International Women's Day 2021 –
The Success Series: Lynne Hill
In this instalment, we catch up with Lynne Hill, former CEO of Linnaeus Group, a partnership of highly-respected primary care and referral veterinary practices across the UK.
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“If you can’t see a good reason not to go through a door, go through,” is the approach Lynne has taken throughout her career. Despite not actively seeking doors of opportunity, plenty have presented themselves to this remarkable woman, and continue to do so.
Lynne Hill, former CEO of Linnaeus Group, is on her fifth call of the day when Spike Godwin, Private Banker, sits down to discuss her formidable career and how she’s spending her so-called retirement.
For many years Lynne was a practising vet, but began to become more involved in professional veterinary organisations – including a number of roles, first Treasurer and ultimately President, at the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA). It was through this role that she gained an understanding of larger, complex organisations and realised there was, “a lot more out there than running a practice.”
Then employed by Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Lynne had been working across Europe, helping practices identify ways to transform their businesses for profitability when she was approached by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). Presented with an opportunity to walk the walk, “It was the right time for that door to open.” With a simple philosophy – “if you do the right thing for the customer, and keep your staff happy, the business will flow” – Lynne recognised she had a talent for turning around businesses and took her first practice from a large deficit to a similar profit within 12 months.
It was during her time at the RVC that Lynne decided to complete an MBA. Initially considering a remote course, her boss at the time encouraged her to apply to London Business School. “He said if you’re going to do something, do it with the best, so I did.” Lynne’s desire to complete her MBA came from wanting to learn the theory behind business. “I was doing it, but was I doing it right? Could I do it better?” She discovered that many of the things she’d been doing naturally had some theory behind it, but to her much of this was common sense.
Then as CEO of Langford Veterinary Services, part of the University of Bristol, Lynne quickly recognised where the business was haemorrhaging money and made swift changes to the operating model, transforming the teaching hospital to demonstrate that university veterinary hospitals need not be a financial drain. It was during her time as CEO at Langford that Lynne was approached by Linnaeus to come on board as CEO of the new company being formed. “Friends warned about working with Private Equity; I was told they would suck me dry.”
However, Lynne was ready for a change and the prospect of growing a corporation was very exciting. After considering if she could weather a potential failure financially, once again, she stepped through the open door.
Her early experiences were transformative. “At the first board meeting, we asked for £200k for a property improvement project in the business, something which would have taken six to nine months at the university with no certain outcome. Here it was an immediate yes, here you go.” After that the yesses came thick and fast. “I worked with two or three incredibly supportive and knowledgeable people; they rarely said no to ideas. I would sit in front of bankers and ask for millions, and they’d respond, ‘How much can we give you?’ They really liked our business model.” Also unusually for many private equity firms, Sovereign Capital invested for the future – beyond the time they would own the business, including funding a new £5m hospital.
Despite her incredible success, Lynne maintained her philosophy of doing the right thing. Collaboration was key:
“It doesn’t matter who you are; if you’re in the hospital you care for the animal to meet its needs, even if its clearing up their mess, or picking up a ringing phone, and talking to the clients – it’s everyone’s job to help make the business a success”.
Lynne’s experiences as a successful female are mixed. She found some places were more egalitarian, but in others, “Women have to fight.” Lynne recognises that people see her a certain way. While she would describe herself as, “Passionate about what I do and what I believe, and someone who questions and challenges,” others might label her, “Extremely strident, very direct, maybe even argumentative.” Lynne recalls in some environments like a university:
“The men would have a jolly good argument about a point, but if I had the same argument with one of the other women, they would say, ‘There there ladies, calm it down, don’t get so emotional.’ I found that very annoying.”
Lynne was proud to have strong female representation on her board at Linnaeus. “The vast majority of the executive team was female: HR, operations, marketing, CNO, CMO; which gave the company a different feel.”
Supporting talent has been hugely rewarding throughout Lynne’s career; “One of the best things is when someone walks into your office and they say, ‘I’ve learnt a lot; I’d really like to stay but I realise there’s nowhere I can go in the company or the practice and I’ve been offered a job at the next level somewhere else.’ For me, that’s a huge pat on the back; I’ve done my job and I hope I’ve been able to do that throughout my whole career.” Unsurprisingly, many students have sought Lynne’s advice over the years and she recalls, “It was maybe eight or ten years later and he told me, ‘Because of you I did go on and did an internship and residency and I’m now a specialist in my field – and I want to thank you.’”
But what advice does Lynne have today? It’s important to create “a business you want to work in.” Setting the ethos, doing the right thing and creating a business you want to be proud of is central. “Know your market,” she says without hesitation.
“Do your research – customers, competitors, pricing, product.”
She also cautions that it can be lonely at the top, and recommends finding someone you trust to share the load with.
Lynne admits she was fairly tired when she eventually sold Linnaeus to Mars. “You can’t overestimate the exhaustion of preparing a business for sale, going through the process of selling while running it and keeping the profits rising at the same time.” Initially she took a well-deserved holiday to spend time with her daughter in Australia, and while she remains adamant that she won’t get involved in another business, she does recognise that she’s, “always done professional roles for no recompense,” including accreditation visits to veterinary schools throughout the world as well as charity work; Lynne is the Chair and Trustee for International Cat Care and a Trustee of Guide Dogs.
Coupled with her position on the Mars Veterinary Advisory Board, it’s obvious retirement continues to keep Lynne very busy.
More from the Success Series
In our first instalment we catch up with Cath King, owner and Director of Truro Business Hub, to discuss her journey from a global military training brand to transforming one of Truro’s most treasured properties.
Jan Lever MBE
In our second instalment we meet with Jan Lever, founder of Jigsaw PHSE, to discuss how she took “an idea that just wouldn’t go away”, and turned it into a business which provides services to more than 5,000 schools across 38 countries.