HOW HEALTHPLUS STARTED
If family fortunes and the environment one is born into are key factors for future success and recognition, Bukky George probably would have missed out in greatness and relevance. However, success is not a function of just one’s background. It can rather be argued that the common denominator for great accomplishments in life is willingness to give life your all and be a risk taker. Bukky George is our ideal personification of this notion. Starting with just three staff from an 18 square-metre room in Ikeja, GRA in 1999 her company; HealthPlus Pharmacy has grown to become the most successful retail pharmaceutical company in Nigeria. Today it boast over 60 outlets and having in excess of 650 staff. The question is, ‘How did she do this’?
Motivated by poverty
Bukky is the ninth child in a polygamous family of 36 children and the family was extremely poor. Basically, she was growing up with her mum and two other siblings. Because of how large the family was each mother had to cater for her own children. The mother was working as a matron at College of Medicine, Idi-Araba. And she had to raise her three children all by herself. That gave Bukky the drive to want to be the best at what she did in order to stand a chance of changing her family’s fortune. “I think poverty is good though. Yeah, because it has made me strive. Almost everything I wanted, including the things my friends had, we just couldn’t afford. So that became a motivation and driving force to succeed” said Bukky.
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To every problem there is a solution
According to her, “I learnt to use my hands. I enjoyed sewing and baking. I grew up being dependable, competent and able to find solutions to problems. We did not always get new shoes, so repairs were inevitable. Till today, I know the best shoe maker in Lagos. My personal mantra is ‘To every problem, there is a solution.’ … We did not get all we wanted but our home was full of laughter.” She recalled one instance at the age of eight when out of frustration and hunger she placed her hand on her hips and said “why is there never any money in this house? Well, when I grow up, I will make lots of money”. Jokingly the mother concurred (or maybe sincerely) to the ‘poor’ child’s sincere ambition. A sense of humour characterized their home; they found joy and laughter in many things, with or without money.
But silently, Bukky thought to herself that such was not a good life and her family cannot afford to live that way for long. So she was so committed to her studies and anything she had to do for that matter. She was of the belief that through hard work and determination their fortune will surely change some day. Fortunately, those conditions did not break her but rather served as the foundation on which she was building her life and career.
Journey to realization
It is not enough to dream or have lofty goals and aspirations. Any dream that is not pursued with vigor will always remain what it is – a dream. Fortunately, Bukky understood this and was ready to give it her all to achieve greatness in life.
Her own journey to realization started when she got admission to study Pharmacy at the college of medicine (now faculty of medicine) University of Lagos. She immediately recognized that the journey to her liberation had started. Though she didn’t quite know how big it will eventually turn out. In school she never played with her studies. Of course she couldn’t afford the luxury of partying on campus and flirting with other wild ladies partly because she had given her life to Jesus and also because she recognized where she was coming from.
Her efforts and diligence would later be rewarded when she graduated as the overall best student from the college of medicine. She graduated with five individual awards, dusting all her male colleagues. This was a rewarding experience for Bukky who had shrewdly managed the limited resources available to her in school. She did well to maintain a good balance between acquiring necessary academic materials and her personal upkeep.
The beginning of a career in pharmacy
After completing the mandatory twelve months Internship and then NYSC her career started in earnest. She started her as a Medical Representative, first, at May & Baker where she spent ten months. Thereafter she she proceeded to accept an offer to join SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline). As a medical sales representative she was marketing drugs to medical doctors and was very target-driven. She recalls that, every month, her name was on record for being the best medical representative. It was then she built a very good network that she has leveraged even in running HealthPlus today.
However, she was always conscious of the gap between the theory and practice of retail pharmacy or community pharmacy as it were. As at the time, there were not many standard pharmacies in terms of shop fitting, personnel, professionalism, knowledge base and range of healthcare products on offer. In particular, she had a passion for natural remedies. And she felt that an application of both orthodox medicine and natural remedies will lead to better treatment outcomes.
Restless for Success
Bukky’s case was not helped (or do I say was helped) by the fact that she can be very restless, independent and a bit of a rebel. “I like to be in control of my destiny and cannot thrive in a bureaucratic environment. I like action thrive on stress and I am blessed with high energy. Also I believe in positive change and I believe these are the hallmarks of an entrepreneur.” She said. Making the decision to become her own boss was easy enough; because with her personality traits she always knew she would one day own her own business.
