Where Healthcare is a Pet Subject: Interview with Junko Sheehan, Founder & CEO of UNAVETS

Where Healthcare is a Pet Subject

It’s no surprise that the healthcare sector has huge potential for making a positive social impact. But it’s not only humans that have health needs; our pets, too, require professional care. UNAVETS facilitates top-quality care for the four-legged, as CEO Junko Sheehan explains. 

Good day, Ms Sheehan! Thank you for lending us some of your time. What initially drew you to the veterinary industry, and what inspired you to establish UNAVETS?

In 2019, after executing a successful buy-and-build strategy in the convenience retail sector in Spain, I was looking for my next project.  
Beyond the fundamental economics, healthcare was compelling to me because of the potential to make a positive social impact. After studying various healthcare verticals, I was convinced to move forward in the veterinary healthcare segment by the fundamental trends supporting the sector, especially in Iberia. For example, its stable and growing market size, recession-resilient demand, and its readiness for consolidation. And that was pre-COVID. 
Since COVID, the veterinary sector has become even more dynamic, with ever-greater opportunities for accelerated growth. 

  • Overall, there are over a billion pets worldwide.  
  • The number of pets in Spain – which is where, alongside Portugal, we have most of our practices – increased approximately 25 per cent during the pandemic, and now exceeds 20 million. 
  • In Iberia, average spending on pets is projected to grow by a minimum of 7.5 per cent each year for the next several years, due to both the increased sophistication of care and increases in the price of care. 

However, I also believe that the strength of the vet sector is in its stability. People love their pets; they’re members of our families, our steadfast companions, and their health is so important to us. In fact, according to research, 72 per cent of Gen Z and Gen X adults would rather save money for their pets than go on vacation, while another study found that more than 80 per cent of pet parents choose to spend more on their pet’s healthcare than their own. 

It was in response to this strong sector growth and customer demand that I was inspired to establish UNAVETS. Since day one, our mission has been to promote healthy pets, healthy vets, and a healthy planet. We do this by providing our vets with the best-possible work environment and by investing in their well-being and professional development, so they can offer excellent healthcare to our pet patients.  

Could you tell us a bit about the evolution of UNAVETS from its inception to now? Also, what are the primary drivers behind the company’s growth?

After studying various healthcare verticals, I was convinced to move forward in the veterinary healthcare segment by the fundamental trends supporting the sector, especially in Iberia.

Against an uncertain macroeconomic backdrop, investors tend to look for markets that can withstand turbulent conditions, and the “vets and pets” sector fits that profile. After self-funding the company for about six months, Oaktree Capital Management invested in UNAVETS in December 2019. I had a business plan and a pipeline of targets, but the company was still very much in the beginning stages of its evolution. 
While the sector had been consolidating in more mature markets like the UK and US, the €2.6 billion veterinary healthcare market in Iberia had relatively low consolidation levels compared to some other parts of Europe. Only 7 per cent to 10 per cent of Spanish and Portuguese practices are owned by large groups, in contrast to more than 55 per cent in the UK and 35 per cent in Sweden. This is despite the Spanish and Portuguese markets sharing many of the same characteristics as other consolidated markets, such as increasing advances in clinical care, and higher levels of pet ownership and pet life expectancy.  
Focusing on Iberia is bearing fruit. In just over three years since our launch, we’ve acquired 107 practices and labs, and more are joining every day. The team now comprises 1,100 people committed to veterinary healthcare excellence and innovation. We also have a sister company in Poland, the LuxVet Group, with 250 team members across 20 practices. 
UNAVETS is now the leading veterinary healthcare group in the Iberian region and one of the fastest-growing veterinary groups in Europe. I give enormous credit to UNAVETS’ amazing management team and staff – all brilliant and creative veterinary industry professionals, business leaders, and human healthcare specialists who have propelled the business to where it is now.  
Given our strong execution track record, last November, Ares Management provided more than $120m in additional debt and acquisition financing to fund our continued growth.  

What sets UNAVETS apart from other veterinary groups?

UNAVETS is known for its commitment to the comprehensive well-being of our vets and veterinary staff.  
Vets have historically been underpaid and undervalued, suffering from high levels of work stress. We’re leading the industry by paying our clinicians above the average, investing in well-being programmes, and providing all our team members with access to advanced learning and development courses. 
We have more than 60 support staff dedicated to business, operational, and professional development support, which enables our teams to focus on the clinical work, which is their passion.   
We offer an increasing range of education and training options. In 2022, we provided more than 100 in-person and online training sessions across the group. This year, through our OneAcademy learning platform and partnership with IFEVET, an online training institute often referred to as “the Netflix of veterinary training platforms”, we’ll deliver even more opportunities for learning and development. 
We also offer health insurance to all our team members, a leading benefit in the Iberian vet sector. 
Direct benefits like these set us apart from our competitors. They’re helping to reverse the historical trend of Iberian specialists departing their home countries for the UK or US for better jobs and more experience. They can now find mentorship and career opportunities in Iberia at UNAVETS-owned practices.  
Because of our differentiated focus, approach, and ethos, an increasing number of clinicians that weren’t interested in selling to other groups have decided to join UNAVETS.

How do you ensure that your clinics provide high-quality care to their patients?

