As one of Australia’s most successful career vets, Rick Fenny has established a network of Western Australian metropolitan and regional vet clinics, using the Rick Fenny Group to build a diversified portfolio of businesses across the state and beyond.
Dr Fenny’s work is well known across Australia, and he has been widely recognised for his contributions. He was a finalist in both the 2018 and 2019 Western Australian of the Year Awards, growing a business empire while ensuring WA’s outback residents have access to quality veterinary services for their pets and livestock. Dr Fenny is a passionate advocate for West Australian tourism, owning a range of ventures in the state including the Maitraya Private Retreat and the award-winning Ocean Park Aquarium. Dr Fenny spoke with The Australian Business Executive about the various divisions that make up this family run business, the issues in WA’s regions still failing to get nationwide attention, and the legacy he intends to leave behind in the form of new TV show Desert Vet.
The Rick Fenny Group is a family run business working across several divisions throughout Australia, and owning a number of vet practices, pastoral stations, real estate and hospitality ventures in the form of travel and tourism services.
“We’re mostly vet practices,” Dr Fenny explains, “and they’ve really evolved rather than being planned. It happened in a haphazard way, starting in the Pilbara [region], where I started my first vet practice in 1975.”
Whilst moving around the country trying out new business endeavours, Dr Fenny continued opening vet practices, admitting that they have followed him around the many Australian regions he has found himself working and living in.
“I usually bought the property – that’s been one of the things I’ve done all the way along, always try to own the property. I built a vet hospital in Karratha in the late-seventies and then either started or took over other vet practices [in other regions].”
After being told by a client up north that in order to be an ‘A-Grade’ vet he would need to set up in the city, the next logical step was to do just that. This resulted in the establishment of a practice in Victoria Park, Perth in 1982, before a return to his roots.
“In the mid-eighties I decided I’d go back to my home town of Albany, in the south of Western Australia, where I’d grown up. I thought my kids were growing up a bit and I’d love them to have the same kind of childhood as I did in that beautiful part of the world.”
The move to Albany followed the same principle as previous moves, with Dr Fenny finding a well-located property in the middle of town to turn into a vet clinic. It was around this time he realised the benefits of running his various practices more remotely.
“I had one in Perth, one in Karratha, and I thought I know what to do here – we just find a way to run them at arm’s length. And it continued from then, and I really just indulged myself in doing what I wanted to do and building up vet practices at the same time.”
Dr Fenny admits this approach may not make the most sense business-wise, but it has served him well over the years. He has used this approach to branch out into other interests, building up a portfolio of pursuits stemming from his ongoing passions.
“Other interests followed me in the same way, and it’s evolved into having my love of the ocean and for everything marine. I bought into an aquarium in Shark Bay. My son Ed had just graduated in Marine Science, so he came and worked there about 12-13 years ago.”
Another key passion has been farming, which Dr Fenny has been involved in since his childhood. He has owned farms in Albany, and helped his youngest son Sam purchase and run a station in the Gascoyne area of Western Australia, which he still runs today.
Quality veterinary services
The establishment and growth of a network of vet clinics was the first chapter in Dr Fenny’s vast success, and the journey in developing the growth of the business provided a number of key business lessons that have permeated all the group’s enterprises.
“I put my trust in having young vets, who I empowered to run the businesses, to run my business,” Dr Fenny says. “We had a few things that were a little bit adventurous at the time. I gave them a percentage of the turnover right from the word go.”
As soon as Dr Fenny was happy that the people he was employing were competent and committed, he began to give them real ownership of the practice, stressing that the harder they worked the more money they would earn.
“Those that had a bit of a business head on their shoulders certainly grabbed that opportunity with both hands. That almost ensured they would be successful, because that person depended on the performance to make the practice turnover as much as possible, and be as viable as possible, and at the same time that helped me and gave me peace of mind.”
Much of the success of the group’s vet practices has come from the fact that regional areas have often been neglected, with a dearth of quality veterinary services meaning many places were crying out for the kind of practices Dr Fenny was starting up.
“WA’s become more and more city-centred, everyone thinks that everything is bigger and brighter in the city, and the regions have got neglected. Unfortunately, that trend’s continued. I think it’s a government thing as well as an attitude over here.”
This has led to a number of issues in the regional animal care industry across the state, with a significant amount of mining taking place and huge potential for tourism that has so far not been exploited in the same way as some of the eastern states, such as Queensland.
“Farming is the other area that there’s a huge divide between the city and the country, and people generally in the city just don’t know what goes on. The big thing that they fail to realise is that farming generally is very difficult work, but you’ve also got to have all your ducks lined up. There’s about ten things you have to have in place.”
Farming success is hugely dependent on a number of factors, such as adequate rainfall, a market for the product, prices that are competitive but also high enough to make it worthwhile, having proper finance in place, and a labour source.
“When the mining boom was happening in WA, that had a dreadful effect on other businesses, and especially farming operations, because people could earn ridiculous money being a stop-and-go guy on a mine site, or a cleaner.”