After four years of working as a Medical representative her restlessness became evident. And she was very much aware of the need to pursue her passion and fulfill her purpose and destiny as she puts it. “So I prayed to God for guidance regarding the works of my hands and also used my intellect to self-appraise. I was questioning myself on certain key areas like my key strengths, what I enjoy doing and what I am actually good at.”
“I love Pharmacy, especially Clinical Pharmacy. And I always wondered why a majority of the things I learnt in college were not observed in reality. I also knew I was a good sales person. Furthermore, I love organizing and I am very enterprising (at least people tell me so). I have high energy levels and I pay great attention to detail. So putting these qualities together I knew pharmaceutical store business was the next thing for me.”
So Bukky had to resign her job as a medical rep to pursue her passion. She registered her business in 1996 as HealthPlus Pharmacy, a name she recalls was given to her in a vision. But the business officially started operation in April 2nd, 1999. Within those early years she travelled to the UK and had the privilege of working in London’s landmark pharmacy; John Bell and Croyden. It turned out to be a very enlightening experience that she will never forget. Most of the principles upon which HealthPlus is built on were learnt from that her brief stint in the United Kingdom.
Her desire to succeed obviously goes beyond seeking wealth and relevance for herself. Of course she had a deep hatred for failure and poverty. But she was more passionate about helping people achieve optimum health and vitality in Nigeria. The situation around her was not quite perfect at the time, but she was determined to change as much as she could, she always had this ‘I can do it’ mentality. And for her, she does not see any of the genders as having an advantage over the other. So if a man can be successful in business why can’t a woman?
The first HealthPlus outlet
She talked about how much she had to consider before choosing the location for her first outlet. According to her, location is one of the most important things to consider in a retail business. Finance was also critical; but she already had a culture of saving. So she had some cash she could start with. So she simply went in search of support to add up. Within that period she also learnt the A-Z of pharmaceutical business.
Her brief period of working in the UK (where there is a lot of standardization) made her so desirous of being different from the average community pharmacy we had in Nigeria at the time.
“A particular customer once asked me how come one of my drugs was ₦250 when a nearby chemist store was selling at ₦200. I tried to explain to him that I am a professional who gives counsel during sales without charging consultation fee. But the customer couldn’t quite understand.
One day, I took a stroll to the said chemist store and by the time I got back to my pharmacy, my shoulders squared and when people questioned my prices afterwards, I simply told them to compare apples with apples because I just could not compromise my passion for excellence. One other way we differentiated ourselves was in customer service and in training; making sure our facts were up to date. I also had an addiction, which is ‘reading’ consistently.” She recalls. She added that she could be very methodical and careful. “I particularly pay attention to small details, and that’s actually the hallmark of a retailer, because retail is detail” she says.
HealthPlus – growing beyond Bukky
She spoke of how the business has grown beyond just her as a person to become an institution. Starting out as a small outlet with only three staff (but even then she never paid any lip service, she would always ensure that there was always a pharmacist on duty as the professional ethics demands) she knew they needed to prove their worth and create a brand before talking about expansion. As expected, from her outstanding services, HealthPlus soon proved to be in a class of its own. With that she had several loyal customers who were always ready to refer others to HealthPlus.
It took 13 years for the company to grow up to seventeen outlets. And it was after 12 years of operation before they had the first outlet outside Lagos in Abuja. Maybe it was considering that pace of expansion that Bukky once set a target of reaching 100 stores by 2020 and it must have looked a very big and maybe impossible dream to many people as at that time.
But today it appears they may eventually surpass that target, an indication that was evident during the 7th annual thanksgiving dinner and awards ceremony which coincided with the company’s 15th anniversary, held at the Civic Centre, Victoria Island Lagos on December 15, 2014. In her address on that occasion Bukky disclosed that HealthPlus is now rated as the fastest growing pharmacy chain in West Africa with 40 branches nationwide. She follows that up by immediately setting a new target of opening 48 new branches in 2015 alone, 12 branches, in each quarter.
Our people our success
While crediting the success of the chain to her ‘people’ (the staff), the pharmacist said she was proud that HealthPlus was no longer about her alone. She adds that with the company’s current growth rate, past successes would seem insignificant in comparison with future prospects. She also used the occasion to announce that 2014 also brought another milestone for the company. The company did sign an agreement with International Financial Corporation (IFC).
48 outlets in a year is possible – experts
While delivering the keynote address for the occasion, Pharm. Clare Omatseye, founder and Managing Director of JNC International Nigeria Limited, disclosed that she almost screamed when she heard that HealthPlus was planning to open 48 additional branches in just one year.
