Davina Anderson is an RCVS Specialist in Small Animal Soft Tissue Surgery and EBVS specialist in Small Animal Surgery. Her career has taken some diverse trajectories, from undertaking small animal medicine and surgery internships and completing a PhD in skin stem cells, to then setting up Anderson Moores Veterinary Specialists and building it up to what it is today. She has combined starting a family with setting up a business, and this interview discusses topics from how to set up a business, what it’s like being a woman in leadership, and how Davina has overcome challenges in the profession throughout her career so far.
Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I wasn’t one of those people who knew they wanted to be a vet from the age of five. It was only when I got my A-level results and realised that they were good enough to get into vet school that I considered applying. I had only seen two weeks of practice – if I applied today I probably wouldn’t get in!
I went to Cambridge vet school, and in my third year I intercalated to study social political sciences for a year. You can’t do that anymore, because Cambridge no longer lets you intercalate in other subjects. I really enjoyed it, and I think that it’s a good thing for students to have a broader education than just vet school. Students today have to work really hard to get good exam results, and then go to vet school and do that for five or six years straight, meaning they’ve done nothing but study science and veterinary medicine for all those years. I think that can burn a lot of people out before they’ve even started their careers.
My father died shortly after graduation, and I was a bit broken. I did a short period of locum work, and I didn’t start working full time until January, when I went into mixed practice. The practice I started at was unbelievably supportive. Looking back, the partners were quite paternalistic, but I think that’s actually what I needed. Thinking about it now, maybe they were a bit patronising. But as a new graduate I don’t think that really bothered me, as I was just glad I was being supported. I don’t know if women today would have felt patronised by that, but I saw it as them trying to protect and unfold the potential in a new graduate. I think it could definitely be interpreted differently now, but I appreciated it at the time and it kept me going.
It was also incredibly hard work, but I think several things have changed in the profession since those days. Graduates aren’t as willing to work those kinds of hours now, and I don’t blame them for that. On the other hand, I think clients back then were a lot more appreciative than they are now. Sometimes I think that clients today can pressure vets, and perhaps be more suspicious of younger vets, which makes it harder for them. One positive I can take from those long hours is that I saw so many different cases and situations, and often I just had to figure things out for myself. On one call I went out to see some scouring calves, and I had no idea what was wrong with them. The farmer and I ended up going through an In Practice article to work out how to treat them, and it worked out! I also feel like those situations gave me the confidence to establish relationships with people.
After two years in mixed practice I decided to apply for a rotating internship at the Royal Veterinary College, which was absolutely crazy. I didn’t get the residency position in surgery there, so I had to figure out another route to do surgery. I spoke to Dick White at Cambridge and he told me I’d need to go and do a PhD, as at that time the only career option as a specialist was in universities.
And that’s exactly what I did – I got four years of funding for a PhD in skin grafting, in which I looked at the survival of skin stem cells after in vitro culture. During that time, a certificate in surgery became available, and I was able to do enough surgery at the Vet School alongside the PhD to get my RCVS Certificate. In the end, I didn’t really need my PhD, although I did manage to finish it on time! I knew that I didn’t want a career in research, but it meant that I could apply for lectureships with it. At that time, there weren’t many women in those types of roles, especially in surgery roles. When I went for the residency interview, I got the feeling that they didn’t really want me. I think they didn’t want a woman, but they didn’t articulate it. Looking back, I was quite thick skinned, and maybe I wasn’t as sensitive to those sorts of prejudices at that time. If I was, I’d have found it very difficult to deal with.
My PhD supervisor, Margaret Stanley at the Department of Pathology in Cambridge, was a very forthright eminent virologist, and nothing was ever going to hold her back. She was very much in favour of female scientists and women in leadership roles, and I kept in touch with her after I finished my PhD. She actually went on to develop the first vaccine for cervical carcinoma, and bizarrely, my daughter was in the first cohort to get the HPV vaccine, which is crazy! I think she instilled into me that you can do anything if you try hard enough, and that being a woman was an irrelevancy.
After I finished my residency, I worked as lecturer at Cambridge, and shared the job with Dick White. It was quite a rollercoaster! I think he might have had reservations about taking on a female resident, but I can confidently say he’s never regretted it. I don’t think I ever felt personally prejudiced, but the reservations surrounding me as a woman in my early 30s with other priorities – such as starting a family – were present. I don’t necessarily blame those considerations, but that unpopular attitude was quite common at that time.
Unfortunately it is easier for men to go for certain positions, because they’re perhaps less likely to be the main caregiver for children or elderly relatives. Again, it’s an old fashioned situation, but quite often it can be the reality. After Dick White left Cambridge, I applied for the full time position as head of department and Lecturer in Small Animal Surgery, but when I was offered the job, I realised that they didn’t really want to push forward radical changes in the way the vet school operated and it would be an uphill battle.
What was it like setting up Anderson Moores?
