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Well Pharmacy CEO: ‘To find out what's going on, go to the frontline'

Well Pharmacy CEO Seb Hobbs discusses how the multiple has fared during the COVID-19 pandemic, its competition and how he sees the company’s internal culture

“I haven’t got great signal where I am today, I’m afraid. I’m not actually in the office.”

Why, I ask Well’s CEO Seb Hobbs as we speak over the phone in mid-July. He explains that he’s on his way to visit a Well branch in Crewe that won pharmacy of the year as part of the multiple’s internal awards at the end of 2020, “just to recognise pharmacies and teams that have been going the extra mile”. His pharmacy visits are a regular occurrence, he tells me – a way of understanding what is happening on the company’s frontline.

In fact, a Well spokesperson later tells me that in regional Facebook groups – set up for Well teams to share learning and best practice – pictures of Mr Hobbs regularly crop up alongside teams across the country.

Mr Hobbs – or Seb to his colleagues – comes across as understated and down-to-earth, yet passionate about his staff, including Well’s “important” delivery drivers. Despite this being his first role in the pharmacy industry – having previously headed up a jewellery company – he explains that some enduring leadership philosophies have held him in good stead.

“I got some advice from a very early boss, that you can't do a job from behind your desk, which was her way of saying: get out there and listen, and see what's going on,” Mr Hobbs says. “If you want to find out what's going on in the company, go to go to the frontline.

“When you go, do you get opinions? Yes. But that's why you go out. You don't go to be told everything's wonderful.”

It’s certainly not been a wonderful year for pharmacy teams, with the COVID-19 pandemic heaping extra pressures and an increase in patient abuse onto an already beleaguered workforce. I ask Mr Hobbs about the challenges of heading up a multiple having no prior experience in the sector. He says that many, such as understanding customer and staff needs, are the same as in any business – although he admits the regulatory aspects of pharmacy required further understanding.

However, “those challenges are always overcome in the same ways – and that's by listening, by asking questions, by surrounding yourself with people that are knowledgeable and are willing to share their both their experience and their expertise”, he explains.

A culture of promoting talent from within

When it comes to expertise, Mr Hobbs opines about the Well culture of fostering talent from within. Well has recently seen the departure of Janice Perkins, its superintendent for more than fifteen years, and Nigel Swift, its director of operations.

Ms Perkins was replaced by her deputy, Ifti Khan, who had been a Well employee for more than a decade. Similarly, Mr Swift was replaced by Louis Purchase, who has been at Well for nearly five years.

“We believe in promoting from within and, where we can, for developing people's careers,” Mr Hobbs says, adding that Mr Khan’s promotion is “a great example of that”.

When the conversation turns to redundancies – placing 374 non-pharmacist manager roles at risk was part of a transformation of the business Mr Hobbs oversaw at a time when “the top line was pretty stagnant and costs were rising” – he plays his cards close to his chest. He doesn't give away any numbers, and couches his answer in the context of giving Well colleagues further opportunities for career growth.

The multiple started cutting back-office costs as part of its independent review of the business, Mr Hobbs explains. “We looked at pharmacy and support centre payroll, in what was then a challenging environment pre-pandemic, and then during [COVID-19] pandemic, we made some tough, but considered decisions. We didn't do anything in a rash way. That's not really how we work.”

“I'm thrilled that that what it led to was opportunities for others. While it was very sad – sad for some – it also leads to our ability to allow people to progress, which is good for the future of the organisation as well.”

The COVID-19 pandemic

About six months into Mr Hobbs’ stewardship of Well, the world was plunged into a global pandemic, and pharmacies large and small found themselves at the forefront of healthcare. Yet Mr Hobbs paints a picture of unfazed leadership.

Though he had not faced a crisis on the same scale as the COVID-19 pandemic, he says he’s “learned through other people's skills and coaching how to manage [and] lead, when things happen that you don't expect”.

And he seems to have plenty of experience of when things don’t go quite to plan. In his previous role, a “major technical issue” in the lead up to Christmas – when the company he worked for at the time made most of its revenue – meant it wasn’t able to operate as normal during its “peak season”. Before that, Mr Hobbs had to marshal a company the press termed “beleaguered” by the financial crash of 2008, through the economic turmoil that ensued.

Seemingly tired of talking about past challenges, Mr Hobbs brings the conversation once again back to his colleagues. “One of the beauties of the pharmacy sector is [it] is full of very calm, considered people that are methodical in how they operate, which in a pandemic is obviously […] extremely helpful.”

Later in the conversation, when I ask him about his personal highlight from the pandemic, Mr Hobbs once again takes the opportunity to pay tribute to Well staff – “the thousands of people that came into work every day, not knowing much about COVID-19, what it meant for them what it meant for their families”.

At the outset of the pandemic, many businesses faced uncertainty as to how it would impact them – and Well was no exception. As Mr Hobbs puts it, “we didn't know what we didn't know at that stage”. It asked for a rent reduction for some of its branches, and Mr Hobbs explains that in that time “the shape of the business changed materially”.

