Ambition of becoming ‘major’ regional player for vet director

IT was four weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 when Tim Harrison received the funding to start the expansion of his veterinary business.

In many ways the timing was fortunate - the financial services sector clamped down on lending immediately afterwards.

Since then, however, the expansion of White Cross Vets, the business his father, Craig, ran as a single practice from 1975, has been slower than Harrison had hoped for but now plans are in place to ramp up the next phase of growth.

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The company, which is headquartered in Guiseley, Leeds, currently has 13 veterinary practices across the North and Midlands but it intends to invest £5m in opening 20 new sites in the next five years.

“We got the funding for the first couple of sites just before the collapse of Lehman brothers but it has been a struggle ever since,” says Harrison. “We would have expanded at a faster pace if the credit was freely available.”

The opportunity to commercialise veterinary care when the law changed in 1999 was the catalyst for growing White Cross into a regional player.

“A lot of practices are old fashioned and very traditional and by applying commercial know-how, there are big gains to be made,” says Harrison. “But that opportunity won’t last forever as the industry adapts and changes so we need to be reasonably quick.”

Expansion of the business will be limited to the North and Midlands, towns and cities within two hours’ drive of its headquarters.

“Our aim is to be a Booths rather than a Tesco,” says Harrison. “We want to be a major regional player with a reputation for care and service that is markedly different from our competitors to give us a financial advantage.”

Harrison, 46, was born in Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire but spent his later childhood in Menston, West Yorkshire, where his father, Craig, bought a 50 per cent stake in White Cross Vets, then called Dalby, Braithwaite & Harrison. He became the sole owner in 1985.

Harrison’s Saturdays were spent helping out at the practice, although he says he was never destined to follow in his father’s veterinary footsteps.

Instead he gained a politics degree from City University London and a masters in economics from the London School of Economics after which he forged a career in human resources and general management.

Harrison returned to the family firm, which had moved to Guiseley and changed its name to White Cross Vets, as general manager in 1995.

In 2001, he co-founded veterinary firm Vets4Pets with his father and Peter Watson, former managing director of Vision Express. The company was bought last year by Pets at Home for around £40m.

In 2005, when Vets4Pets had grown to 40 clinics, Harrison was headhunted by US giant Mars to drive the overseas growth of Banfield, the world’s largest veterinary practice.

Three years later he returned home with a proposition to expand White Cross Vets.

“I decided to put what I had learned into practice and I asked my father if he would be interested in selling White Cross Vets to me,” he says.

Although Craig Harrison wasn’t keen to exit the business he was excited by his son’s proposition. “He still wanted to be part of the plan,” says Harrison.

The firm is now 79 per cent privately owned by the three executive directors: Tim Harrison, his father and his lawyer brother-in-law John Guggenheim, and 21 per cent by private equity firm Percipient Capital.

“Vets4Pets gave me a flavour of working for myself, even though there were other partners, and made it obvious to me that the opportunity was there,” Harrison says.

“Working at Mars taught me a lot about principles, culture and values. Putting all that together seemed very obvious.”

The cost of veterinary care has often been criticised by those pointing out that drugs can be obtained from the internet at a cheaper price. But Harrison believes it’s a question of convenience.

“Like most things, you can get things cheaper on the internet but often it can take two or three days whereas you can get it the same day from the vet.

“Vets have to be alert to the competition and monitor their pricing but it’s not up to them to explain where people can buy cheaper treatments. Their duty is to care for the patient.”

In the last six years, staff numbers at Whitecross have risen from eight to 123. Turnover is £5.5m, 20 per cent up on last year.

“We locate ourselves in high visibility retail areas,” says Harrison.

“We do more progressive marketing than the rest of the profession and we want to provide veterinary care for as many people as we can.”

The most unusual pet treated by the practice in recent years was an injured deer from Roundhay Park in Leeds, although years ago vets at the practice were faced with an injured circus lion.

“We are a small pet practice so it can be a challenge when we get a larger animal,” he admits.

Harrison describes himself as someone with ‘energy and passion’. “I believe passionately in what we are doing,” he says. “I’m lucky to work in a business where I can cuddle puppies and kittens every day.”

The married father-of-two, who has two whippets called Bella and Alfie, also insists that every employee has a pet. “You can’t understand the brand if you’re not a pet owner,” he says.

Title: Managing director

Date of birth: September 19, 1968

Education: Bradford Grammar School; Politics Degree from City University in London; Masters in Economics from the London School of Economics

First job: Human resources officer at Farnell Electronics

Favourite holiday destination: South Africa

Favourite film: Life of Brian

Favourite song: Going Underground, by the Jam

Last book read: Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored, by John Lydon

Car driven: BMW

Most proud of: My children