Zameer Choudrey has enjoyed a successful time as CEO of Bestway Group. Now his eyes are firmly on pharmacy…
A trip to the eyecatching north west London headquarters of Bestway Group, the multinational conglomerate which recently dipped its toes into pharmacy’s pool of healthcare potential, is to experience extravagance.
The eyes find it difficult to resist a glance at the Porsches and Mercedes gliding around a spacious car park to the backdrop of an imposing building which grabs the attention.
As you walk through the main entrance, you are greeted by a marble floored reception and marble steps that make you believe, if only momentarily, that they lead to some kind of utopia.
As it turns out, they lead to an interview in a large boardroom with Zameer Choudrey, Bestway’s quietly spoken chief executive who is keen to talk about the state of play one year after the Group’s £620 million acquisition of the Co-operative Group’s pharmacy chain as well as the future.
“We had the leverage and had no debt on our balance sheet. It’s all driven by our financial situation,” he says when asked why Bestway decided to add pharmacy to its portfolio of business interests alongside banking, wholesale and cement.
“The business is pumping a lot of cash out and we need to find a house for it. This is why we are going into diversifications. If wholesale can consume enough of it then we’ll put it in wholesale. But if there are no opportunities in our existing business then what do we do with the cash?”
Bestway’s Well pharmacy chain will look to improve the health and wellbeing of local communities but it will have more than one eye on the revenue-generating potential of the UK’s prescription business.
Last year over a billion prescription items were dispensed, an increase of 34.5 million items on 2013 and an increase of 378.4 million items since 2004.
“Number one, our financials were that we needed to do something,” Zameer says. “Well before this, a couple of years ago the transaction came along, we were brainstorming with our bankers and investment advisers internally about what would be a good sector to go into.
“We decided that the healthcare sector was the one to go for and that was primarily because of the growing ageing population. People are living longer because of the advancement of treatment and healthcare.
“Volume for healthcare prescriptions has been rising over the last 10 or 15 years between 2.5-3 % per annum. For all those reasons we thought that the healthcare sector was a good one to go into.”
He considers whether, one year after the Co-op acquisition was confirmed, the deal has lived up to all expectations.
“I think it has surpassed them,” he says. “The big risk was diversifying away from the core business because the core group was providing a lot of the support services for this business, like the payroll, HR, finance, accounting, tax, legal, property managements etc.
“So our first focus was to make this business a standalone so that we had all these services being provided internally by the company. Now I am glad to say that slowly but surely over the year it is getting done.
“There was rebranding as well, for example 800 stores needed this. But all the major risks have now been separated, not 100 % I would say, but 90 %.
“The next risk was, was the management good enough to run the business? The answer is most certainly yes because they are exceeding their budgets. Now we will be able to focus more on developing the business.
“This year was really a year of separation and getting people tuned. For example, we have a new HR director from Asda, a new commercial director, and a new commercial team. These have all been on OTC and we have another team in place for B2B. So the building blocks are in place.”
Not that Bestway is content to simply exploit pharmacy’s relentless prescription machine. There are plans, he reveals, for the Well chain to contain 1,000 pharmacy stores by 2018-19.
Yet there have been struggles. Completing the branding transition from Co-op to Well, he insists, was “no easy task.”
“It’s something that has been done very professionally. We came up with suggestions and tested the various different names with colleagues, customers and the public.
“Various names were short-listed and even when we came to deciding on the name there were different variants, colours, feel and logos. Everything was professionally tested and everyone had bought into the process.
“Rebranding 800 stores in the space of two months is no easy task. So I think its been phenomenally successful. Of course we were tracking our performance pre and post rebranding, so we can tell you all the stores post-branding have higher volumes than before the rebrand.
“They are tracking about 3-4% higher than they were previously. Each time we go to a store and rebrand it, over the next few weeks we find that footfall and prescription volumes are higher.”
Zameer reveals Bestway harbours ambitions to expand into wholesale pharmacy. “We’ve already launched a B2B business called Bestway Medhub,” he says enthusiastially.
“It will be under the Well Pharmacy brand. There is another division now under the B2B. We also have our own distribution centre that services our 800 stores up in Stoke that is all automated.
“We are the third largest pharmacy chain in the country so we have reasonable buying terms. So we are now offering this product from our HSC to other pharmacy chains. This we will call B2B under the Bestway Medhub label. It’s going well.
“If you are an independent pharmacist then you can buy from Alliance or whoever you want, but you can now come and buy from us as well. Given our buying power, Bestway and the Well Pharmacy should be able to give good prices and unbranded products on OTC. It will be run by Well Pharmacy, a division under the Well Board.”