It was then that I realised I didn’t have the energy to fight the issues I was facing. I spoke with my husband, and together we decided to have an adventure. He had always wanted to set up a business, having worked in project finance and banking in London. We came to Winchester and found a practice with an internal medicine specialist. I went down there one day a week to do surgery for his cases, and then that led to us setting up what was then called Anderson Sturgess. We then put forward our business proposal in July 2005, and we opened our doors for the first time in September 2006.
Initially we thought we’d have maybe two or three cases a week, but we were absolutely inundated from the start. Recently, one of our very first nurses reminded me that in her first month I’d signed off her overtime for 144 hours! Now Anderson Moores has 230 staff, an intern and resident programme, and a host of different specialists. It just kept growing and hasn’t stopped!
I didn’t really see it coming, and so I hadn’t considered what it would be like managing a company of that size. I felt pulled in all different directions, and it became impossible to oversee and do everything. Eventually in 2014, my husband quit his job and came in as our CEO to put in proper management structures, and from then it grew even more. In 2016 we decided to look at the market, as there was a bit of a frenzy around buying up practices at the time. We sold to Pets at Home, but they didn’t tell us they were selling us to Linnaeus until about three weeks before the deal went through. This was a bit of a surprise, and ended up being quite a difficult transition.
On top of the transition challenges we were facing, the responsibilities I had were mounting. Seven days a week, there was always something to think about. Covid also made things really difficult, which wasn’t helped by the fact that referral centres were increasingly busy because everything was being referred from overwhelmed first opinion practices. Covid really didn’t make things very sustainable for referral practice.
What was the pivot point that made you take a step back from Anderson Moores?
At the end of last year, after all of the difficulties associated with Covid, I took some holiday time to try and relax. But I found myself still thinking about work and checking emails. It was then that I realised I needed to walk away. Something happened at work – I can’t remember if it was a staff matter or a complaint – and it made me really stressed. Previously, I would just put those things to the top of my to-do list and get on with it, but this time I couldn’t. I also believe that the longer you leave something, such as an issue you’re facing, the harder it’s going to get to deal with it.
At that time, I was working as clinical director, which was fine because I wanted others in the business to have their career progressions. But things still kept coming back to me to deal with, so it reached the point where I either needed to just not let it bother me – there was no option with Linnaeus for me to be involved in any other capacity – or take a step back and move away from everything altogether.
How have you faced – and overcome – challenges in the profession?
I think for me, it was a real challenge running a company. It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d do – I couldn’t even read a spreadsheet when we started! My husband would patiently explain things to me, even when I kept asking repeatedly what EBITDA meant! It must have taken three years to get to grips with it all. I’ve always believed that the only way to get your team to work with you is to go from the bottom up. We’ve always said that at Anderson Moores we would be led by the nurses. We would never say ‘you should do it this way’ – we let members of the team tell us what they think works, and then I would revisit it after a few months to see how well it had worked for them, and if we needed to change anything.
If you spend time understanding people and really think about what might be motivating them, that’s a good way to develop management skills. Other challenges I encountered were with things like having to dismiss or discipline people, which are the worst parts of the job. Like I said before, my way of dealing with that and overcoming those challenges is to not drag it out, and instead just deal with it. Another challenge I faced was completing my PhD. We think we’re clever when graduating as vets, but the profession really isn’t scientific compared to the real world of science and researchers – that experience was quite humbling! It made me realise that I’m a human being, who fails at things sometimes.
Do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs?
I would say firstly, don’t underestimate what hard work it’s going to be! Embrace it. I think back to my son’s fifth birthday party which I missed because of an emergency – he might not remember it, but I do. It’s stressful juggling both work and family, but you need to have someone supporting you who’s prepared to embrace the challenges being imposed on family life. On the other hand, the relationships you’ll develop outside of your family will become just as valuable – it’s another facet of your life. When you’re starting out, you’ve got to be prepared to be vulnerable, but also strong. You want to connect deeply with people, but also balance it against protecting yourself from getting hurt. It’s a very strange combination.
What’s next for you?
Originally we wanted to go travelling, but that’s probably not going to happen right now! I’ve got quite a lot of lecturing lined up. I used to do lots of lecturing and committee roles, but as the practice grew I ended up saying no to everything. I’ve now started picking up more things again and I’m enjoying it, as I’ve got much more emotional space now. I’d also like to get involved in committees again – I’d probably need to find a role at the bottom and work my way up. I’ve also done quite a lot of work with the ECVS and EBVS, which would be nice to pick up again. I will probably pick up some clinical work, as I still really enjoy surgery. I’d just stopped enjoying it when I had so many other things to do. That’s also advice I’d give to people wanting to start up a business – you’ve got to keep some days in the clinic, because you’ve got to understand the dynamics of how it feels to be on the shop floor.
I would also like to get involved with changing the recruitment of students into vet school, as well as how students are taught at university. In particular, I’d like to see universities prioritising teaching the basics before more complicated surgeries and techniques. Courses can sometimes be tilted towards senior professors who don’t want to do anything different, but we really need to rethink veterinary education, and also how we manage continuing education CPD after graduation. This is the only way to improve our retention of new graduates and enable them to have a fulfilling and satisfying experience in general practice.
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