You’ve used the right word: “care”. We care about our vets; we care about our pets and pet parents; and we care about the integrity of what we’re building at UNAVETS. That includes our investment in professional development and facilities, as well as the importance we place on post-merger integration.  
A few examples…

  • The UNAVETS platform offers key business and operational support services so vets can focus their time on what they want to do and what they do best. And that’s caring for animals, not negotiating with suppliers or handling accounts, payroll, or benefits.  
  • UNAVETS’ care isn’t solely limited to the clinical. We place great importance on the “clinical journey” – specifically, the work environment for our vets. We employ two architects across the group who ensure our practices are designed to the highest standards.  
  • Pets and their owners get the reassurance that they need that their vets are fully equipped, dedicated, and supported so they can provide the highest quality of care.  
  • UNAVETS also offers health plans which ensure that preventative care is more affordable and accessible for pet owners. We’re also committed to transparent pricing and offer clear and easy-to-understand cost breakdowns. 

UNAVETS has made a strategic partnership with the BSA, one of the world’s most sophisticated animal blood banks. How has this arrangement – and any other partnerships or investments – enhanced the company’s services and capabilities

Our rapid growth isn’t limited solely to practice acquisitions. We’re also committed to expanding into adjacent areas that focus on innovation in veterinary healthcare. 

Our partnership with the Banco de Sangue Animal (BSA), one of the world’s most advanced veterinary blood banks, is proof of this. BSA is revolutionising the way animal blood donations are managed, ensuring clinicians and practices have safe, quick, and easy access to animal blood components to help animals in need.  

BSA is revolutionising the way animal blood donations are managed, ensuring clinicians and practices have safe, quick, and easy access to animal blood components to help animals in need.

Alongside our partnership with the BSA, we’ve also invested in a couple of US software companies – a healthcare-focused data analytics platform called JUX/Vetcelerator and a practice management software company called Rhapsody, which has already been bought by Chewy, the US-based pet e-commerce business.   
We are also proactively scanning adjacent verticals that are complementary to veterinary healthcare and we will continue exploring various opportunities.  
Finally, we’re also investing in our clinical sites. Our flagship referral hospital, Veterios, represents 18,000 sq. ft. of clinical excellence in Madrid and is a template for our future new-build hospitals.  

Could you provide more information about UNAVETS’ venture into the rapidly growing field of veterinary technology?

Investing in technology is a key part of our growth plans and our commitment to supporting the development of the sector. Frankly, as we continue to see the pet population outpace veterinary resources, we believe that innovation and technology can play a pivotal role in bridging that gap.   
As an example, JUX/Vetcelerator, our healthcare data analytics business, provides valuable commercial insights for veterinary and human healthcare practices in an automated and efficient way.   
We’re also believers in the democratisation of training resources, and are investing in our OneAcademy learning platform, which provides multiple avenues of learning for our vets and nurses. Technology will make this learning (and specialist collaboration) more accessible for our team members, regardless of where they’re located.   

What are UNAVETS’ expansion plans and why? Do you see UNAVETS moving into other geographies or other adjacent verticals? 

We’re always looking for opportunities to grow by working with like-minded practices and businesses. By the end of 2023, we expect to have approximately 140 practices within our group.   
We continue to evaluate other geographies across Europe, as well as adjacent verticals that have synergies with our veterinary practices.    

What is UNAVETS doing in the ESG space?

ESG is an integral focus for UNAVETS. It’s in our DNA, given what our vets and teams accomplish each and every day. But we continue to strive for more.

We’re driving change by advocating for improvements in the working lives of vets and investing in staff well-being by providing quality healthcare to all members of the UNAVETS network. We also pay more than the industry standards.  
Our commitment to a “healthy planet” is something we take very seriously. Our support of the African Wildlife Foundation, which operates in 17 African nations to protect and preserve endangered wildlife and wildlands, is just one example of our conservation focus.  

In light of your experience with UNAVETS, what guidance would you offer to an individual looking to establish a business in the veterinary sector? 

My main piece of advice would be to have a clear understanding of what the problem is that you are trying to address. Then, to socialise your ideas with those who know the industry best, so you can adapt, evolve, and refine your business idea.  
For non-veterinary industry professionals, I’d also advise that you find veterinary professionals with whom you can join forces. Having good partners with a solid understanding of the sector has been key to our success.  

Finally, as the CEO and founder of UNAVETS, what are some of your proudest moments with the company, and what do you hope to achieve in the future? 

One of the proudest moments for our team was the acquisition of our 100th clinic. It was a huge milestone. It put into perspective how hard and creatively our acquisition group and support teams have been working, and how many vets have become a part of the wider UNAVETS network.  
Personally, my proudest moments have been seeing the impact that UNAVETS’ commitment and support have had on practice owners and their teams. I’ve had multiple clinical directors tell me how happy they are that they joined UNAVETS. They’re able to provide even better care and have a better quality of life, spending more time with their families and friends. Hearing that feedback is hugely gratifying and motivating. I couldn’t be prouder of our UNAVETS family.  

Executive Profile

Junko Sheehan

Junko Sheehan has over 20 years’ experience in finance and corporate development, with over $30 billion in M&A and capital-raising transactions. Her previous experience includes work in the TMT investment groups of Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, and UBS. Most recently, she has focused on the development of M&A and consolidation strategies and is currently the Managing Director and Chairman of the Board of Directors of UNAVETS, as well as a Board Director for OneVet (vet group in Portugal), BSA (a blood bank platform), LuxVet (a Polish vet group), and Vetcelerator (a data analytics SaaS platform).  She is also the managing partner of Marconi Capital, an investment and advisory vehicle for her and her partners. 

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