When private equity went to the vets

Historically, veterinary clinics were local affairs, owned by their partner vets and part of the fabric of the community. Then private equity came along:

“The company has been on a debt-fuelled expansion in recent years. Since EQT bought IVC in 2016 and merged it with Swedish group Evidensia in 2017, it has been on a clinic-buying spree, snapping up independent practices and small chains and rolling them into what is now Europe’s largest vetcare provider with 1,500 sites.

“‘It’s a giant acquisition machine,’ says a former employee. ‘IVC was just minting millionaires across the UK.’ A vet who sold his practice to the group says he ‘almost fell off his chair’ on hearing how much it was offering. The vet, who requested anonymity, says IVC mistook his shock for hesitation – and increased its offer.”

Predictably, prices have increased, staff churn is higher, and the network of vets’ practices is now a teetering Jenga-tower of debt:

“In the process, the companies typically amass large debts. IVC’s junk-rated net debts and leases total £2bn, or 6.2 times the £322m it earned before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in the year to March, according to figures that the company shared with lenders.

“The rating agency Fitch has categorised IVC’s debts as ‘highly speculative’, meaning that while the company can currently repay them, there is a ‘material’ risk of future default and its ability to repay is ‘vulnerable to deterioration in the business and economic environment’.”