Insisting wholesale is in Bestway’s DNA, not a dramatic statement considering its expertise in the grocery industry, Zameer adds: “We are wholesalers, that’s our expertise. We can be wholesalers in the pharmacy business and we would like to do this because its what we do. That’s why we made a division.
“Obviously we are not doing this for our ego. We are serious about doing this and feel we can add value. If you look at the retail side, food, its predominantly Asian.
“If you look at pharmacy independents are 45% of the sector. There are a lot of Asians in that space. Why can’t we go and sell to them? If you are running a pharmacy or a chain of pharmacies and I give you better prices and better service why wouldn’t you want to buy from me?
“In two years or five years’ time will we be able to execute the results what we desire? That only time will tell. I can’t make any predictions because I don’t know about the future.”
Zameer doesn’t like making predictions and he is equally reluctant to glorify in his accomplishments. Modest and quietly determined, rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty in government is not for him.
“Number one, I am not a senior businessman and secondly I don’t need to meet them. I meet them at social events but I’m not a government advisor in any capacity, shape or form.”
Born in Pakistan in 1958, Zameer arrived in the UK when he was 12. He comes from a family with a great deal of fighting spirit, a never-say-die attitude that has served Zameer well in business.
“In Pakistan my father was in the British army and fought in the Second World War on the Burma front,” he reflects with pride. “Then of course the British army became the Pakistani and Indian armies.
“He served in the Pakistani army until he retired and then came to Britain where he worked with my uncle as part of the family. He came here first and then the rest of the family joined him in January 1971.”
The 1970s, Zameer reminisces, was not a difficult time for him and his family as Asian immigrants. A decade almost synonymous with racism in the UK, particularly London, with racists intimidating people on the streets and facists at the ballot box, passed without incident.
“Honestly, I found Britain very accepting and do not remember any bad experiences,” Zameer insists. “I’m a positive guy anyway, so maybe I tend to shun some of the negative, but for me it was the smoothest transition you can possibly imagine.
“I didn’t experience any kind of racism in my area. We’ve always lived in north west London in the Willesden area and there are no skinheads in our area I’m glad to say. There were a lot of Irish in our area in the 1970s and they weren’t typically English.
“At school I had lots of siblings and cousins who used to play football together. There was enough of us to have a football team. Even in lunchtime we were playing in someone’s garden or a sports field.
“I never felt alienated or any of those things. It was a nice area and still is where we live. If there was a riot or a bomb explosion somewhere else, it didn’t affect me and the skinheads were more East End and south London. I don’t think they affected me. I’m not easily traumatised.”
Zameer has fond memories of the past but the future, especially Bestway’s Well pharmacy brand, absorbs him.
“All our pharmacies have a consultation room and our people are good, focused, trained professionals,” he says. “They have the capacity to give out additional services and they are already doing medical reviews, blood pressure, morning after pills, vaccinations, stuff like that.
“Diabetes testing we can do, all that stuff is already being provided. The big debate is what will the government devolve to pharmacies? It already has pressure on the NHS and emergency services. But we don’t know what they will devolve.”
He believes the government is using the national flu vaccination service as “a test case” which, if successful, will persuade them to roll more services out through pharmacy.
“If it is successfully executed and the government has confidence then I think they will probably devolve more.
“Politically they have to decide what they want to do. I was reading only a couple of days ago that there was an experiment done by Lloyds with a hospital in Manchester for a million pounds. They said that using their in-house hospital pharmacy could release pressure on the NHS and the answer was yes, it can.
“But obviously these services need to be funded because the customer doesn’t pay for anything. It’s the government that picks up the tab at the end of the day. It’s not customer choice at the end of the day, getting their medical review, blood pressure checked or diabetes testing.
“Between a GP’s office and a pharmacy they would choose a pharmacy because there are no queues. If they go to the GP’s surgery they will probably have to wait half an hour even if they have an appointment.”
Words: Neil Trainis
Interview: Shailesh Solanki
Zameer’s CV
  • Chief Executive of Bestway Group
  • Graduated from University of Kent
  • Joined Bestway as financial controller, 1984
  • Played key role in expansion of Group’s wholesale business through acquisition of Bashin Cash & Carry (1984), Crown Crest Limited (1987) and Link Cash & Carry (1988)
  • Appointed finance director of Bestway, 1990
  • Promoted to chief executive of Bestway Group, 2004
  • Spearheaded £100 million acquisition of Batleys Limited, 2005
  • Led acquisitions of Co-op Pharmacy in UK and Lafarge Cement in Pakistan
  • Enjoys watching TV, movies, listening to music and supporting Chelsea