Richard Dixon: Vets Now

Vets Now founder Richard Dixon has followed his instincts and learnt from his mistakes to build a nationwide business that turns over £27 million.

“I’d love to say I saw the future and said ‘this is what it should look like’, but that wasn’t the case,” says Richard Dixon, founder and Group Managing Director of Vets Now Ltd. “I was a poor postgraduate student, so I started running a small out-of-hours veterinary service for local practices, and I suddenly realised there was a great opportunity there…”

Richard founded Vets Now Ltd in 2001, a dedicated out-of-hours emergency and critical care service for the clients of over 500 veterinary practices in the UK. Despite being a qualified vet, he readily admits that he didn’t have “the first idea” of how to run a business. But what he did have was the drive needed to recognise a gap in the market and to act on it.

“I am probably not someone who is naturally suited to being told what to do day in, day out,” says Richard. “And I liked the freedom that came from being a decision-maker. I also realised that if you get it right you get a pat on the back, and if you get it wrong there’s no one to blame but yourself: I liked that independence and freedom.”

Taking a gamble

This drive has seen Richard build a business that employs over 450 permanent staff and has an annual turnover of £27 million. Vets Now has also won a number of awards including the CBI/Real Business Young Company of the Year. But Richard took a gamble to achieve this success, selling his flat to fund the new venture. “I’d made some money on my flat so I thought, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ I’ll sell it, lose the money and have to get a job. Better that than spend the rest of my days saying ‘oh, I wish I’d tried…’”

The money from the flat sale was essential in getting the business off the ground, as Richard didn’t have proper growth projections going forward. “I was doing a lot of it on instinct,” he says. “We now know very well how to predict case-loads and we know what the model looks like, but at that point we didn’t know what the variables were. My original goal was simply getting enough cases to break even.”

Richard spoke to veterinary practices in the area and persuaded them to sign-up to the service. He also secured premises and created a comprehensive project schedule counting down to launch day. “Now I know there’s a name for those things: Gantt charts.”

A costly lesson

Richard says that running his business continues to be a learning curve. One big and costly lesson in particular was the failure of his fleet of pet ambulances, an initiative that he set up as a limited company within the Vets Now group. He thought the service would complement the business, but he admits his slightly gung-ho attitude was wrong. “I created the business on a spreadsheet proving to myself why it was a great idea and I invested in it far too heavily and too quickly, meaning big fixed costs and no real understanding of the volume and demand.”

He adds that he didn’t communicate the idea well internally, meaning existing staff saw it as a separate entity and didn’t feel involved. Richard had to close the business and make 30 people redundant, losing over £300,000. “You can’t make mistakes like that very often before it all stops,” says Richard. “It makes you realise that you have to continue to earn success.”

It’s Richard’s willingness to learn from such mistakes that has allowed Vets Now to grow stronger. “Now I am much more aware of the need for people to be included in the decision-making,” he says. “The reality is that I can’t make these things work in isolation. I need a team of people.” One of Richard’s skills has been recruiting the right team. “While I was learning how to vaccinate dogs and worm cats, these people were learning the intricacies of marketing or HR or finance. I have built a strong team around me, and the ability to delegate to them – and the willingness to do so – has been very important.”

Despite not seeking any business advice until a year after he launched, Richard found resources like Scottish Enterprise and Business Gateway worthwhile. He is now also a member of the Entrepreneurial Exchange and the Young Presidents’ Organisation. “Having somewhere you can go where people will listen and not be judgemental is really valuable,” he says. “You need someone to talk to.”

Going forward, Vets Now has big plans including opening more UK sites and supporting the existing customer-base with an additional suite of business services. “These guys are vets who want to spend their time treating animals but find themselves doing a lot of human resources, health and safety, and all that normal business stuff,” says Richard. “We have got a good infrastructure and a strong team, and if we can support those practices more broadly to make them more successful, it consolidates the relationship we have with them.” Richard will also be exploring opportunities to expand overseas. “If it can be done, I want it to be us doing it.”

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