“But knowing Bukky for who she is, a woman full of passion and vision, I believe she can achieve it,” she enthused. The seasoned pharmacist with years of pharmaceutical, public health and medical experience, recounted the sad event of an asthmatic young man who relapsed while driving along the Lagos-Ibadan expressway.
“All efforts made to get a quality patent medicine store, let alone a pharmacy, proved abortive. In the end, the young man died. Today I am happy somebody like Bukky George has taken care of that problem by opening a HealthPlus branch along that expressway,” she noted.
To Bukky’s credit she has built a reputation over the years which make it very easy for experts to take her by her word.
Commenting on the thanksgiving dinner and award ceremony, Dr Lolu Ojo, former chairman of National Association of Industrial Pharmacists (NAIP) described it as laudable. “Bukky is somebody one can describe as the best of the bests. I think she has succeeded in bringing to reality what we (pharmacists) dreamt about,” he remarked. On whether the HealthPlus boss could achieve the target of 48 new branches, the immediate past NAIP chairman was optimistic, citing Pharm. George’s past records. “Although it is a very big and expansive ambition, she has the commitment to do it. Just as she vowed to increase HealthPlus Pharmacy from 17 to 40 branches in the past, this won’t be an exception. Don’t forget she just signed an agreement with the IFC,” he said.
Bukky has revolutionize retail pharmacy
Corroborating Dr Lolu Ojo’s view was Pharm. Chukwuemeka Obi, Operations Manager of PharmacyPlus Nigeria Limited, who said Bukky George had succeeded in revolutionizing retail pharmacy in the country.
The company is surely not just about Bukky George any longer. She has simply built a legacy that will outlive her, by making HealthPlus, Nigeria’s first integrative pharmacy store. HealthPlus has become the pride of Pharmacy in the country through commitment to scrupulous sourcing, professionalism, innovation, excellent customer service and a comprehensive range of quality medicines.
Where are they now?
HealthPlus has grown much bigger than it were in 2014 when Bukky spoke so much about their progress. It is also experiencing remarkable growth in comparison to 2016 when the book HOW THEY STARTED was written. As at 2020 HealthPlus could boast of over 90 countries spread across 11 states in Nigeria. There are HealthPlus outlets in strategic locations like airports, shopping malls and high brow residential areas. From just 3 staff in 1999 the company grew to over 850 staff in just 2 decades.
Talking about growth, the company has been able to attract so much investment as a proof of its capacity and salability. One of the biggest was an $18 million investment by London based private equity manager Alta Semper Capital in 2018.
Some frictions and power tussle in 2020 led to the board purportedly removing Bukky George as the CEO of the company. That press release stated that Chidi Okoro will take over as the Chief Transformational Officer (CTO) of the company. But Bukky later refuted it stating that she was still in charge.
Bukky also runs CasaBella International Limited which was incorporated in 2008 (but started operations in July 2010 at the Palms Mall Lagos). Casabella Beauty Supply is a one-stop store for grooming and providing beauty solutions for men and women and Bukky once described this as a logical addition to HealthPlus. Casbella with the same business model as HealthPlus now has over 10 branches in Lagos.
Advice to would-be entrepreneurs
If anyone has the right to advise young and emerging entrepreneurs in Nigeria Bukky George should be one. Her work and her results speaks for her. And here are her words of advice for emerging entrepreneurs:
I always advise those interested in entrepreneurship to get experience in corporate engagement first. Apply yourself to what your hands find to do, go the extra mile, seek knowledge, develop yourself on all fronts and have mentors.
Along the way, find your passion and purpose. If its entrepreneurship, then find your niche, add value and be the best at what you do avoiding mediocrity. It is important to set very high standards, learn leadership, management and business skills. Then be bold to take calculated risks, network and make great professional connections. Then nurture your relationships and increase your professional visibility. It is important you join active and progressive networks of entrepreneurs. For women, there is Women in Management and Business (WIMBIZ) and NECA’s Network of Entrepreneurial Women (NNEW). Obtaining business knowledge from a business school is important. Enterprise Development Centre (EDC), an arm of the PAN Atlantic University offers the CEM programme (Certificate in Entrepreneurial Management). There is also the FATE Foundation. LEAP Africa is also an NGO with great resources. There’s no better time than now in the history of our country to be an entrepreneur!
Finally, I always recommend starting small. This does not stop the entrepreneur from thinking big. Be accountable and keep proper records from the very beginning. Bank your income intact; of course this means you must maintain a petty cash float. Once you have a proven track record or your business plan adds up, money will come. It will come from family, friends, investors, microfinance banks, banks and other financial institutions.
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