Judy Harbison

Judy Harbison Interview

“The greatest pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too.” ~ Samuel Butler

DIEDERIK: Hi, I am here today with Judy Harbison. So Judy, tell us, what ignited your passion to become a vet and at what age did that occur?

JUDY: Well, I had the blessed upbringing of having a father as a vet with a clinic under our house in Central Queensland. At some point, probably, eight or ten-year age bracket, it would have become a full blown conclusion that I would be the vet in the family. There were three children but, it seemed to fall to me that I would be the one following that path. And I guess, I had a childhood running through vet clinics and noting puppy dog tails on the floor and resecting out puppies from caesareans and things like that, so it was very, very intuitive and just part of what I did and it was never anything that was frightful, in fact, it was always been interesting.   

DIEDERIK: Retrospectively, what didn’t they teach you at vet school that you know now to be absolutely crucial in the real world of veterinary science?

JUDY: Clearly, business skills were not taught in anyway. We had professional studies where we did one or two lectures. In my maiden-middle part of my career, 20-year career now, realizing to seek out mentors, I probably did that unofficially at different times, but I probably could have done that a bit earlier. And also, pursuing the collegial aspect of the veterinary profession, I think that’s something fairly unique to our profession that we should celebrate and exploit, to some degree.

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

JUDY: So, I left a blank on this question. I was struck blank. I guess a lot of the theoretical things, some of the precursor things about having to study physics and some of the subjects we did, I think, were a little bit tangential on to what we really needed. But, in truth, was there a lie about anything? No, I don’t think so. I think you took what you could from it and expanded it on. I know I guess I only treated vet school as a launching pad, it was your ticket to learn so it gave you the fundamentals and it was my responsibility to learn beyond that. 

DIEDERIK: Thank you.

You’ve had, and continue to get, new graduates passing through your practices. So, if one was sitting here with us now, what would you suggest they do immediately to turbocharge their career in practice?

JUDY: Seek out some mentors, both clinical and, if they’re interested in the business side, find some solid mentors, not competitors but mentors.

Immerse themselves in as much hands on practice as they can, and in the early stages of their career, that should be clinical and it should be varied. I would not restrict themselves to small animal even if they think that’s where they’ll end up, I would get a broad experience. Large animal practice lends itself to you having to learn on your feet and make decisions and be responsible.

And then my third point would be to try and find your area of interest. Hopefully, you’re going to immerse yourself in a 40 or 50-year career, so try to find your niche within that. So, it’s a mixed message, it’s to read and learn broadly but also find your area of interest.

DIEDERIK: Interesting. Thank you.

And the other side of that coin, same new graduate, what would you suggest to them that they need to avoid doing if they want to turbocharge their career?

JUDY: Avoid professional isolation. So, putting yourself in a one-man practice in a branch practice where you don’t have any colleagues or mentors would be suicide in my mind.

Also, making sure you’re learning from people who are doing best practice. Don’t put yourself in a scenario where it’s near enough is good enough or you just cut corners. And also, have a look at industries outside of vet, and learn some communications skills. Don’t put yourself in a scenario where you just run to the back of the building and say, “I don’t do people”, because it’s clearly not that profession.

DIEDERIK: No, you’re right, and a lot people have actually said that communication skills are the biggest part of it.

JUDY: Really?


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

JUDY: Absolutely. Not another choice. I would probably overlay that with some business skills which I’ve done myself through an MBA, but I probably… If I was starting over, I would probably bring that in earlier than I had done.

DIEDERIK: What were two or three major challenges that you faced in your career?

JUDY: Firstly, understanding cash flow, not realizing that money in was not always money the bottom line. So, very early days, there were a few moments where it was nail biting close to not being able to pay wages or pay bills. In the very early days, creating a cash flow such that you could pay wages, that was a hurdle that I had to overcome for, probably, the first six years in practice. It took a long time to grow that in the early days.

And then, as I’ve gone on, a major challenge is HR, mostly around managing poor performance and knowing and when to exit the toxic elements that seem to infiltrate at times. Recognizing they’re toxic and being bold enough to move them on.

DIEDERIK: Thank you. Very important all of those.

How did you balance family, motherhood and your veterinary career?

JUDY: So, that’s an ongoing challenge. I’ve got 3 children, 14, 12 and 10, so I’m living the dream right now. The way I run my life is I start my day early and I make time for my children in the afternoon and evening. So, that’s just passion that works for our family, but the challenge of trying to have it all is exhausting at times but, it’s absolutely worth it. So, it’s just about finding the priorities, I think.

DIEDERIK: Thank you.

What does success look like to you?

JUDY: For me, it’s about freedom of choice. I don’t want to be told that I can do this and I can’t do that. I want to have my choice with time, choice with my money, choice with my activity. And so, that’s what success looks like for me, freedom of choice.

