Veterinary practice group CVS is driving change in the animal care business

CVS veterinary practice group chief executive Simon Innes.
PHOTO: Nick Butcher

CVS veterinary practice group chief executive Simon Innes. PHOTO: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

Simon Innes had more than 15 years of retail management experience when he joined CVS Group in 2004 and has since steered the company to national success and an EDP Business Award. He told BETHANY WHYMARK about the company's growing dominance in the animal care sector.

Simon Innes is a man who is most at home in the driving seat.

The collection of model cars on his desk – including an American military-style Jeep, a Porsche 911 Turbo and a Jaguar E-Type, many of which he has in full size – attests to this, as do his decades of experience in top jobs at some of the UK's biggest names.

Now he is at the helm of CVS, the UK's largest veterinary practice group, where he is expanding its reach in the animal care market.

His professional life began in the forces, where he served as a captain in the Royal Engineers. Then, 30 years ago, he left for the world of retail.

He worked at Marks and Spencer's headquarters in Baker Street for 10 years before taking the post of operations director at renowned toys and games seller Hamleys.

Four years later he moved again, to Vision Express, where he spent four years as chief executive before being given the top job at CVS in 2004.

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When he joined the company it was a small operation of 12 practices. Under his stewardship it has grown to a national network of 388 practices – including more than 30 in East Anglia – with 5,000 employees.

The EDP/EADT Top100 company turned over £218m in the year to June 30 2016, with pre-tax profits of £9.1m.

Mr Innes has followed the company through numerous head offices to its current home in Diss, where its Animed business and online pharmacy are also based.

The chief executive said his love of animals – especially his two black Labradors, who are printed on a mug on his desk – helped him make the transition into the veterinary world.

He said: 'I like working with the staff in the practices. I like the way vets think and work, and I have enormous respect for them. It is a wonderful profession because they are very unselfish, committed and professional.

'I have always found it easy to work with them and understand what is important to them, and therefore how to get the best from them.'

CVS Group won the Top 100 Accelerator Award at the EDP Business Awards last year – recognition of Mr Innes' forward-looking and fast-paced approach to the group's expansion.

'When I arrived I had a vision that we would buy companion animal practices, but I fairly quickly realised there were a lot of other opportunities outside that I should take the company into,' he said, adding that growing the group had been 'very stimulating'.

CVS' bread and butter is companion animal treatment, like dogs, cats and rabbits – the 'small furries', to Mr Innes – but in the last three years the group has branched out into farm animal and equine care.

Of its 1,200 practising vets, around 50 specialise in equine care and 50 in farm animal care, and Mr Innes intends to grow their ranks.

The company is contracted to care for the Queen's horses at Windsor, and it also has designs on opening an equine practice in Suffolk's racing hub, Newmarket. Mr Innes said: 'Equine is a really important market for us and we want to develop it.'

The group now also has 12 dedicated night clinics – including in Great Yarmouth – staffed by vets and nurses, and also runs one of the region's only animal hospitals in Fakenham.

As well as its veterinary practices, CVS has a growing research and diagnostics business at its Harleston and Weybread laboratories, seven pet crematoria (Mr Innes is hoping to open its first one in East Anglia soon), its own pharmaceuticals range which turns over around £12m a year, a graduate training scheme offering practical experience to new vets, and a soon-to-be-launched pet insurance brand designed by its veterinary staff.

Mr Innes said: 'It was a matter of diversification but also strength.

'There is a lot to play for and we have so many opportunities that we want to explore. I think we have an opportunity to develop before other people pile in.'

CVS ordinarily takes on practices when their partners retire or leave the business – something Mr Innes says is happening more frequently as fewer young vets choose to take on the responsibility of management or partnership.

Recently the group has started to open new practices. It currently has five, including a new site in Beccles, and is hoping to open its first Norwich practice in the summer in a former GP surgery on Thorpe Road.

Mr Innes said: 'There are still areas of the country where we are not as represented as I would like. The great thing about new sites is it lets you open where you want to be.'