Positive thinking is just the tonic for pharmacies boss
The managing director of Lloyds pharmacy chain is determined to grow the business despite facing difficult trading conditions
Goretti Brady: “I realised I was too squeamish [for a career in medicine]. I used to practically faint in the dentist’s chair.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley
With many in the struggling pharmacy industry in need of a dose of corporate Prozac, you would expect the managing director of the largest chain of dispensing chemists in the land to be practically sobbing into her mug of tea.
“Would you like a bun with that?” beams Goretti Brady, the boss of the 74-strong Doc Morris pharmacy chain, which is currently in the midst of a major rebrand, becoming Lloyds. Rather disarmingly, the Roscommon woman appears to be as happy as a lark.
All retailers have been hit hard by the recession, but the pharmacy sector has been bludgeoned. About €570 million of government cutbacks on drug bills and shrinking margins, together with the general economic malaise, have hammered the sector’s profitability.
A recent survey by the Irish Pharmaceutical Union found that 80 per cent of pharmacies expect sales to fall during the next six months, one in three plan to cut more staff, while one in four are still loss-making five years into a downturn. Depressing stuff.
Brady, however, doesn’t fit the dreary mould. “I am a big believer in positive thinking and I have tried to bring that into the business. We want to encourage people to lead healthier lives and concentrate on positive living,” she says.
She took over the top job in April from Cormac Tobin, once a protégé of the supermarket supremo Fergal Quinn. Tobin has gone to Britain to work for Celesio, the listed German parent company of the pharmacy group, opening the door for the former marketing and operations boss Brady.
Celesio, which last year sold its Cahill May Roberts drug wholesaling outfit in Ireland to Uniphar, doesn’t break out its Irish financial results, and neither will Brady. The German behemoth, which has sales of €22 billion globally, highlighted Ireland as a difficult market in its latest set of quarterly results.
To Brady’s credit, one of the first things she did after taking the reins was to convince the shareholder to allow her spend €13 million revamping the Irish store network. She has also negotiated a secret budget to expand the chain’s footprint rapidly. Over the next 18 months, Brady hopes to breeze past the 100 store mark. If all goes well, the word is Lloyds may even double its network through acquisitions and franchises.
This month, the chain in Ireland is being rebranded to Lloyds from Doc Morris. Until 2011, when it forked €15 million for its last name change, most of its outlets were known as Unicare. It seems almost flippant to change again so soon, but Brady says that all Celesio pharmacies across the continent are taking part in the revamp.
“It’s a pan-European thing. Sweden has just rebranded as Lloyds, and the French are doing it soon. There are 1,700 pharmacies in the UK that were already known as Lloyds, but they are all getting a revamp too,” she says.
She says “conversations” are going on with existing Irish independent pharmacies interested in selling up. Lloyds must go toe to toe with Boots, which recently nudged ahead of it in terms of the number of outlets [Lloyds has more dispensing chemists].
When Boots announced an expansion plan in late 2011, it says it was offered 220 existing independent stores over the following six months. Brady plans to be choosy, but there is no doubting the appetite among some struggling pharmacists to find a buyer.
“We will buy as many as we possibly can. We are testing the market now, checking the appetite from vendors. We want to expand as quickly as possible, but not at any cost. We are targeting all areas of the country, but I would particularly like to open a few more in the west.”
You can take the girl out of Roscommon . . .
Brady hails from Castlerea, the town that also produced Irish Times columnist John Waters. Brady says he was the “cool guy” around town when she was growing up.
“He was a few years older. But we always thought he was cool because of the way he dressed, the way he was so different.”
She was a bit of a “science buff” when she was younger, interested in a career in medicine. “But then I realised I was too squeamish. I used to practically faint in the dentist’s chair,” she says.
A careers officer suggested pharmacy, so she studied it at Trinity College in Dublin before completing further training in Galway. She returned to Dublin to work for the Hayes Cunningham Robinson chain, which was bought out by Boots in the 1990s.
At HCR, Brady says she found herself regularly drifting from the drug dispensary at the back of the store to where the customers congregated at the front of the shop.
“It seemed more fun. Eventually, I went more into the business side of things, and became a pharmacy manager. I enjoyed the cut and thrust of making targets.”
She moved to Limerick in the mid-1990s to work for the Ryan group, which was subsumed into Unicare in 2001. Brady’s career took off under the new owners. She soon segued from pharmacy manager to area manager, to operations director, head of marketing, and now, managing director.
During the boom, many pharmacies turned into general retailers, branching out from traditional medicines to stock myriad products such as candles, beauty ranges, bubble baths and whatever “wellness” product you were having yourself. Brady’s big idea for the Lloyds revamp is to strip out all the ancillary clutter, and refocus the stores on healthcare and treating ailments.
She proudly leads a tour of the Lloyds store in Blackrock shopping centre, which she says has become something of a prototype for the rebrand across Europe. “Delegations” from various European countries have been over to visit, Brady says.
The store is simply laid out and spacious, with nice touches such as computer terminals for customers to check their symptoms and find recommendations. Brady has also introduced innovations such as MyMed, a smartphone app to help Lloyds customers manage their medicines and dosages.
Just one of Lloyds’ 74 stores operates as a franchise – the outlet in Tullamore which also happens to be the oldest pharmacy in the State, established in 1796.
The group is fine-tuning its franchise offering to help spur its growth plan, with a second due to open later this year in Westport.
Most of Lloyds’ growth will come through acquisitions and new openings, in stores operated by the group. Why expand, with the industry reeling?
Lloyds clearly sees the same opportunity that has attracted Boots – bottom-of-the-market valuations, a fragmented industry ripe for consolidation, and obvious advantages for any group that can leverage large buying power.
“There is a great opportunity for us here. A lot of the market is a little bit paralysed by what has been going on,” she says.
The State has cut the prescription charges paid to pharmacists and is implementing plans to introduce a system of “reference pricing” that will oblige chemists to offer users cheaper generic drugs, instead of the more expensive branded medicines.
Brady says she expects more Government actions to affect the industry negatively, although its critics will say it has been cosseted by the State for too long. Either way, her purebred positivity may be sorely tested in the years to come.
Is she fazed? Not at all.
“We have Prof Richard Wiseman [a British positivity guru] coming over to visit the company soon, to help us with a few things. He says people who think positively live up to 19 per cent longer,” says Brady.
Perhaps she is on to something, after all.
CV Goretti Brady
Name: Goretti Brady
Position: Managing director of Lloyds pharmacy group (formerly Doc Morris)
Home: Co Limerick
Education: Castlerea Community School, Trinity College
Interests: All things French
Something you might expect: “I like to exercise and stay fit. I enjoy long hikes in the hills and cycling. My post-summer resolution is to start training for a focused event next spring – a run, cycle or indeed a triathlon. There is nothing like training and exercise for positive thinking.”
Something that might surprise: “I go to Lourdes each year. It is a chance to spend quality time with my mother and to re-assess priorities. Witnessing the assisted pilgrims each year is humbling and inspiring.”