‘The worst piece of advice: don’t waste money on accountants’

EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Laurence O’Kane of IMED Healthcare

Laurence O’Kane of IMED Healthcare

Laurence O’Kane of IMED Healthcare


On Christmas Eve when Laurence O’Kane was aged just 14, he walked two miles to his local town, Draperstown in Co Derry, to buy perfume as a Christmas present for his sister. He couldn’t afford the one he had in mind and settled for something cheaper. But that was the day that he realised, first, that he wanted to work in a pharmacy and, second, that he wanted to be successful enough to afford gifts for his loved ones.

Some years later, O’Kane, the youngest of 10 children, realised the limitations of a retail pharmacy. So he branched into distribution when a fragrance supplier approached him about taking over his small distribution business. While it wasn’t easy in the beginning, the business has ultimately grown to a position where it now distributes to 1,600 Irish pharmacies and is the exclusive distributor for brands like Elizabeth Arden.

He has also branched out further to establish IMED, a medicines distribution company in 2007 to purchase medicines from other European countries at lower prices, re-label them to meet Irish regulations and then sell to the Irish market. Having started that business with three staff, O’Kane has grown it to a headcount of 55.

More recently, in 2016, O’Kane established Mediteq with a Dublin-based microbiologist. Seeing that infection control was becoming a big issue for hospitals, O’Kane noticed potential for a business that can work to prevent a possible hospital bug outbreak.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Being able to recognise new market trends. For example our tanning range, bBold was a completely different venture for us but something that is growing strongly.

What was your ‘back-to-the-wall’ moment and how did you overcome it?

I don’t believe in the term “back to the wall”. There are numerous challenges as you can imagine, developing from zero to €100 million turnover. In 1989 I bought over my two rival pharmacies in my home town. Interest rates were about 21 per cent so all profit for year one and two went into funding the bank. It wasn’t easy but, it didn’t really bother me at the time. It was a necessary part of my journey.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best advice I ever got was when I was repeating my A levels. Most of my older brothers and sisters followed the traditional large Catholic family model; teachers, nurses and the one obligatory priest. My oldest brother Mickey Joe was teaching me A level chemistry at the time. When I suggested that I was considering teaching, he replied very strongly: “over my dead body, do something with a bit of money in it like pharmacy”. He was right! The worst piece of advice was: “don’t waste money on accountants”. That cost me money in the early years.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?

The biggest disruption at present is Brexit. Regulatory alignment is key in servicing different markets. The UK will be treated as a “third country” if they crash out or leave. This will mean upheaval but there will be opportunities.

What is the one piece of advice you would give Government to stimulate the economy?

Any advice around stimulation of the economy must be allied to the Brexit outcome. Ireland needs to be ready and willing to survive and grow without the UK as a partner. Government must look for other options to fill the gaps that may arise if the UK crashes out or leaves in an orderly way. Ireland needs to be more resilient and look for economic partners beyond our geographical neighbours.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make and what is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

The single most common mistake young entrepreneurs make is that they believe they are experts in all fields. Because of our entrepreneurial spirit, we are sometimes blinded to the fact that we don’t have all the skills to make a business a success.