By Dr Sarah-Jane Molier MRCVS
Whether you are a new graduate just embarking on your career, or a seasoned vet looking for a change, you may well be wondering whether to choose an independent or a corporate practice. Corporate practices were born in 1999, when the legislation restricting practice ownership was relaxed. Non-vets could become practice owners for the first time.
Since then, the corporate sector has expanded rapidly. The 2019 RCVS survey of the profession found that almost half (48%) of respondents worked in independent practices; while two-fifths (40.1%) worked in corporate or joint venture practices- and that was two years ago! So, what are the pros and cons of working for an independent versus a corporate vet practice?
Corporate Vet Practices versus Independent Vet Practices
There are three basic models of corporate vet practice in the U.K: joint ventures, consolidators and large independent groups. Some of the pros and cons will differ, depending on which you are employed by.
Historically, corporates have had a bad reputation with some vets and owners alike. Independents have been portrayed as more patient-centric, with corporates portrayed as placing more emphasis on financial success. Corporates have certainly played a part in the rising cost of veterinary care. Whether or not this is a welcome progression remains personal opinion.
So, are corporates really heartless, or are they driving clinical standards and work-life balance forward? In this article we discuss some pros and cons of life as a vet in a corporate or independent practice.
Pros and cons of working in a corporate practice versus an independent
Naturally these are generalisations; not all of these will apply to every corporate or independent, nor to every practice within them.
– New graduate schemes:
Corporates: Some corporate practices have impressive new graduate support schemes. These are often managed centrally and involve tailored CPD, peer support groups and mentorship. However, some corporates have been criticised for making new graduates feel anxious about their financial performance.
Independents: Some independent practices are more nurturing of new graduates, with less emphasis on financial achievement and more on clinical skills. However, time and resources can be a limiting factor to some independents offering new graduate support.
– Return to work schemes:
Corporates: Some corporates offer schemes for those returning to work after a career break, with tailored CPD and mentorship.
Independents: Again, time and resources can be limiting factors here, but it will depend on the practice.
– Career path:
Corporates: There is potentially more of a career ladder within corporate practice, with several layers of management. There can also be more career advancement opportunities, such as involvement in clinical boards.
Independents: There are potentially partnership opportunities in independent practice, with true autonomy. Many independents also offer some career progression; such as encouraging certificates and offering lead vet roles.
– Salary package:
Corporates: Salaries are often higher in corporate life; alongside benefits such as enhanced pension schemes, paid professional memberships, health insurance and money towards some aspects of healthcare. Corporates also tend to have fixed months for salary reviews as well as automated pay increases, in line with inflation.
Independents: Some independents can match corporate salaries and often reward loyalty. However, they can rarely compete with the package as a whole. Some independents can offer other benefits, such as better holiday allowance or accommodation, instead. Of course, the attraction of a possible partnership in the future is high.
Corporates: In corporate practice you potentially have access to a network of colleagues with different interests, specialties and often to referral vets. A clinical support system.
Independents: Independent practices do not have access to the same size of clinical support network. However, local referral centres often offer free advice and CPD. The Federation of Independent Veterinary Practices (FIVP) offers a way to connect with other independent practices.
– Non-clinical support:
Corporates: Central support is usually available for the non-clinical aspects of practice life; such as HR, GDPR, payroll and marketing. Many vets value this, giving them more time to focus on patient care.
Independents: All non-clinical work is completed in-house or out-sourced at a cost. This often does not impact on associates; with the owner, partners or practice manager taking on these tasks.
– Internal transfer potential:
Corporates: If you are relocating there may be the potential to transfer to a different practice within the company. The benefits of this include ease of finding work, familiarity in the new position and keeping your ‘years of service’.
Independents: By their nature, there is no internal transfer potential, unless to a branch surgery.
– Staff turnover:
Corporates: Staff turnover can be higher in corporate practices, creating less of a ‘family’ feel.
Independents: Staff turnover tends to be lower. In a corporate, clinical directors and managers may change; the owner or partners of an independent are unlikely to (unless they sell).
– Mental well-being and job satisfaction:
Corporates: Some corporates run mental well-being initiatives and CPD. Some are focusing heavily on diversity and inclusion. However, some corporates have been accused of applying too much pressure to meet revenue targets, causing vets to feel pressured into up-selling.Salary is often linked to turnover, meaning vets feel they cannot solely focus on patient care.
Although greater buying power brings greater discounts on drugs, it also generates preferred drugs lists.
Some corporates allow clinical freedom, while in others there are prescriptive protocols in place. This latter point could be a pro or a con, depending on personal preference.
Independents: Potential pros include lower staff turnover, clinical freedom and less financial pressure. Independent practices often play a more active part in the local community, which can have a positive impact on client relations and increase job satisfaction.
There tends to be a shorter chain of command in independent practices, meaning questions are answered faster and suggestions for change can be acted on sooner.
There are usually no buy lists or preferred drugs lists to adhere to. Independent practices are more likely to provide their own out of hours, which can be a downside for some.
Corporates: Within a corporate, management often has access to data on local practices. The obvious benefit here is enabling the management team to monitor financial success and trends.
This benchmarking can also include non-financial data, stimulating discussions and helping to drive best practice.
Independents: Independents do not have access to data pertaining to their rivals. Membership of FIVP may allow for some mutually agreed benchmarking.
Independent and corporate practices each have their own pros and cons; it’s a matter of personal preference and aligning values. Remember, local management style will mean that each individual practice is likely to be slightly different, whichever business model they fall into.
Speaking to current employees and spending time at a practice (such as trial shifts or working there as a locum first) are the best ways to really get a feel for the place.
Speaking to the The Vet Service team will offer you a great insight into different practices, current employees and potentially organising to spend time at the practice (such as trial shifts, finding the latest roles or working as a locum first).