4 talking to the community at a local event and that’s how you learn how to communicate with people, and if you can do that, then you’ll be able to do it. Get out, stop reading your textbooks and get out into the public somehow.

DIEDERIK: And the other side of that coin, if we have the same new graduate here, what are one or two or three things that they immediately need to stop doing to make sure their career is really going places?

GEOFF: I don’t know if you ever knew Terry Rothwell and the likes of him who taught me at university. They used to say that we were Australia’s finest. We were the best and the most intelligent. And I think vets come out with a bit of an “I’m awesome,” and they need to get back to reality.

What do they need to stop? They need to stop thinking that they are the best thing since sliced bread, and they need to stop—and I bet it’s already gone past Generation Y, but Generation Y, they’re just the pits in terms of thinking that everything can be…put a smiley face at the end of something and it’s suddenly okay. They need to start to be professional, and they need to start to realize that they have to work hard and it just doesn’t lay out easily in front of them.

I think there’s a lot of people in our profession now who want to work two days a week or three days a week, and they don’t want to do afterhours because it’s too hard. You remember the days, I remember the days when we did 80, 90 hour weeks. There was no award to look after them. Obviously, we all adhere to the award today, I adhere to the award really well but it doesn’t’ mean you don’t have to work hard at the times that you are on shift. Keep answering the phones, you don’t get lunch break, you run between lunch. Lunch is sort of put into your mouth at some point in between the rest of the day. And they’ve got to stop realizing, if they want an office job, there’s plenty of office jobs out there. Being a veterinarian is not a 9-5er. It’s not a sit down and have lunch business. I think that they’ve got to realize, they’ve got to get out and experience what practice is all about.

DIEDERIK: If you were starting over again, would you enter the same career path? Would you be a vet?

GEOFF: I’ve been thinking about that question.

I did GAMSAT exams to get into Medicine several years ago, and I was this close to not being a veterinarian because I think the stark reality of the job was very, very different to what I thought it was going to be. I’ve done all my work experience in veterinary practices, as a kid, it was everything that I’ve ever wanted, and it was a big shock to the system once I actually got into practice.

I think now, I probably would have, but I’ve gone up and down and I think that’s probably okay.

I can’t actually answer that question Diederik. I love what I do now. I love every day, but I have oscillated over the last 18 years of my profession.

DIEDERIK: That’s an interesting answer.

GEOFF: I’ll keep a yes/no.

DIEDERIK: And there’s probably a lot of people, I think, saying exactly the same thing. On good days, it’s great to be a vet, and on challenging days, there’s probably other things that they’d prefer to do.

Speaking of challenges, what were the three major challenges that you faced?

GEOFF: I think the harsh reality of the job, and the hours and the expectations really threw me.

My first job was not a very good job, and I struggled. I think now, with communication. Being in touch with mentors and friends, I think probably made it a bit easier, because everyone goes through the same thing. But, I felt very much alone, number one.

When it came to getting to the point of buying my own business, or getting into a partnership, I got screwed twice by respectable colleagues. I worked out that business and friends is a very, very different thing, and business is a very different thing. Money is very different. And so I found that was a real lesson. I learned a lot from that.

And then, starting my own business from scratch, it’s the hardest thing I ever did, and I don’t think I’d ever do it again. I’ll never do it again by myself. When it comes to working seven days a week, 15 hours a day, trying to maintain a relationship, it just ridiculously difficult.

I think that was, and still is a process, but with a staff of 30 now, I have other people who can do that for me, or do a lot of it for me. But, running a business, we were never taught about it at vet school. We were taught how to be a scientist and not a business person.

DIEDERIK: So that leads really nicely into the next question. So, how did you manage to balance family, career, fatherhood, and obviously from what you’re saying at certain stages there, it was difficult, maybe even impossible? But, from an overall perspective, how have you managed it?

GEOFF: An incredibly wonderful wife. We’ve got three kids now. And, at one point, up until about a year ago, we had two nannies to get through the day. Between my wife and I, she was working full time, I was working full time, we’d have to drop the kids to school. One nanny would pick them up, one would be at home with the baby. It was a disaster, and I think our kids suffered from it. I think now, I’m lucky that my wife has decided not to work.