DIEDERIK: What have been your biggest successes, either personally or professional, and the keys to those successes?

JUDY: That’s a big, big question. What gives me pride is the balance of family and business. So, whilst it’s a big challenge, it’s also one of those high priorities.

I think my biggest success has been clear about what you’re happy to compromise on, being clear on your priorities and not shifting from that, and I think that’s the key to it, it’s just being dogged about it. And for me, children are first and then business, even though business occupies my every day, it’s all to the extent of my family having a family that’s well balanced.

DIEDERIK: Thank you. It’s interesting, Deb Delahunty, who I talked to yesterday, said almost the exactly the same thing.

JUDY: And I think it’s a handbrake sometimes, particularly for women, that you will not compromise your family but at the same time, if that’s your priority, then that has to be the first decision that other things revolve around.

DIEDERIK: So, you’re always a motivated, focused person. How do you stay like that?

JUDY: I read a lot. I talk to colleagues. I’m just passionate about what we do. I live and breathe it. I think I’m fortunate to have find a profession I love and have find avenues of it that are still absolutely fascinating.

DIEDERIK: So you don’t have to work a single day in your life as it were.

JUDY: So they say. Absolutely.

Sometimes, I actually—this is quite a strange thing—but when employees are clocking off and counting hours and looking it’s 38 hours, I actually feel a freedom around that because I don’t have that restriction. If I want to work Sunday morning at 5AM or Thursday night at 10PM, that’s actually my choice. Nobody is telling me to do that, and I don’t have to do that. Whilst it sounds restrictive, there’s also a certain freedom around that. So, I don’t have any envy of people that are locked in to a 38 hour-week.

DIEDERIK: I agree. I always started for 4:30, 5 o’clock, and people say, “How the heck can you get out of bed to do stuff,” and I say, “I just love it. It’s not a challenge.”

JUDY: That’s right. When you’re thriving on it, it’s what you do.

DIEDERIK: If you had the chance to do it all again, what would you do differently? You said earlier that you’d learn business earlier. Aside from that.

JUDY: I would probably take learnings from other industries as well. I think sometimes, in vet, we can be a bit narrow-focused. It’s a very small industry, but there’s a lot of similarities to other allied health professions, and even human health profession.

So, I think we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to just thinking we have to learn within the veterinary space.

DIEDERIK: That’s a very interesting answer.

You’ve achieved a lot of goals, and there are so many practitioners out there that don’t achieve many at all. What do you think holds them back?

JUDY: Fear of change probably. Fear of failure. Definitely on the clinical level, there’s a fear of failure. Many, particularly new grads, will not have an attempt to do a surgery, whereas, fortunately, when I graduated in the 90s. we were able to. We weren’t given the fear of litigation that probably a lot of them live with now.

And also, I think in the business sense, vets/owners, not understanding leverage, so how to make best use of money, and particularly, other people’s money and particularly, the banks’ money, so understanding that; that probably took me a while. And then, I was fortunate to marry a banker, so that has helped. I have lost the fear of debt. 

DIEDERIK: That’s interesting.

Do you think that tragedy or luck has played any part in you achieving your goals?

JUDY: Neither. I don’t label it either way.

Luck, for me, if we put that in inverted commas, is around a result of consistent effort, and also taking advantage of opportunities when they present. They’ll find an opportunity is there if they’re prepared to look. “The teacher appears when the student is ready,” I think is a catch phrase that I can well relate to.

DIEDERIK: And a lot of luck comes in dressed as hard work.

JUDY: Definitely. It’s at that ‘glass half full, glass empty’, people can see a different situation in a different way. So, I’m fortunate to have a fairly optimistic persona, and I think if that’s lucky, then that’s probably the stroke of luck I was born with.

DIEDERIK: If you were helping someone else, what are you going to suggest to the pitfalls that they need to ensure they avoid?

JUDY: Avoid burn out, find an area that you’re passionate about but, be realistic about your time. I think you need to find areas of interest outside your profession as well so that you’re not feeling that it’s completely swamping you all the time. And, not be a lone ranger, try and debrief with other people, if and when that’s required.

If, for instance, you have a day with three euthanasia, and that’s taxing, then it’s quite okay to talk about that with colleagues or partner or friends or whatever, and I think that’s important.

DIEDERIK: Excellent.

In a clinical perspective, and I mean from a holistic practice perspective, I don’t just mean medicine versus surgery, but from a practice perspective, what are you passionate about?

JUDY: Business development.

DIEDERIK: Business. That’s why I rephrased it. I thought that might be the answer.

JUDY: In the early days, it was definitely surgery, and I guess post-kids, I might drift back to that. But, certainly practice management became my thing, and as we’ve grown and on and on with multiple practices it’s an on-going fascination, what the numbers look like and how you motivate people and how you grow the business is an on-going fascination.

