Sitting behind his office’s grand wooden desk, Kirit Patel looks every inch the hardened businessman. He cuts an imposing figure in his sharp suit – and clearly has the business acumen to back up his image. Speaking passionately about the successful pharmacy empire he has worked tirelessly to build over 40 years, Mr Patel is as direct and no-nonsense as ever when we meet at his Croydon headquarters.
As always, his plans for Day Lewis are ambitious. Back in April, he revealed that the company had reached its 250th pharmacy milestone, and unveiled plans to expand its portfolio to a whopping 400 branches by 2020. Not one to hang around, Mr Patel is now “quietly confident” that this goal will be reached one year earlier than anticipated. And it seems Mr Patel is looking to take his empire abroad. Having conquered the market in Britain, Day Lewis is keen to venture into Ireland and Poland.
But there is more to Day Lewis, and indeed Mr Patel, than simply making money. From a focus on training to finding new roles for just-qualified pharmacists in a saturated market, Mr Patel seems passionate about doing right by his staff and the sector as a whole. He explains why he is angry that pre-registration students get such a bad rap, determined to push ahead with a second pharmacist model and unequivocally committed to investing in training.
Leave them kids alone
The plight of young pharmacists is a particularly sore point for Mr Patel. With student numbers growing year on year and a shortage of jobs, it’s a tough time to start building a career. And that’s if you manage to qualify in the first place – this June’s registration exam resulted in one of the lowest pass rates in recent memory at just 74%.
To add insult to injury, many in the sector have been quick to point the blame for the low pass rate at the students themselves. In fact, the results of a C+D poll revealed that 68% of readers believe that there has been a reduction in the knowledge and skills of pre-registration students over the past five years. Is this something Mr Patel recognises in his own intake of pre-registration students? Absolutely not. “I see those youngsters come in and they hit the ground running when they qualify,” he stresses.
“It’s about interpersonal skills, engaging with patients making patients feel welcome, warm, happy to come into the pharmacy, getting the team around them, empowering staff.”
As a paternalistic character, it is unsurprising that Mr Patel feels passionate about the issue. He feels that students who failed this June’s exam were “knocked out by a system that is not fit for purpose”. To him, the General Pharmaceutical Council’s “three-strike system” – meaning those who fail the registration exam three times are unable to join the register – simply isn’t fair. Instead, he believes students should be able to resit any modules they have not succeeded in. “It’s not a cat-and-mouse game. You’re talking about the livelihood of people,” he argues.
There have also been aspersions cast on universities accepting too many students with lower A-level grades. But this is one topic that Mr Patel does not see as a cause for concern. He points out that it takes far more than three A*s at A-level to make a good pharmacist. “[Students with these grades] do not necessarily think laterally, they’re not innovative,” he argues. “Don’t just think that because you get three A*s, you’re going to be the best.” In fact, he stresses that many polytechnic graduates of his generation – himself included – are often the most successful, clocking up 60 or 100 branches of their own pharmacies.
So what does he look for when recruiting students to Day Lewis? “It’s about interpersonal skills, engaging with patients, making patients feel welcome, warm, happy to come into the pharmacy, getting the team around them, and empowering staff. And if you tell me you need just three As to get that, forget it,” he says.
Two heads are better than one
Successful Day Lewis pre-registration students who have these interpersonal skills may land themselves a job as a second pharmacist at the company. Its second pharmacist scheme – which launched in July last year – is intended to ensure that talented pre-registration students are given a job, while being mentored through the early part of their careers by another, more experienced, pharmacist at their side.
Successful second pharmacists may even find themselves running their own branch someday, Mr Patel says. “It’s only fair to give these guys a promotion, too,” he explains. “If they’re doing well, they should be managing their own pharmacies.”
Surely the scheme can’t be purely philanthropic – is it at least cost-effective? Mr Patel thinks for a moment before conceding that he’s more likely to be breaking even than making money. But he’s quick to point out that if he is losing any cash, it’s not much. “I’m not losing sleep over it,” he says dismissively. And in any case, he adds, he’s creating employment where otherwise there would be none.
Plus, Mr Patel points out that having a second pharmacist is a good way of freeing up the other pharmacist’s time to carry out services when they would otherwise be consumed with dispensing. And this focus on service delivery, of course, translates into bottom-line cash. “Unless we do the services...we’re never going to get the pot filled,” he stresses.
“Day Lewis sells health. And if you’re going to sell heath, you’ve got to have empowered, trained, motivated and skilled people”
He believes his second pharmacist scheme could well make all the difference. “If we recruit pharmacists, [and] we do the services, I think the money will follow,” he explains.
A focus on services
Services, as always, have been big news this year – not least because it looked as though pharmacists in England might finally be given a long-awaited national minor ailments service. But, unfortunately, these hopes were dashed at the last minute. The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) – on which Mr Patel sits as vice-chair – revealed in July that negotiations with NHS England for the service had fallen through because they were unable to agree on the all-important issue of funding.
So was he disappointed that PSNC couldn’t close the deal? “Of course I’m disappointed,” he says, seemingly incredulous at such an obvious question. And the source of his disappointment is that the many local versions of the minor ailments service may cause confusion among patients, resulting in lower uptake. He fears that this will make it easy for the commissioners to “point the finger at pharmacy” and give them yet another reason to refuse to commission the service nationally.
However, there is always hope for next year. “Memory is short,” he shrugs. Mr Patel says he is sure English pharmacists will see a national minor ailments service soon, given the right set of circumstances. “Last year, winter was fairly bad and there was talk of giving us minor ailments and, of course, the election came and then it was all forgotten,” he says. “Another lesson this winter and I believe they [NHS England] will wake up and come and talk to pharmacy.”
But while pharmacy is often told that services are the future of the profession, most of pharmacies’ revenue still comes from dispensing. This is why one of Mr Patel’s key goals over the next few years is to make sure that 80% of the workforce in each of his pharmacies is able to dispense.
“People who can dispense sell medicines better,” he explains. But Mr Patel also understands that offering his staff training gives them a reason to stay. He says he has plans to “ratchet up” training for his dispensers and technicians, prompted by the historic “high level of attrition” among this group.
The old adage goes that you have to spend money to make money, and this is clearly something Mr Patel has made his peace with. “Day Lewis sells health. And if you’re going to sell heath, you’ve got to have empowered, trained, motivated and skilled people,” he says.
In an age where it often seems like a focus on the bottom line comes at a cost to employee satisfaction, it is refreshing to see a company striving to prove that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
This dedication to stellar working conditions is perhaps why Day Lewis placed first in the C+D Best Places to Work 2015 initiative last month. And it could well be the reason why Mr Patel has been a dominant figure in British community pharmacy for the best part of half a century.
Having been in the business for 40 years, he recognises that investment in staff is crucial to keeping Day Lewis going for another 40. As he puts it: “We’re not trying to balance our books over the next year or two. It doesn’t work that way. We have a massive investment. We want to protect it, and then build on it.”