But how do you balance it? At one point, she said, “Would you give up your profession? And I’ll go back to work.” And so, I think it comes to communication.

I see, unfortunately, one of my mates just got divorced, or separated the other day, another veterinarian. And I think that our job is not a 9-5 job, and I think that we need partners who kind of understand it, or we need to be able to have a safety net to…whether it’d be nannies or whatever we have to pay. And something that I’ve learned is that your relationship you have work on it. Like in your business, you have to work on your relationships constantly. The amount of holidays that I spent writing on my computer trying to catch up with my notes and doing work and not spending time with the kids. So, I don’t know, except you need to talk about it. And I do know now that if the kids are around, I don’t work. If I’m at home, my computer is off, which means I do get more behind, but these are the things you have to do.

DIEDERIK: I see you as one of the—excuse the expression—a new breed of successful young practitioners. What’s your definition of success? What does success look like to you?

GEOFF: I had a team training a couple of weeks ago. I said to them, my 15-year goal from today, is to give my kids everything that I had had growing up. So, for me, success, if my kids can experience the same upbringing, because I was pretty lucky in my upbringing, if they can experience the same thing, they I believe I’ve been successful.

My youngest is three, so in 15 years, she’ll be 18, and hopefully she’ll be out the door. And so, that’s what my goal is. So, in my work at the moment is to be able for me to achieve that, and that means holidays with my kids, and that means being able to give them all the wealth of information and knowledge that I was able to have.

So it’s not a business goal.

DIEDERIK: That’s cool. Up to now, what have been your biggest success, two or three successes? And what have been the keys to those successes for you in your mind?

GEOFF: I’ve only been able to achieve what I’ve been able to achieve because of work.

So, I guess, the success of building VetHQ to the level that it is now, in ten years—we’ll celebrate our ten-year birthday in a couple of months’ time—and we are now a five and half vet full time practice, with six and half vets on the team, and a total team of 30. And I started wondering whether or not I should employ one nurse or two nurses when we started ten years ago. So, the success has come from building that business, making it a success.

And how I’ve done that? I think that it’s a saturated market, the small animal business. I never wanted to open up another veterinary hospital because I’m taking away and I’m competing with my neighbours, and there are neighbours within kilometres of each other. But, I’ve done it differently and I’ve become bigger than all of my competitors, or at least almost all of my competitors, purely by listening to my clients and understanding what they require, tailoring what they think they need and what their pets actually need to make sure that they understand that.

And so, if it comes, the biggest success is having two ears and one mouth. Listening twice as much as you talk, and communicating appropriately to make people respect you, like you and want to come back to you.

DIEDERIK: Thank you. Interesting. Every time I talk to you, or have seen you, you’re always up and motivated and focused. What have you found to be the best ways to keep yourself like that?

GEOFF: Alcohol. Is that the right answer?

DIEDERIK: That’s normal for the industry, I think.

GEOFF: That’s right.

So, what have I done? In the last five years, I’ve taken up stand-up paddle surfing, and that’s the only thing that’s kept me sane. I used to sail a lot. I used to sail two or three times a week, but sailing takes three to four hours in and out. I don’t have time anymore. So, water has always been important to me, and so I’ve taken up stand-up paddle surfing. So, in waves and being absolutely hammered and in within an hour, you can do strength exercise and get that bit of water that I need.

So, I think right now, it’s the only thing that’s kept me sane. It has kept me going, and even on a bad day, I could be down at the beach at six o’clock in the morning and have a little bit of a play.

Exercise is really important. I would probably do yoga as well. I started doing a bit of yoga, but time…I’ve asked my yoga teacher whether she will do it at nine o’clock at night, because that’s about the time that I get out that I get to stop, and of course she won’t do that.

I think if you can do some sort of regular exercise, I think it’s important. Or, if you have the self-disciple to meditate or do your own yoga, which I don’t have.

DIEDERIK: If you have the chance to do it again, what would you do differently, if anything?

GEOFF: Probably, nothing, I think. What I’ve done has worked, and I’ve achieved what I’ve needed to achieved. So, no, it’s been right.

