Case Study: It should happen to a vet

Like THP, one of our longstanding clients, veterinarians Mercer & Hughes, turns 40 this year.

The company opened its first surgery in a house in Thaxted, and was a joint enterprise between vets Bob Mercer and Peter Hughes. The two men had met while practising in Devon, but Bob suggested they opened a practice in Essex – a county he loved and in which he had family.

Both Peter and Bob wanted to provide a friendly, community veterinary service for local people and their animals. It was an approach that quickly won them clients, from farmers to pet owners, and the business grew steadily. Within a few years the duo had transferred their business to two surgeries in Great Dunmow and Saffron Walden, and they maintained a policy of investing heavily in the business, its services and state-of-art equipment.

By the early 1990s, Bob and Peter were looking to take on new partners, ensuring the business would stay in good hands when they finally retired. They chose Ilse Pedler, who had been with Mercer & Hughes since graduating from Cambridge in 1989, and Stephen Flood, a University College Dublin educated vet who joined the company in 1991.

“The company was thriving when I joined” says Stephen. “I liked the friendly atmosphere and the fact that, socially, we all gelled together. I was keen to work in a family practice, and we all shared similar ideas about how it should be run.”

With the help of the new partners, Mercer & Hughes opened a new surgery in Stansted in 1995. “It meant we covered a ‘golden triangle’ of west Essex, making it easy for residents across a wide area to visit one of our surgeries. This became increasingly important in the 2000s when house building really began to take off. About a third of homes have at least one pet, so when you get proposals for something like 85,000 homes, demand for veterinary services shoots up.”

Throughout its existence, Mercer & Hughes has gone to exceptional lengths to provide the highest standard of care, including major investment in a new state-of-the-art surgery and animal hospital at Great Dunmow. This means that Saffron Walden and Great Dunmow surgeries now both have their own laboratories, ensuring that results of blood tests can be available within half an hour. Saffron Walden also offers digital X-rays, which are faster and more detailed than traditional ones. And for day-to-day issues, each surgery has Nurse Clinics which offer everything from flea and worm treatments to claw trimming, weight advice and post-operative checks.

Mercer & Hughes also provides a wide range of complementary treatments, under the leadership of Ilse Pedler. These include homeopathic consultations for a wide range of problems and disorders, plus acupuncture sessions to treat everything from arthritis and muscle pain to spinal problems.

But it’s the special classes that Mercer & Hughes offers that most visibly underline its commitment to community-veterinary practice. You can sign up for a special Puppy Pre-School to learn how to socialise and train your puppy, plus techniques such as tooth brushing and grooming. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s also a Senior Well Pet Club, where you can take your older animals to test them for a range of common ailments and receive an individual plan, recommendations and advice. “We’re people who enjoy helping people,” says Stephen, “whether we’re vets, nurses, receptionists or have any other role. There’s a real family atmosphere.”

As Mercer & Hughes has grown from a two-partner firm to one with eight qualified vets and ten nurses, THP has been there for a good part of the journey. We first became involved with the company when we bought out another Saffron Walden accountancy practice in 1985, and Mercer & Hughes transferred its account to us. At this time we provided a full range of necessary services, including preparing the partnership’s accounts, VAT returns, payroll and more.

After a few years with new partners in place, Bob and Peter began to look ahead to handing over the company and planning for their retirements. “THP’s Adrian Hart was the main instigator to turn us from a partnership into a limited company”, recalls Stephen. “It allowed Mercer & Hughes to become more tax efficient, and to assign different classes of shares to all partners as they became directors.” In 2007, their colleague Seamus Mone became the firm’s third director, bringing with him invaluable skills gained in large and companion animal practices and a particular interest in orthopaedics.

Becoming a limited company also made it simpler for the new directors to buy out Bob and Peter’s interest in the firm in the lead-up to their retirements. “Adrian gave us a lot of help during this period”, say Stephen. “Bob and Peter left in 2006, but still retained a significant proportion of the business. Over the next few years, we gradually bought their remaining shares until we finally bought out the whole business two years ago. Adrian has also been heavily involved in helping us plan our own retirements.”

Retirement for Ilse, Stephen and Seamus may be many years off, but they hope that their practice will continue to offer an outstanding and friendly service for many years to come. “In an ideal world, we’d very much like new partners to come on board,” says Stephen. “There are already many large, corporate veterinary chains out there – but they rarely get to know their clients and, more importantly, their animals in the same way that we do. It genuinely makes us smile when we help clients and their animals by improving their quality of life.”