There is also a big role for the government to play in a successful farming season. The process requires a government that is not only helpful to farmers and regional businesses, but one that doesn’t tie up proceedings with endless red tape.
“Politics is a huge one,” Dr Fenny says. “When the Gillard government just arbitrarily stopped live exports, we lost the live export trade overnight. There was just shocking political interference, and the repercussions are still there.”
Having already diversified within the vet industry through a string of different practices, Dr Fenny was keen to further diversify by branching out into other industries and ventures based around his passions.
“With the tourism side of it, [we have] Ocean Park Aquarium in Shark Bay, and we’ve diversified in that business as well. Ocean Park is actually ten businesses in one. We’ve got the marine display, but we’ve also got a nice little café, a bookshop, we’ve got a bar there.”
The group also offers four-wheel drive tours around Shark Bay, and has just purchased a 40-foot boat from which it provides diving lessons and a marine safari, where visitors can experience the natural marine life up close.
“We’ve also purchased Maitraya,” Dr Fenny explains, “the most beautiful property in Australia I think, but it’s got all the elements. It’s not only a beautiful property, it has ocean frontage and about 650 acres of farmland and bushland and heathland.”
Over the years of diversification, Dr Fenny has learned a number of key business lessons to help his many ventures run smoothly, not least how to conduct business with a number of different partners across different industries.
“If you want to be in business, you’ve got to be ethical, you’ve got to be honest. Otherwise, people see right through you and you’re out the door. Any advice for any budding entrepreneur is to take that on board well and truly.”
In addition, Dr Fenny is not averse to taking risks, recognising this as a key business strategy. This involves having self-belief, trusting in your own ideas. Without taking risks, businesses can stagnate and growth can be hard to come by.
“Trust is the big one, I suppose. I do trust people, sometimes to my detriment, but I reckon I’ve got about a 99% pass mark by trusting people. 99% of people I’ve trusted have given that trust back, and returned it with interest.”
One of the hallmarks of Dr Fenny’s belief in business is in building networks and a strong support team. By gathering good people around you, people who know more than you about certain areas, the chance of having a successful business increases.
“It’s all about partnerships,” he says. “I’ve got some of my partnerships that go back forty or fifty years, and we’ve been helping each other all that time, and a lot of it’s done on a handshake, on trust. That’s the Aussie way to do it.”
Creating a legacy
Dr Fenny’s newest venture is one he describes as a being a culmination of his career, the path down which his interests and passions have led him. It is a new TV show, called Desert Vet, set in the desert of Western Australia with Dr Fenny as the lead character.
“It’s got all the elements of stuff that I’ve always done, and always loved,” he says. “It’s got vet practices, it’s got all sorts of animals and wildlife, it’s got beauty and the scenery of Western Australia, the regions. But most of all it’s got my family.”
Dr Fenny’s Marine Scientist son Ed and his daughter Louisa, who is a vet, are both involved in the project. It is just another way for the Fenny family business to expand and evolve, offering new ways of seeing life.
“We’ve just finished filming for our new series, a four-episode series. We’re editing it at the moment. Before that we had a pilot, which was so successful that we were asked to do a series. It’s been sold to UK TV and also to Europe, and it’s going to be shown on Channel 9 later in the year, probably on prime time viewing on the main channel.”
The aim of the show is to highlight the beauty of Western Australia, giving tourism a boost and showing viewers how wonderful the region is to visit, with particular focus on the Shark Bay and Pilbara areas.
“There’s some spectacular scenery, swimming with wild sharks and tagging them, and flying over the desert country chasing camels. It really is lovely. I know it’s going to help WA, particularly the regions, because I’m a great supporter of the regions of the state, and they do need that little bit of help.”
Additionally, the show will be used as a vehicle for Mr Fenny to discuss important regional issues, particularly around farming and animal care, to highlight some of the problems in the state to the country as a whole.
Dr Fenny sees the show as a key part of the legacy he aims to leave behind for his family. His children and grandchildren are always in his thoughts, and leaving something both to remember him by and to continue work on is hugely important to him.
“I’ve got eight children and thirteen grandchildren, and I’ve already got two of the children involved with Desert Vet, but we’ve got potential for all the others to be involved too. It’s a huge life, a little bit like what Steve Irwin and his family did.”
As a businessman with a knack for finding success in unrelated industries, Dr Fenny really has the world at his feet in terms of where the Rick Fenny Group goes from here. It is no surprise to hear him excited about what the future might hold.
“I guess I’d like to diversify even more within what I’m doing,” he says. “The classic one is on our station [in the Gascoyne], there’s this beautiful, organic goat and sheep meat that’s grown from saltbush and other natural herbages, and we’d like to promote it as its own brand.”
Within a number of months, Dr Fenny also intends to release a series of books about his life, called Red Dog Vet. The first book will be released to coincide with the start of Desert Vet in order to further diversify Dr Fenny’s portfolio.
Dr Fenny admits that making money is not always that easy, but he is now committed to putting back everything he earns into the projects that are his passions, building even more worth into his professional legacy.
Find out more about the Rick Fenny Group by visiting www.rickfennygroup.com.