Expat vet wouldn't practise anywhere else

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 October, 2003, 12:00am

It was eight years ago when veterinarian Kylie Griffin plucked up the courage to go it alone.

'Most vets want to be an owner or a partner in a practice eventually - or else join a university,' Dr Griffin said.

She had worked for several years as a vet in Australia and Britain before coming to Hong Kong in 1989. By 1995, at the age of 35, she decided if she didn't start her own business now she never would - and The Ark was born.

Originally she was on her own, but she soon hired two other vets who squeezed into the cramped 1,000 square foot premises in St Stephen's Lane, Mid-Levels.

Hailing from Rockhampton, Queensland, Dr Griffin chose Hong Kong to start her business because she liked 'the can-do attitude and the way pets are part of the family here'. As well as helping animals, she likes improving the bond between humans and animals.

It takes a certain kind of personality to make a go of a private veterinary practice, she explains. Vets must be as adept with the owners as their pets. 'If you can't handle people's emotions you end up in a laboratory studying rats'.

'Hong Kong is one of the best places for a vet to work in the world,' she says. 'I get good clients, their feeling towards the animals is good, and you get to do the work that's needed instead of hearing 'I can't afford it'. Hong Kong people expect to pay.'

This reflects the change she has seen in attitudes towards towards pet welfare over the last decade. In 1996 thousands of pets were dumped in the streets when a ban on ownership in public estates came into effect.

She had no idea how hard running her own business would be. At first the banks refused to lend her money. 'They might have if I had had money to put on deposit but most said no because I had no history with them,' she said.

Instead she borrowed money from friends, since repaid with interest.

The Ark was a success from the outset, but a lack of space was a problem. This summer Dr Griffin leased 4,000 square feet in a building near Third Street, Sai Ying Pun. Opened one month ago the new practice is a 24-hour veterinary hospital with all the gizmos the modern vet could wish for. These include consulting rooms, a laboratory, grooming rooms, operating theatre, isolation rooms, x-ray room, a spacious shop and pet boarding facilities.

Veterinarian fees can vary widely and Griffin has deliberately pitched The Ark's pricing toward the upper end. Competition between vets is keen.

'More and more of them are high-throughput, low-cost,' she says. 'The Ark is low-throughput, higher-cost. That way you pay a bit more but there's more time with the vet.'

The economic downturn hasn't deterred customers, but they expect value for money. She says clients know they could pay $250 elsewhere and risk repeat visits if the problem is not solved the first time - and spend $1,000 anyway. The Ark's average consultation fee is $500.

'I think it's cheaper for owners in the long run,' she says, adding that if an animal gets very ill, owners can spend $2,000-$3,000, even up to $5,000. Very few say it is too expensive, but the odd one says they just cannot afford it. If that happens, Dr Griffin always tries to help and, depending on the problem, suggests alternatives such as the SPCA which can be cheaper. 'But when people come here they are expecting to pay. It's like the Matilda hospital, no one goes there and says they haven't enough money,' she said.

If she expected borrowing $2 million to finance her new clinic would be easier after several years of successful operation, she was mistaken.

After six months of form filling and loan rejection from several banks including HSBC, Standard Chartered and Shanghai Commercial Bank, she began to accept that the $2 million she needed for fittings and equipment would have to come from elsewhere.

'The banks' attitude was if I wanted $10 million, no problem, but $2 million was too little. Finding unsecured finance is very hard.'

She was becoming demoralised when her accountant suggested trying a finance company, Tri Lease. They lent her the money - just as well since she had already signed up for the new premises at $28,000 a month.

''It was jumping off the cliff,'' she said , adding that if all else had failed she had savings to cover the rent.

Dr Grffin says before expanding she did a careful study of the market and discovered there was demand for veterinary services that went beyond the standard 9am to 6pm operating hours. She opted for the 24-hour format, largely because it is convenient for clients who work during the day.

Heavy advertising and word of mouth have produced new business.

Approximately 45 per cent of The Ark's monthly operational costs go to wages for 14 staff, comprising Dr Griffin, three other vets, two groomers plus support personnel.

A further 5 per cent goes on the $28,000 monthly rent, with the other 50 per cent going on drugs, loan repayments and reinvestment.

Now her aim is to attract some specialists: surgeons, an ophthalmologist or a feline expert.

Her advice to anyone setting up alone is expect to have little life outside work for six months, slash personal expenses and get a trustworthy accountant.

Her five-year goal is to have a good balance between personal and business life - 'and a bit more time for me'. Longer term she plans to keep improving the practice. 'I'll be carried out of the consulting room into the old people's home,' she said.