Saturday 16 November 2019

'Supervet' plans his world-class cancer centre for animals

Irish vet is set to expand his thriving multi-million euro UK business

ANIMAL KINGDOM: Noel Fitzpatrick and Scruffy, who needed an artifical paw
ANIMAL KINGDOM: Noel Fitzpatrick and Scruffy, who needed an artifical paw

John Reynolds

'For the first time ever, I've taken four nights off to see all of U2's concerts at London's O2 later this year. I'm obsessed: they transport you somewhere else for those moments in time. Rock music and theatre are my main loves outside of work, and I also aim for momentary greatness.

"When I'm in the operating theatre, if my hand slips half a millimetre, that dog is dead. That's somebody's best friend, so I need to be the greatest in the world at that moment too."

Laois 'Supervet' Noel Fitzpatrick of Channel 4 TV fame is no ordinary entrepreneur, and he's adept at describing intensely the life-and-death drama that his work often involves.

His successful business, Fitzpatrick Referrals is growing at a steady pace. It currently employs 137 staff including several from Ireland, is profitable and had a turnover of €8.8m last year.

It's been funded with a modest six-figure deposit he saved through hard work, plus bank loans over the past decade. He's gone through four banks and describes the approach he takes with them.

"The only thing they understand is money, and the only way to get money from them is to make money. I would make money and then threaten to take it away, saying: 'I'll go somewhere else if you won't lend me more.'"

He's also turned away offers of outside investment in the past from prospective investors - who no doubt saw potential in a business where the cost of an operation may sometimes be in the tens of thousands, he explains.

"I don't want to answer to people who expect me to walk into a meeting at the end of every month and tell them how much money I've made. That doesn't interest me."

A visit to the surgery in the Surrey countryside, deep in London's commuter belt, finds it to be a hive of frenetic activity. Surgeons in scrubs dash along a maze of corridors, an anaesthetised dog is lying on an operating table, surrounded by nurses.

"Last night I came out of my operating theatre at 2.30am feeling worthless. Even though I'd spent four hours trying to save a dog's life, it wasn't perfect. Nothing's perfect in biology," he explains.

Other nurses tend to cats and dogs in air-conditioned recovery pods. Some have new bionic limbs - an invention Fitzpatrick has pioneered.

In one corner of the building is a large lecture theatre where he helps to educate the next generation of vets. In a hydrotherapy pool, a cat is being helped to walk on an underwater treadmill. Outside, a Great Dane is walking again after a hip replacement the day before.

Irish owners occasionally travel over for essential operations on their pets, while animals owned by celebrities such as BBC radio presenter Chris Evans and the singer Michael Ball have also been patients. So-called 'jet-setter pets' have also been flown in occasionally from abroad too.

The large building that is home to the business was built according to his own design, transformed from a pile of rusting metal at a cost several million pounds and requiring a lengthy wait of four years just to get planning permission.

The construction and fit-out of a new world-class animal cancer treatment centre nearby also designed by him, will cost the same again.

Set to open in September, it could employ another 140 staff or more and is in a landmark science and technology research park, close to a new vet school (where he also lectures) into which the local University of Surrey has ploughed tens of millions of pounds.

"This is going to change the whole level of cancer care for animals in Europe: it's a super-specialist hub, inspired by Thomas Mayo's famous Mayo Clinic in the US. It's beautiful, and it's going to be the best cancer centre in the world for animals," the 47 year-old native of Ballyfin affirms.

"I've hand-picked and waited 11 years to hire one of the centre's staff - Nick Bacon. I badgered him until he couldn't say no. He's the best animal cancer specialist in the world today," he adds.

Five screens dominate the desk in Fitzpatrick's office - two displaying x-rays and three PC monitors. There are several plastic skeletons of cats and dogs on a sideboard, photos of him and his parents on a bookshelf full of files, magazines and veterinary journals, and the window beside his desk looks out across the surrounding green fields.

Oscar Wilde's De Profundis is on the desk beside him and a copy of Pearse's poem The Fool is framed on the wall. He references Wilde several times during our interview, as well as Padraig Pearse, Einstein, Dylan Thomas, Darwin and Ibsen. Several teachers, his late father and an inspirational friend are also mentioned.

He feels "at peace fixing animals. If I hadn't gone down the route of workaholism, like every other tortured soul I might have taken to alcohol or drugs or something. Luckily I had a magnificent obsession with my work." For a recent hip replacement operation, he invented a solution inspired by an ice-cream scoop.

"I live like a student," he grins, opening a door opposite his desk to reveal a cosy bedroom that is his home most of the time, and a small kitchen and bathroom through another door.

"Besides theatre and rock music, I also like driving fast cars - I love Aston Martins," he later adds. "I had one, but had to sell it so I could hire a new vet, Susan from West Cork. But some day I'll get another one."

From his Laois roots, helping his father rear cattle and sheep, sheer hard work and an ability to attract the best people to work with him, who share his love of animals have been key to his success.

"I chose veterinary studies over medicine. I felt a very deep responsibility to look after animals."

Studies in radiology and orthopaedics followed, as well as part-time drama school, where he pursued his love of theatre. He previously starred in various plays and had bit-parts in Heartbeat and Casualty.

He did some general practice here and in the US, including a stint in Cork, where he had another inspirational teacher. "I then handpicked everyone I wanted to learn from, the best guys in the world at hip replacement and what have you. I'd follow them to conferences until they let me visit."

While waiting for planning for his current surgery, he and a team of colleagues worked in a former Canadian navy barracks hut, in the middle of a wood near here. "The key to success was being available 24/7 and sleeping on the floor."

He's patented 35 new veterinary medical devices, though they've made no money yet.

"My lecturing doesn't either, but it's food for the soul and helps make us the best we can possibly be."

He funds scholarships and fellowships in the US, "probably worth about $350,000 over the past five years. I might not get a penny back, they are collaborative clinical colleagues and that ultimately helps to make my colleagues and I better as well."

The Supervet series is popular there and an educational division of the business may also make money in the near future. "We influence the US a lot, and the new technologies we've brought out will shortly be available there, hopefully growing things further."

He's also set up The Humanimal Trust to fund collaborative medical research and promote the integration of new developments in veterinary and medical science and education.

"Research is very similar for cancer in dogs and for paediatric cancer: it can help people and animals.

"We're trying to change the whole paradigm of medicine, but that's my challenge for the next 10 years or so. If I can keep my surgery running and make the cancer centre work as well, I'll be happy," he concludes.

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