DIEDERIK: Again, that leads very nicely into the next question. You’ve achieved a lot, you’ve achieved what you wanted to achieve, set out to achieve, what do you think prevents or holds back most practitioners from achieving what they want to achieve?

GEOFF: I can’t remember the exact words, but I think as an entrepreneur, you have to be prepared to try and fail. And, I think I risked absolutely everything I had.

When we were in London, my wife and I were able to basically get a majority share in our little apartment back here in Sydney, and we risked everything, all of that to setup this business. And so, it was a massive risk. Within six months, I was going to be paying $12,500 rent per month. We didn’t really have a contingency plan.

And so, I think as an entrepreneur, you’ve got to try, you’ve got to expect to fail and hope that you don’t fail. And I think that takes a lot of guts and it’s a special type of person.

DIEDERIK: I think Muhammed Ali said something along the lines of “Winning is just getting up one more time, then you get knocked down.”

GEOFF: Exactly. And I mean, you look at those guys, these elite sports people, and they are the best at it, because they don’t always win. And, they momentously fail, I mean the All Blacks got absolutely hammered by Ireland on the weekend, and that happens, and the true sign is to be able to pick yourself back up again. Or to be there in the first place to get knocked down, you’re a winner anyway if you can do that.

DIEDERIK: Do you think luck or tragedy has had any part in your career in getting you to where you are?

GEOFF: I think it’s terrible, I quoted my father twice today. “You make your own luck,” is what he always said. And so, I think you need a bit of luck and I think you need a lot of talking and you need a lot friends.

I think the person who found the property that I needed to move into, was, I think, one of my colleagues who screwed me over back in the beginning, he did me a massive favour in screwing me over. So, I would potentially be in partnership there in the area that I didn’t want to be in.

And so, I think you need a bit of luck, and you need a lot of get up and go and you need to hope. I haven’t been struck by a lot of tragedy in my life, which I’m very lucky to say. I’m lucky in that respect. 

DIEDERIK: Cool, thank you.

If this new graduate, or someone who’s been out five, six, or seven years was sitting here with us, what would you suggest are two or three pitfalls that they’ve absolutely got to stay away from?

GEOFF: We had a massive problem in the profession, as you know, with mental disease. And I think that it’s really easy to feel alone, and it’s really easy to… I mean one of my brilliant young veterinarians, on Saturday I ended up going in and helping her with surgery, and she felt guilty that she didn’t do surgery early enough, and all of these questions. We can only do the best that we can at the time that we do it. And as long as you do the best, then no one will ever, ever say you didn’t do anything, or you did something wrong, and so we have to try our best.

So, I think it’s really important that everyone realizes that they’re not alone, that there are other people out there, that we all make mistakes and will continue to make mistakes. The thing is, we have to learn from those mistakes.

And, if you’re going to be a good veterinarian, you need to realize how much you know, realize how much you need to know and be able to always continue improving yourself, but also realize you’re not alone. And stay in contact with friends, with family, on Facebook, on our professional websites, so you can post questions and not feel so isolated, because we shouldn’t be isolated. It’s an amazing profession with amazing people, and so it’s really, really important that we stay together and help each other out.

DIEDERIK: You’ve already said you’re passionate about your family, you’re passionate about the water, what else are you passionate about?

GEOFF: I’m passionate about my industry. I joined my first professional committee now, and I want to… There’s a couple of things that I’m going to do for the veterinary profession over the next 15, 20 years. I would like to help the profession and make sure that the “Are you okay…?” concept is used to help get us out of the suicide doldrums that we are potentially facing.

I’m passionate about business and business management, and I want to help other people realize that.

I am a passionate anti-commercialization, anti-corporatization veterinarian. And so, I want to make sure that the individual veterinarian still has a role in veterinary practice in this country. And so, they are the things that I’m going to keep working on for the profession.

And, at home, it’s just about having happy kids, happy thoughtful, logical kids that are content. And so that’s my home life.

And, I need to be near the water, and as long as I can be near the water in good, I’m organizing a family holiday to Vietnam, and it seems like all the places we’re going to are associated with little surf beaches along the way. And finally, everyone realized what I was organizing.

