Bitten by the bug

Pharmacist pursues entrepreneurial freedom

Lovely Letsoalo

Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes but there is one common element that binds them: vision.

Where others saw an abandoned post office in Pretoria’s West Park, Lovely Letsoalo saw a beginning.

While it would be the beginning of a pharmacy, it would also be the beginning of a new business empire.

The pharmacist and Sanlam / Business Partners Emerging Business Entrepreneur of the Year ® says that during her rise in the corporate ranks, there was always a yearning to own her own business.

Over time, this goal could no longer be ignored and two years she decided to take the plunge.

Capital conundrum

Letsoalo spent a number of months honing her business plan and decided that the pharmacy would open up on 1 November 2008 come hell or high water.

But, this goal seemed destined to remain a pipedream, as she could not secure the finance needed.

“I went to a lot of different institutions. Obviously the banks would not touch me,” she says, adding that a government funding institution also pulled out two months before the business was to open.

Letsoalo explains that she had basically bankrupted herself in setting up shop so she was labelled as a high-risk investment.

Luckily, an uncle was able to lend her some money and the business was started with a mere R150 000.

“It was quite traumatic because I had very little stock. But I had done my planning and I knew it would work,” she says.

“I felt confined in my thinking by the (corporate) processes and procedures. I was always looking for an opportunity to go out on my own – owning a business was a childhood dream.

“I just knew that I was not made to be an employee. Here, I can do what I want and I don’t have to please certain personalities.”

Service success

Letsoalo explains that she had grown up in the area and that she always had to go far afield to visit a pharmacy. She wanted to give the residents in the area access not only to medicine, but also to the service that one expects from a family pharmacy.

Letsoalo might have had a pharmacy, but she did not have a lot of medicine. If a customer needed a specific prescription filled, she would immediately drive to the wholesaler and deliver it to their home: “People want to know that you care and that you will go the extra mile.”

This allowed her to prove her commitment to the community and the word started to spread.

“Looking back, I am actually happy that I didn’t have the money because I would have messed up,” she says with a wry smile. Letsoalo explains that the process also helped her to understand the pharmaceutical needs of the community so stock would not sit on shelves idly.

Holistic healthcare

While the 300 m2 building Letsoalo secured is ideally positioned next to a small community shopping centre, it is too big for her small business. But, she had taken this into account during the planning phase and sublet part of the building to a doctor, optometrist and a dentist.

Immediately, the premise was transformed from an empty building into a health care destination for the community.

Recently, Letsoalo also expanded her operation to include a primary health care clinic with a grant from SAB KickStart.

“I thought this is an opportunity. I had identified it years ago and no one had ever taken it up.”

Going forward, she would like to transform the clinic into a mobile operation in order to provide community vaccinations and corporate wellness services.

“The clinic does not need me to be there once I hire a registered nurse. So, it can make money while I focus on other aspects of the business,” she explains.

School fees

Letsoalo might be a qualified professional and she might have made her mark in the corporate world, but she says that the small business arena is a different kettle of fish.

She attended a number of courses offered by governmental support institutions but Letsoalo does not think these entities offered much value.

“It is shocking. You go there and speak to a matriculant who does not understand what you are talking about – it is like speaking to a wall.

“If I asked them to help me with a marketing strategy for example, they would suggest a website. My customers do not have access to the Internet. Flyers at church events for example, work better for me.”

Letsoalo adds that the changes introduced by government regarding mark-ups and dispensing fees allowed her to stay independent and avoid the franchise route.

Money talks

While the gross profit on medicine dropped by about 40%, she understood that most franchise operations make money from the front of shop and not through dispensing.

Letsoalo keeps a hawk’s eye on the media and if a large chain pushes cough syrup, she ensure that her pharmacy has a prominent display as well.

Similarly, she is unable to compete with the supermarket next door on items such as soap or toothpaste. But, because there is a doctor, dentist and optometrist in the building, she stocks specialist medical items that are covered by medical aids.

It is through this careful management that the pharmacy’s turnover doubled in its second year.

“In my next venture I will be a lot more efficient and it will be much easier for me to identify opportunities,” she says, explaining that she has treated her first operation as an opportunity to understand the underlying business principles.

This includes elements such as seasonality. Obviously cough syrups and flue medicines are in demand during the winter whereas sunscreen moves in summer months.

But, Letsoalo explains that most medical aids are depleted in November and December. This means that cash sales increase in turn.

In the end however, it always comes down to service and Letsoalo has enrolled her two shop assistants to be trained as pharmaceutical assistants. She explains that because they are not qualified, customers want to deal with her directly.

Going forward however, the assistants will be able to provide the necessary service, freeing he up to expand and grow the business.