A career in professional football once occupied the mind of Ben Andrews. These days it’s natural healthcare even if NHS England is determined to banish it from the NHS. The UK general manager at Nelsons talks to Neil Trainis…
“I think it won’t have a huge effect to be honest. For us, it’s about having a fully integrated approach with the customer,” Ben Andrews says defiantly as he ponders the idea that the government’s determination to stop natural healthcare, those items of “low clinical value,” on prescription will harm the business he works for.
The UK general manager of Nelsons, a leading manufacturer of natural health products, is adamant that people should always be given the choice to opt for alternative medicine. Even if their ultimate decision is to avoid it.
“We deal with a huge amount of retailers across the UK market and across our international businesses. We see a huge demand for natural products and that’s growing. It’s definitely not waning in light of any of the NHS changes.
“We see markets across beauty and natural healthcare in significant growth and plan to be growing by double digits over the next five years, so we see a huge amount of opportunity and we feel at Nelsons we can play in that moving forward.”
At 37 Ben has had to face tougher issues during his life than NHS England’s rigorous attitude to homeopathy and herbal remedies. At 17 he signed a professional contract at Brighton and Hove Albion, now gracing the dizzy heights of the Premier League, but suffered a cruciate ligament injury two years later. It was a crushing blow which he philosophically recounts.
“I signed as a pro when I was 17 and played a couple of games in the first team then unfortunately snapped my cruciate ligament when I was 19. That was 1998 I did that. It was pretty painful. It was not great at the time and I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
“I stayed for another couple of years after that but I never quite got back fit. I was out for 18 months and in a metal brace for nine months. It was not good.”
A sojourn into non-league football followed as did a career largely spent in sales. For the last two and-a-bit years he has been general manager at Nelsons. It is suggested that to an outsider unfamiliar with his employers or what NHS England has been up to lately, it would seem obvious that stopping natural health on prescription would have a detrimental impact on a natural healthcare business like Nelsons.
“Yes, to a certain degree but I also think, especially with an independent pharmacy, pharmacists are looking for an overall holistic approach to their patients and that’s where natural healthcare plays a really important part in that it’s complementary, it’s an integrated approach to people’s lifestyle and people’s health,” he says.
“We speak to thousands of pharmacists every year and they say they are massively behind natural healthcare as an option because it falls in line with everything else they do. It’s about giving customers and patients a real choice of products. It’s not right or wrong, it’s about giving the customer a real choice whether natural or non-natural.”
NHS England said 18 treatments which it described as “ineffective, over-priced and of low clinical value” including herbal remedies and homeopathy should no longer be prescribed on the NHS after a consultation.
And it went further, recommending that seven products, including herbals and homeopathy, be referred to the Department of Health to be considered for a blacklist.
Ben appears relaxed when asked how damaging, if at all, that would be to the wider natural healthcare industry.
“We see these issues through the NHS and trials and new drugs coming on to the market whether they are natural or non-natural. You only have to look at the number of trials that don’t pass, that fail. And there are treatments that fail and don’t pass. And there’s a lot of medicinal product that’s non-natural.
“I don’t think it’s about whether it’s low value or homeopathy or herbal as blacklisted, I think that happens across the whole industry and I don’t think homeopathy is any different to that. It’s about giving consumers a choice and consumers and patients will make their own decision because we’re no different to any other product or category.”
Following its consultation NHS England said herbal treatments and homeopathy had “no clear or robust evidence to support its use.”
Maintaining his poise, Ben says: “All we can do is look at thousands and millions of customers that buy, not just Nelsons products, but natural products across the UK and the international markets and they are incredibly loyal and they are incredibly passionate about natural healthcare whether that’s homeopathy or herbal.
“You go by consumer perception and what works for the patient. There’s plenty of other products out there that claim to be stuff that they are not. We go by hundreds of years of loyal customers buying into brands and products and that’s what we use as our testimonial. That’s really important to us.”
As part of its consultation, NHS England used various methods to encourage stakeholder engagement including online surveys, webinars, engagement events and meetings with industry professionals. Ben is asked if Nelsons got involved with any of that.
“Not that I know of, no. But we are looking to do quite a lot of work in future on leading natural healthcare in the UK and it’s really important for us to part of that. From a pharmacy point of view, that’s one of the absolutely foundational parts of our business and we need to continue educating customers and pharmacists on natural health.”
What evidence is there to reinforce the idea that there is big consumer demand for natural health?
“If you look at herbal products themselves, double digit growth over the last three years, looking to grow by 15% in 2020. We are seeing the number of users come into our category significantly increase. Our users of Rescue and across all our other brands have significantly increased.
“We’re playing in categories that are growing in the market. Natural, as a part of the market, is growing significantly and that’s not just across products that we do. We are seeing across natural beauty as well a significant growth in the market when traditional areas in the market are either flat or declining.
“People are excited by putting something in their body that is natural and we are seeing that as a trend not just across the categories we play in but across categories that are out there that are less traditional as well.
“We are seeing more distribution across the market in terms of retailers as well. You look at Boots, Holland and Barrett, independent pharmacy, even the grocers now are talking a lot about natural, free-from or organic produce. (Independent pharmacies) are a significant part of our business. They always have been.”
With everything that has been going on in the halls of power at NHS England, Ben insists he does not detect a dwindling in independent pharmacies’ interest in natural health.
“No, not at all. Our independent pharmacy business grew double digits last year and was probably one of our best performing parts of the business weirdly enough. For us at Nelsons, independent pharmacy has always been the absolute foundation of our business.
“It’s the closest we ever get to the customer because when you’re dealing with one of the nationals, it’s always through a buyer, then it goes to range and you’re quite a way from the consumer and from our customer which is the end user which is incredibly important to us.
“Independent pharmacy gives that opportunity to effect change, to affect that user, to affect the loyal people that buy into our products and that’s incredibly powerful. Independent pharmacy will always be an absolute cornerstone of our business and we will look to grow that.”
And what are people largely using natural health for? Pain management, stress-reduction, health and beauty?
“Pretty much everything to be honest. Beauty is a big growth category but we’re seeing growth across all categories. If you look at herbal and natural products within the market, it spans into different categories. It might be stress, sleep, beauty, pain relief and all areas of those markets are in growth,” he says.
“There’s none that are flat. Some are growing more than others but all of them are growing double digit. It’s not all about drugs, it’s about lifestyle, it’s about how people want to live their lives and natural plays really well towards that.
“It’s not right for everybody but it’s imperative that customers get choice.”
• November 2015 – present: UK general manager, Nelsons.
• May 2014 – November 2015: Head of UK and international sales, Talking Tables Ltd.
• January 2013 – April 2014: Head of UK sales, HoMedics Group Ltd.
• January 2012 – December 2012: Senior national account manager, HoMedics.
• January 2010 – December 2011: National account manager, HoMedics Group Ltd.
• July 2006 – July 2007: Key account manager, Optimah Health.
• June 2001 – July 2004: Field sales executive, Coca-Cola Enterprises.