Charles Cosgrave: ‘We wanted to push the boundaries of pet care’

EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Charles Cosgrave talks about how he scaled the family business Village Vets through acquisitions to become one of the largest and fastest-growing veterinary businesses in Ireland.

This year 24 Irish finalists have been named for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards which take place later this month. Currently in its 26th year in Ireland, the programme works to recognise, promote, and build a supportive community around Ireland’s high-growth entrepreneurs and is considered one of the strongest programmes globally. 

Since its inception, the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Ireland community has grown to a tight-knit network of more than 600 alumni who harness each other’s wealth of experience, with three quarters (75%) conducting business with one another. Together, the EOY alumni community generates revenues of €25bn, and employs more than 250,000 people across the island of Ireland. 

“I wanted to make us a destination for people who treat their pets like family members and want a higher level of care and specialism for their pets than what was traditionally available”

One of those finalists for 2023 is Charles Cosgrave, a qualified veterinary practitioner and CEO of Village Vets. Village Vets is a family-owned veterinary practice which was founded by his father, Karl Cosgrave, in 1980. Charles graduated from UCD veterinary school in 2001 and has practiced both in Ireland and the UK. Today he leads the management side of the business.

Village Vets is a multi-disciplinary veterinary practice that provides medical and surgical healthcare services for domestic pets. The practice employs 250 people across 19 clinics in Dublin, Meath and Wicklow. This year the practice will provide care to 125,000 patients.

Charles and the team at Village Vets have an unwavering commitment to providing exceptional veterinary care and are dedicated to meeting the evolving needs of their clients. Village Vets was one of the first practices in the world to use AI to analyse data/blood/skin and urine samples. This technology enables the team to provide quick diagnosis and treatment for sick animals.

Conquering the animal kingdom

Speaking with in the run up to the awards, Cosgrave said that the ebb and flow of veterinary life was ingrained in both him and his sister from an early age. “We grew up in it around the kitchen table and work-wise Christmas Day was a normal day for us as our dad was on call all the time. While both our parents encouraged us to explore other avenues and we tried, we always found ourselves coming back to it. I was so determined to be a vet that I sat my Leaving Cert twice.”

While Cosgrave’s ambition was to be a vet, he confesses to always having had an interest in business. “I would avidly read the business sections of the newspapers while I was in college. And when I graduated and started working as a vet, I was always interested in the administration side of things. I was also curious about what was going on in the UK and the US and what technologies were emerging and how we could do things differently and better.

“I had this idea that we could deliver a level of care and service that hadn’t been experienced in Ireland so far and push the boundaries of what is possible here. I wanted to make us a destination for people who treat their pets like family members and want a higher level of care and specialism for their pets than what was traditionally available.”

To do better as vets, Cosgrave believed the business need to be passionate about training and technology. As well as embarking on what he believes is the largest veterinary education programme outside of a university setting, he was one of three veterinary practices worldwide to trial artificial intelligence (AI). “And we’ve been using it ever since and the technology has become a lot more ubiquitous. It has been a game-changer for us. Every time we think we can’t get any more advanced, something else happens and it just keeps blowing our minds.”

As well as using AI to diagnose pets faster, the onset of wearable technologies for animals to monitor diabetes and do blood tests on an hourly basis has been transformative.

Integrating businesses

Equally transformative has been Cosgrave’s talent for spearheading the acquisitive growth of the business. The key, he explains, has been building relationships and rapport with the veterinary community and when the time is right for these vets to join the growing Village Vets business, it is relatively straightforward.

The acquisition path began in 2012 when the business acquired a practice in Dundrum. “This turbocharged things for us and it was a great lesson in how to integrate businesses. It was also around the same time my first son was born so it was a busy time.”

The acquisition strategy is fundamentally about people. “It’s a combination of building trust but also establishing brand new sites in areas that are underserved. Greenfield Park was a greenfield site and there are landlords who see the benefit of us being in their community shopping centres and various retail outlets.

“I’ve been blessed to work with people who are much more skilled and are more clever than I am and it has been brilliant to give them the opportunity to run their own clinics. We have some great veterinary talent in terms of vets who specialise in areas like dentistry, dermatology, cardiology and more. It’s been great working with these people and seeing the stuff that they can do.

“It’s been a journey, it’s been an evolution and we are seeing the higher expectations of pet care evolving too. We’ve tried to keep pace with that. People are aware of more advanced treatments and therapies thanks to the internet and we’ve invested in learning different techniques and technologies and bringing that expertise and knowledge back to this island. We’ve always wanted to push the envelope and do things better.”

Fundamental to this is customer experience and making the journey as smooth and high quality for clients and patients. To make this work Village Vets has doubled down on the back office functions so that practicing vets aren’t distracted by administrative tasks.

For Cosgrave himself, he admits he has to think as a businessperson first rather than a vet. “That’s the job of the CEO, to protect the business, the stakeholders, the team and the clients and to make sure everything functions as it should.

“When making business decisions, it helps that I am a vet too because I understand the nuances and the different dynamics.”

He credits a business development diploma from the Irish Management Institute with opening his eyes to putting proper structures in place.

Being nominated for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year this year has been inspirational for Cosgrave. “It’s very humbling being acknowledge by a group of your peers and to be considered, especially among a group of 23 other exceptional entrepreneurs. It has been pretty special.”

Looking to the future, Cosgrave says pets are living longer and he is looking at how technology and advances in medicine are removing the need for surgical intervention. “In some areas of care six years ago there were no options but euthanasia but now we’re looking at minimally invasive procedures. So the advances are continuing apace and are fantastic to see. Some of these advances are coming out of Ireland too, not just with ourselves but pharma companies here are innovating in this space.

“It’s great to be in the EY alumni and to meet other business owners who are happy to share their experiences and talk about their battle scars and hard knocks. Sometimes its reassuring to know you’re not the only one who has been through the tough times. But that’s what makes running a business enjoyable, experiencing the highs and lows but to learn from other people’s journeys as well.”

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.