So yeah, I’m going to make sure that I keep myself sane, otherwise, nobody else is staying around me.

DIEDERIK: You’ve got a distinct differentiation between the clinical side of veterinary practice and the business side of veterinary practice. When did you make that distinction?

GEOFF: My business mentor is a man called Shawn McVey from the US. And I was incredibly lucky to have been to introduced to him in my first year of practice—in my first year of my business. And I sat down for two days, and I listened to this man teach business. My wife came along, and she’s in business, business marketing. And so she came along, and she said, “What do you mean you don’t understand this stuff and you don’t know this stuff?” And I was lucky enough to realize, before I made a whole lot of mistakes, that there needed to be a whole background in the practice, and a whole process and a philosophy that needed to drive the business side of things. And I’m still not very good at it, but I understand it, I guess, and I’m progressing towards it more and more.

And I think that if I hadn’t met him at the beginning…he’s come back probably four or five times in the last ten years and talked to my team, and given me the steps. I mean every business, whether it’s a corner store or a veterinary practice, does exactly the same thing. Exactly the same growth cycle, exactly the same stresses, exactly the same factors. I remember talking to the coffee guy about business and how we were going to pay the BAS, because neither of us had the money to pay for it.

I was very lucky early on to be spoken to about what I needed to create to make my veterinary hospital a business, and it’s really important for people to realize that because we think that we can hang up a shingle and be a veterinarian, and it’s not. That’s a very small amount of it.

DIEDERIK: Just two questions to go. What is your vision for the future of the veterinary industry?

GEOFF: I feel that corporatization will never take a real hold in this country. And I feel that the corporates will survive, but they will never be as successful as potentially they could be, because I think that Australia, the Australian public still demand us, or want us to be the small mom and dad business that we are.

And so, I think that we’re going to go through a really interesting cycle over the next five or ten years, where corporatization is going to get bigger and bigger, and then probably it will start to go away. And I think practices like mine… If young veterinarians have get up and go, they should go and open up right next door to a corporate, because I think that it will return them back to a cottage industry.

That’s my goal.

I mean, I don’t know. The pet shops are going to take over, but I just can’t see the vet in the pet shop ever becoming a big deal in this country. But we have to have the courage to fight it. We have to have the courage to give the Australian public an option.

DIEDERIK: Interesting. Thank you. And the last question, it’s an interesting question. In your career, at any stage, was there ever a turning point, a snap point, a line in the sand, the defining moment if you like, when you said enough is enough, I won’t take it anymore? Was there ever any one of those? And if there was, when was it and why was it?

GEOFF: I had a panic attack once. I was at home and the nanny didn’t turn up. I don’t even know why. I think I she was stuck in traffic or there was a stuff up with the time, I was meant to be at work, and I had my son, and there was absolutely nothing I could do. My eldest, he was only a young kid, I wasn’t about to bring him to work with me.

And it was one of those moments where I’ve never experienced anything like that ever again, that I couldn’t work out what to do. I was completely lost in that moment of “How do I get out of this?”

And I think the neighbour helped him. It was a real blur. The nanny eventually came and I think it was even possible that I had all the times wrong and I was meant to be at work at a different time.

But I realized that I couldn’t continue to work at the pace that I was working because it was going to affect me mentally and physically and it was going to affect my family.

And so, it was a real eye opener and a real “Okay, get a grip of yourself. What are you doing? You can’t be out of control,” and I’ve never been out of control ever since. So, yeah, if you talk about the line in the sand, that was the point. Out of control-ness, out of control is no good.

DIEDERIK: That’s really interesting, that last one. So, I think that’s a really great point to finish on. So, Geoff Golovsky, thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

GEOFF: Happy days. Thanks Diederik.

Key Take-Aways

  • Keep exercising, keep fit, get some regular down time, meditate and relax
  • Communication is THE key to having a successful career
  • You are not alone
  • If you want to succeed, then you need to work hard
  • Develop a support network of family, colleagues and mentors

“So many practice owners building their lives around their business when they really should be building their business around their lives.” Diederik Gelderman