In the past 12 months, Well has seen its number of prescriptions drop, while demand for different over-the-counter products changed; the initial need for sanitising products and paracetamol has now waned, and the need for cold and flu products dropped as lockdown restrictions prevented the spread of normal sickness.

“Private services for us wasn't a large part of our mix,” Mr Hobbs adds. “But it was something that we were growing. And again, that pretty much completely closed off, for all the obvious reasons. […] The mix of the business changed. And that has a financial implication.”

However, since the rent reductions, Well has acquired new pharmacies, most recently six in Norfolk, suggesting it has weathered the pandemic and is growing.

Competing online

Even before the pandemic, Well had its sights set on online growth, and in June launched a click-and-collect service. But, Mr Hobbs notes, the desire has been for Well to become “omni-channel” – making sure its offerings are available on a number of different platforms.

“We need to become channel-agnostic. Now, we're not today, but we see that as a big opportunity,” says Mr Hobbs.

“Clearly the world is ever-changing and COVID-19, if anything, has accelerated digitalisation in pharmacy – but it's important for me to say that we believe in maintaining the connection between service and supply. And we believe in both physical and digital channels, and the combination therein.”

Despite seeing an “immediate spike” in online custom at the start of the pandemic, Mr Hobbs says, acceleration then slowed, “but it didn’t revert”. Now, with around 110,000 online patients, he believes Well is number three in the online pharmacy market.

But Well has fierce competition – not only from fellow multiples such as Boots, which recently launched its online Health Hub – but from online pharmacies such as Pharmacy2U, which recently partnered with Royal Mail, and potentially Amazon, which registered a pharmacy trademark in the UK earlier this year. I ask Mr Hobbs how he’ll keep Well competitive in a crowding market.

“What patients will expect is that their journeys will be connected, so they don't have to keep explaining or they don't have to re-enter details or anything like that. Because I think we all know how frustrating that can be,” he says. “Therefore, identification of both the individual and personalisation of their journey will become important.

“Pharmacy2U is a really good business; Amazon has taught us so much about how to operate in the digital world and is an exceptional business; Boots I have a huge amount of respect for and the Health Hub is new to [the] market. So, our role is to understand our customers and the patients that we want to serve, and to understand how we can develop our proposition to fulfil what we see as their primary needs.”

More broadly, I ask Mr Hobbs how he sees Well fending off competition from other pharmacies. He rattles off statistics, including that Well has less than six per cent of the pharmacy market in the UK, with independents making up over 50%, and he gives the sense that his first priority is serving Well patients rather than radically reforming the business to take on competitors.

“We've got a small part of the market and we're ambitious. We’re ambitious to grow [so] that we remain competitive, in part by the forces of our business to an extent: understand your customer, be aware of your unique skills, the values and culture that you have, the proposition that you deliver for customers in our communities.”

However, he stresses that Well’s desire is “to maintain those connections and help people, help our patients and our customers with their health”. 

Pharmacy sector

As a relative newcomer to the sector, I ask Mr Hobbs what he thinks the largest threat community pharmacy is facing right now. Perhaps revealingly, he spins his answer into a positive about what more pharmacy can do.

“We believe that community pharmacy has the opportunity to take a bigger role in improving health outcomes. And to achieve that, I think we need to partner with the relevant bodies to create a plan that outlines our increased role, the expectations that we will have the outcomes that we're looking for, the patient outcomes we're looking for, and the appropriate level of investment that we need from the sector as well as from the government. And with that, I think we can build a roadmap to hopefully unleash the huge potential that our profession has to offer.”

That said, Mr Hobbs appears acutely aware of some of the noticeable challenges facing pharmacists today. I mention a recent workforce development report, which suggests that community pharmacies are struggling to attract and retain pharmacists and staff. He comments that “there aren't as many people coming through some of the pharmacy education processes to pharmacy schools, as perhaps the sector would like”.

Equally, C+D’s Salary Survey 2020 found that pharmacists and pharmacy staff are increasingly stressed, with longer hours and increased workloads – especially during the pandemic. Mr Hobbs says that in response to this pressure, Well increased the number of mental health advisors it has to 30, with a further 24 set to be trained in September. It increased internal signposting to the fact that “there are people around the organisation who are there for people to talk to when they feel the need”, which he describes as “a really important thing we did”.

Before the interview ends, the conversation turns once again to Well's staff. Mr Hobbs mentions a pharmacist leadership council, set up under Mr Swift and now continued under Mr Purchase, comprised of 12 pharmacists from across the organisation who meet monthly “just [to] talk about what's going on in the business”.

Similarly, Well recently launched its “big colleague survey” – an opportunity for staff to anonymously tell the company’s leadership what it’s like to work for Well. Though he won’t share any of the details, the motivation for it is that “there is always more that we can do, and the only way to find out what's really important to people is to is to is to listen to them, and then see how we can help”.

Mr Hobbs seems very focussed on his employees, emphasising to me at every opportunity that they are to be listened to. When he took on the role, pharmacy’s funding problems were his main concern. But just over two years later, with those same funding issues not going away any time soon, it will be interesting to see to what extent he will be able to stay faithful to this philosophy and how those staff fare under his leadership as pharmacies’ belts become ever tighter.

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