Medical men in rude health

Roger Trapp meets two brothers who have built up a prosperous business from one pharmacy

Vijay Patel has a simple explanation for the success of the healthcare company he runs with his brother, Bhikhu. "We are totally focused," he says.

And the object of that focus is equally clear. It is the customer. You have to know your market, he says, adding that everything the company does is linked to the hospital and pharmacy trade. "We think we know it better than anybody else."

As a result, they know that the pharmaceuticals market is consolidating - both at the production end and in the high street. Moreover, they realise that survival will depend upon being flexible and adaptable.

For now, though, prospering would be a better description of their state than surviving. Waymade, the Essex-based company that came 86th in the Independent on Sunday's latest annual listing of the 100 fastest-growing privately owned businesses in Britain, is continuing to see strong expansion in sales.

Turnover for 1995 rose 31 per cent to pounds 41m, and Vijay, who acts as chief executive to his brother's managing director, is optimistic that a similar improvement will take sales through the pounds 50m barrier this year. Such sustained growth is just the sort of achievement that the Middle Market section of the listing, carried out in association with Price Waterhouse, the accountants, is designed to recognise. Last year Waymade came 22nd out of 50 in the category for companies that had sales of at least pounds 5m in the first year of the five-year period in which they are judged.

The origins of Waymade go back to a chemist's shop that Vijay opened in Leigh-on-Sea in the 1970s after qualifying as a pharmacist. Though his brother was practising as an architect, he was so excited by what he saw Vijay doing that in the early 1980s he joined the business. The group of shops, now 15-strong and spread over south-eastern Essex, became the springboard for the healthcare company that was established in 1984.

Though it has grown considerably, Waymade still specialises in marketing and distributing prescription medicines and manufacturing surgical products and medical devices. Its main market is domestic, but it is enjoying some success at exporting - an activity that recently helped it gain the title of one of Europe's most dynamic entrepreneurs.

More than 110 people are employed in the four divisions - covering medicines distribution; the manufacture of dressings, bandages and what it calls "innovative medical devices"; the development of a portfolio of branded prescription products acquired through licensing and marketing agreements and joint ventures; and the establishment of the Reflexion brand of perfumed body spray.

But the brothers, who are the children of Kenyan immigrants, have further ambitions. Vijay hopes that the development of the medical side will provide an opportunity for his own child, studying to be a doctor, to join the company.

Indeed, both he and Bhikhu believe the family connection has a significant part to play in their success. Now aged 45 and 47 respectively, they lost their father when they were six and eight and were brought up by their mother. She was, in Vijay's words, "a very strong-willed woman" who wanted them to succeed.

Although they credit her with making them what they are today, they also acknowledge that she made them different. "We complement each other very well. Vijay has a great flair for sales and I control the finances," says Bhikhu.

Both point out that his architectural training has given the older brother a discipline that has helped in the development of the company. And though Bhikhu admits he sometimes misses his original profession, he contends that he is still in the building business through being part of an expanding company.

While he has a slightly different perspective from Vijay, he agrees with the emphasis on the customer and with being flexible enough to respond to such changes as the replacement of a single pharmacist with multi-outlet retail chains.

And though they have had to contend with a fierce recession and changing markets, it has been expansion all the way. The company has been profitable from the start and much of that money has been reinvested in expansion, with the result that each year's targets have been exceeded.

But, as Vijay says: "The biggest part of running a successful business is keeping it going."

And, lest anybody forget, the key to that comes back to the customer, he contends.

"It's a dreadful thing to say that if it wasn't for the customer life would be great," he says, referring to the still-all-too-familiar attitude of many complaints.

"The most important single person in your business is the customer."

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