DIEDERIK: When did you make that distinction between the clinical side of practice and the business side, because a lot of people never make that?

JUDY: I think fairly early on. When I bought my first practice and the data base was very crude software where you couldn’t put it in alphabetical order, that lasted about a month. And when I had my family walking around the suburb delivering things by hand, I figured that it was time to buy some software that actually could do what I wanted it to do. So, from that sense, I was an earlier adopter of technology, and it just made sense for me to try and track where the money was going from and how could I grow it. But, it didn’t happen overnight, and I think everybody needs to understand that you have to take some time to let it develop and grow.

DIEDERIK: Thank you. Again, the successful people all make that distinction very early. Interesting. Thank you.

Our industry, as you know, has a ‘reputation’. What is it that’s kept you sane?

JUDY: Good support, keeping up with colleagues and as I’ve mentioned, having a life outside of the practice, ensuring holidays happen, and I’ve been in a fortunate position of not having to do after hours. And particularly in the sans sexes, but as a female with young children, I don’t’ think I could have managed if I had to do after hours. I feel that would be very difficult. And I’ve have some empathy for friends in mixed practice as to how they manage that, it’s a huge conflict for someone to be called out at midnight with young children sleeping at home, how would you do it?

Working in Brisbane, I’ve been fortunate that I think something like six weeks after I bought my first practice, the first emergency centre opened in Brisbane and I may have been the first one to switch my phones straight to them. So, that has certainly been a factor. I watched my father doing his own after hours for many years and I did not want that.

DIEDERIK: I can totally understand.

From a community perspective, what’s the biggest thing that you’ve given back?

JUDY: I feel an obligation to educate the next level of students. So, we host a lot of students from school, from open colleges, from university. We sponsor local events, and of course as every practice does, just willing treatment of wildlife and injured animals, un-homed injured animals; I think are the factors that embed us in the local communities.

DIEDERIK: If someone were approaching you, any vet and not necessarily new graduate, what would you share with them as being the two or three attributes or drivers that they needed to be successful.

JUDY: In a clinical level, my answer would be to trust your gut instinct. If there’s a case that you just can’t sleep on and you knew that something’s not right with it, trust you instinct and keep looking because that is a really strong factor that you’ll develop. That intuitively, you know that something’s not right and it’s important to chase that down until you work it out because I think that’s a good bench mark, that gut instinct.

To go further on a business level, success factors, as I’ve mentioned, learning from mentors within and outside of the veterinary profession. Seeking out people that are positive influences.

And my third factor would be to watch the numbers. You can’t get away from having to watch the numbers, what things are costing and what revenue you’re generating.

DIEDERIK: The future of the veterinary industry, what do you see that being?

JUDY: So, I think we will have community based, but high-end clinics, and that’s probably where I’m trying to move my practice. It’s merging of the GP world with the specialist, and I think there’s a position there that the public is seeking, and we follow behind what the human medicals are doing. I think that’s where I see vets heading.

We’re certainly in a time of transition, at the minute, with corporate ownership. But there’s some pros and cons to that model. I have some concerns when these enterprises are owned by non-vets or managed by non-vets. And I feel in the edian term they will return to the essence of why we’re a veterinary clinic, but it’ll be a more demanding clientele that’s looking for a specialist, just merging up towards the specialist.

DIEDERIK: The last question. During your career, was there ever a turning point, a snap point, a line in the sand, the defining moment for you?

JUDY: For me, I think it was about having my first child. It became apparent that practice management was something that I could do part time whereas clinical work was not going to be as easy. So, I think in 2002I was very heavily pregnant, moving into a newly fitted out clinic and realizing that juggling it was going to be a challenge, then practice management was a realistic option for me.

DIEDERIK: Thank you. That brings us to the end of our question.

Judy, thank you very, very much for your time today. There were some really interesting answers.

JUDY: No trouble.

Key Take-Aways

  • It’s a 40 or 50-year career – find your area of interest and expertise
  • The challenge of trying to have it all is exhausting at times but, it’s absolutely worth it
  • I think sometimes, in vet, we can be a bit narrow-focused. It’s a very small industry, but there’s a lot of similarities with other allied health professions, and even human health profession, we can learn from them
  • I don’t want to be told that I can do this and I can’t do that. I want to choice with my time, my money, my activity. So success to me is freedom of choice
  • ‘Luck’, is around a result of consistent effort, and taking advantage of opportunities when they present.

A veterinary practice seeking long term success can no longer compete based solely on the products and services that it delivers on their own. A practice must be able to define and communicate and live by and for an underlying purpose. Only then will long term success ensue. Diederik Gelderman