The Draperstown boy with the sweet smell of success . . .

The EY Entrepreneur of the Year gala awards take place in Dublin on November 21. This year, six Northern Ireland-based entrepreneurs are listed among the 24 finalists. In latest in a series of profiles on the finalists, we chat to Laurence O’Kane of IMED Healthcare

Laurence O’Kane from IMED Healthcare
Laurence O’Kane from IMED Healthcare

IMED Healthcare head Laurence O’Kane is from Draperstown and the youngest of 10 children. He always had an interest in science, and after school he went on to study pharmacy at Queens University.

His approach to each new entrepreneurial venture has been to bring in business partners with specific sector skills and reward them with equity to help grow the businesses.

Laurence is a hugely successful serial entrepreneur with a range of businesses in the pharmaceutical sector including two pharmacies, a pharmacy supplies and distribution-company, a medicines distribution company and a hospital solutions company that have created nearly 200 jobs. He has stayed ahead of the curve by developing his own innovative products including the award winning ‘bBold’ tanning range.

Pharmacy Supplies started in humble beginnings in the flat above the pharmacy distributing fragrances and make-up to Irish pharmacies. IMed is a medicines distribution company that was established in 2007 with a business partner when they discovered every country in Europe charges different prices for medicines.

They realised they could purchase medicines from other European countries at lower prices, re-label these to meet Irish regulations and then sell to the Irish market. Mediteq is a hospital solutions-company set up in 2016 with a Dublin based microbiologist.

Laurence saw that infection control was become a big issue for hospitals and recognised there was potential for a business that could work with hospitals to help prevent/react to a possible hospital bug outbreak. He is now considering own product development for the business as he believes this will be key to helping the company grow.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?

I’m not sure there was just one. Firstly, I recall was when I was 14 on a dark Christmas Eve I walked about two miles into Draperstown as I wanted to buy my sister a bottle of Anais Anais 30ml. The lights of the pharmacy and the smell of the medicines and fragrance made me think “this is the type of place I want to work”. I hadn’t enough money to buy the fragrance so settled for something cheaper. It made me feel bad as I wanted to be able to afford gifts for my loved ones, the thought of being successful enough to do that occurred then. I guess at the moment I knew I needed to be a pharmacist. The next key moment was opening the pharmacy in 1986 even though I was only qualified one year, as I knew the legislation was changing in Northern Ireland, meaning you could not open a new pharmacy. That decision was key to my future as an entrepreneur.

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 £100m turnover. In 1989 I bought over my two opposition pharmacies in my home town. Interest rates were around 21 per cent so all profit for years 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 moment/deal would you cite as the "game changer" or turning point for the company?

I have never had to do too many deals. The game changers for me were meeting with Francis Mulgrew in 1991 and setting up Pharmacy Supplies as a wholesaler to front of shop in Ireland. In 2007 setting up IMED Healthcare with Paul Murphy was another game changer as we established this company from no base. In 2012 we established bBold our own self tanning brand it’s proving to be a game changer. In 2016 we established Mediteq this will be a major game changer.

How has Brexit impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?

Because we are based in both jurisdictions, Brexit is impacting on our business massively. We need certainty around the decision, which is not the position at present. If Brexit occurs we will rearrange our model to suit. There will be short term pain but ultimately we will use the opportunity it creates to diversify our business as we will have two or three distinct markets all of which we are strategically positioned to supply.

What motivates you to keep performing at your best?

My motivation is my desire to do things right. So much of what I have learnt has taken numerous mistakes to get to my level of understanding. I now can see and understand what needs to be done in order to achieve success. That success can be measured financially but for me it is more than financial. I want to create a working environment within my community that promotes entrepreneurial spirit. It is happening and I am a key driver in this. We have more entrepreneurs per head in Draperstown than anywhere in Ireland. I want them to see, via this nomination, that a young boy from Draperstown, with very little, can achieve acclaim as an entrepreneur throughout Ireland, and they will follow my lead.