A lawyer’s love for all creatures great and small

If David Herman needs a reminder of the importance of his role as the chief executive of Melbourne’s 81-year-old Lort Smith Animal Hospital, he can find two by casting an eye around his office.

The first is his dog, Pearl, whom Herman adopted from Lort Smith almost nine years ago. “I had no idea then I would end up chief executive of Lort Smith, and be bringing Pearl back here almost every day,” Herman says.

The second is an antique desk in the corner of Herman’s office. It belongs to Louisa Lort Smith, the founder of the charity. “It’s a reminder of the history of this place, and the remarkable woman who founded it,” Herman says. “Eighty years later, the principles and beliefs of Louisa Lort Smith still underpin the strategy work I am doing right now.”

Herman took a long and diverse career journey before becoming the chief executive of Lort Smith.

A qualified lawyer, he was on secondment at Village Roadshow when he jumped ship to the corporate world. During his decade-long career with the cinema giant, Herman made his mark as a change agent and oversaw the redevelopment of the cinema business, including the landmark Jam Factory site in South Yarra, Victoria, in the mid 1990s.

It was at that time, while looking for a marquee retailer to fill a key site within the Jam Factory complex, Herman made his next career step. “I came across Borders books, and I knew they were the perfect fit,” Herman says.

Herman oversaw the arrival of Borders at the Jam Factory in 1998, and its first 14 n stores, before a dispute over strategy led them to part ways. “They wanted to expand fast, and I thought a more conservative strategy was the key,” Herman says.

Given the collapse of the global Borders empire in 2011, maybe the company should have listened to the Melbourne lawyer. By then, however, Herman had moved on to his next venture.

In 2003 Herman launched the British pet care retailer Pets at Home in , with three big-box sites. During the launch of the n stores, Herman contacted Lort Smith. “I am research hungry by nature, and made contact with every animal welfare organisation I could ahead of the launch,” Herman says.

Herman struck a deal with Lort Smith to provide in-store pet adoption centres. “We set the benchmark for animal welfare at those adoption centres,” Herman says. “I also learnt of the power of the Lort Smith name. Demographics are a big driver of strategy for me. I noticed we had customers driving 100 kilometres or more to adopt a pet, just because of the Lort Smith name. That stuck with me.”

Pets at Home was bought by private equity giant KKR, and in one of life’s twists, Herman – along with Pearl – ended up back at Lort Smith, the charity that had impressed him more than a decade earlier.

“I am a bit of a tumbleweed; I pick up knowledge as I go and take it to the next place,” Herman says. “All of that learning in the legal and private sectors has been perfect for here.”

Lort Smith runs the largest animal hospital in Melbourne, with 60 vets and 150 veterinary nurses. Under Herman’s guidance, Lort Smith has also opened an animal adoption hub and is pushing ahead with its community outreach program, taking animals into hospitals, prisons and mental health charities. “It’s all about the animal-human bond that Louisa Lort Smith found so crucial for human wellbeing,” Herman says.

He speaks almost as much about Lort-Smith the person as the organisation. A talented pianist and dance teacher, Louisa Lort Smith’s pupils included former n prime minister Harold Holt. But animals were Lort Smith’s love. She founded the Lort Smith-Lyle Hospital for Sick and Injured Animals in 1936, amid the dark days of the Great Depression.

Today, the hospital continues to provide veterinary services for those under financial duress.

“She recognised the bond between animals and people,” Herman says. “Back then, there were almost as many working animals as pets. Families not only loved those animals, but relied on them for their livelihood. The hospital kept those animals healthy, and families happy as a result.”