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NPA chair: Half my businesses are failing - I'm struggling like you

“The NPA is not in aggression mode at all, but I will also not let things go”
“The NPA is not in aggression mode at all, but I will also not let things go”

The newly-appointed chair of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) confronts his wholesaler links and reveals he too is struggling to keep some of his pharmacies afloat

Nitin Sodha’s appointment as National Pharmacy Association (NPA) chair in April was somewhat overshadowed by board member Mike Hewitson’s resignation, in a protest against Mr Sodha’s relationship with independent wholesaler Lexon UK.

“At a time when NPA members face an existential battle for survival, made more difficult by the behaviours of wholesalers, large and small, this represents an insoluble conflict of interest,” Mr Hewitson argued in a post on Twitter, hours before Mr Sodha’s appointment was announced.

Speaking to C+D a few weeks after the announcement, Mr Sodha – who is listed on Companies House as director of Lexon UK, and is managing director of the Knights Chemist chain of 21 Knights pharmacies – admits he was shaken by Mr Hewitson’s departure.

“I really regard Mike Hewitson, he is an incredibly able guy,” Mr Sodha says. “I was disappointed that he left, but that was his choice. I got elected locally and then nationally and it was a democratic scenario.”

While he “respects” Mr Hewitson “for saying how it is”, Mr Sodha insists that “independent wholesalers provide value” and “there is no conflict” with pharmacy.

“I am 100% focused on the NPA and my independent pharmacies. I am not actually working at Lexon, my office is not in Lexon,” he adds.

“Half my businesses are heading south”

Mr Sodha has been involved with the NPA for over 10 years in various membership and policy roles, including serving as vice-chair since 2014.

He has also chaired Herefordshire and Worcestershire local pharmaceutical committee (LPC) for the last 16 years, so admits he’s seen – and survived – quite a few disruptions to the sector in that time.

“The first one was in the 1990s when the supermarkets went into community pharmacy, and they opened all these [extended-hour] pharmacies,” he remembers. “At that stage, I decided what we needed to do was to move away from just selling toiletries as much as possible and become better at what we do. Sharpen the saw, as it were.”

But he says the £170 million cut to pharmacy funding in England announced in December 2015, and ongoing medicines supply issues has put a strain on his own business, with 10 of his Knights Pharmacy branches “running on negative cashflow”.

“Worcestershire sounds green and luscious, but actually Redditch – the town that I work in – has the highest deprivation in the county, and I know the [patient] issues and concerns,” he tells C+D.

“A phone call I took from a contractor exemplifies everything the sector is going through. This is a person who was desperate, saying: ‘What do I do now? I have to carry on looking after my patients, but actually every day I am going in and the business is not surviving’.

“For those with more pharmacies, they have got even more pressures,” Mr Sodha says. “Half my businesses are actually heading south and you cannot just keep investing.”

Ensuring independent pharmacies’ success

Mr Sodha says he is determined to use his role as NPA chair to ensure independent pharmacies are commercially successful and recognised as a “part of the NHS solution”. To this end, he will be travelling the country to visit the “champions” on the frontline and garner best practice. At the time of interview, Mr Sodha was particularly excited to catch up with multi-C+D Award-winning Ade Williams at Bedminster Pharmacy in Bristol, to pick his brains on where the sector goes from here.

Mr Sodha says he has already requested to meet the movers and shakers in the sector, including pharmacy minister Steve Brine, and the chief pharmaceutical officers of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

“I have met [England’s chief pharmaceutical officer Dr] Keith Ridge before. We will meet him [again] as soon as I can,” he tells C+D.

“The Scots have really got it right. [Chief pharmaceutical officer] Rose Marie Parr has done an amazing job, and has actually got pharmaceutical care down to a tee,” Mr Sodha says. “I also want to understand how the Welsh have done so well in negotiating contracts. The Welsh are incredible, the Scots have done it – why can’t we do it in England? What is the problem?”

Mr Sodha insists he is “not criticising Dr Ridge in any way, [I’m] just trying to say: ‘Look, tell us what you want, tell us how we can do it’. These are the things that are happening elsewhere, let’s work together to get this best practice out there.”

“I will bring a different style to Ian Strachan”

While rubbing shoulders with pharmacy influencers, Mr Sodha says he won’t be rattling cages – not during his first few visits at least. And he says he won’t take the outspoken and opinionated approach to leadership that the sector might have gotten accustomed to from former NPA chair Ian Strachan. When he is not attending “necessary” industry functions, Mr Sodha will be encouraging NPA board members to be active in their local areas.

“I am more of a thinker, and work out solutions first,” he tells C+D. “All the people who know me know I work very hard, I like to work behind the scenes.”

New NPA faces

“I am really excited about the fresh faces we have got on the board,” he says, including Reena Barai (pictured above, front row, far right), the first female appointee to the NPA board in four years. “A lot of them are frontline community pharmacists, so they are working day in, day out [in pharmacy]. It’s very important for us that the board is held to account.”

“We also have experienced board members who know the workings of the organisation. We have a good team, and we will make it work. My first plea for the board was that we all need to be focused together and with the new chief executive [Mark Lyonette], we will develop a combined strategy together,” Mr Sodha insists.

“I will not let things go”

While he maintains a calm and measured nature throughout the interview, there are two topics that have the potential to get the NPA chair riled up, he says: the continued threat of hub-and-spoke dispensing, and his personal “bee in the bonnet”– price concession delays.

“Hub-and-spoke works in small [pharmacies] where they are trying to manage space and dealing with medipacks. There are independents using examples of that around the country. But mass mechanisation is a recipe for disaster,” he warns.

One of the most prominent operators of the hub-and-spoke model is Pharmacy2U, which according to figures from the NHS Business Services Authority, dispensed over 300,000 online prescriptions in March this year. But Mr Sodha is still concerned by independent pharmacies being “left to pick up the pieces”, as was the case in 2015 after the company failed to deliver vital medicines to patients over community pharmacy’s busiest period – Christmas.

“Imagine a major incident like that happening again,” he says. At a time when pharmacies are already battling funding cuts, increasing workloads and medicines supply issues, independent pharmacies would not be able to pick up the slack, he warns.

“Hub-and-spoke is a dangerous experiment, and it won’t work on a mass-scale basis,” Mr Sodha stresses. “It looks great on paper, but we're talking about human beings [being affected].”

When it comes to medicines supply issues, “the biggest issue for us is that the price concession system doesn't catch up”, he says. “It is not a simple issue of a wholesaler overcharging, it is market forces that are complex and have all come together.”

With these issues still bubbling and clearly touching a nerve with the new NPA chair, how will he realise his desire for a more collaborative, calm, working relationship with the sector?

“[The NPA is] not in aggression mode at all, but I will also not let things go,” Mr Sodha says.

One thing is for certain, the new NPA chair will have to use a mixture of tenacity and charm to influence policy making and address the pressing challenges currently facing the sector.

35 Comments
Question: 
What should the NPA focus on in 2018?

Peter Sainsburys, Community pharmacist

The fact that someone with a vested interest and millions of pounds has been allowed to be appointed is exactly why pharmacy is in the hole that it's in. Pharmacists have their lives ruined for minor infringements but this kind of debacle is allowed to go on. Friends in high places, perhaps? Is the UK really this corrupt?

It seems like if you've got enough money or "buddies" you can do as you please. The rest of us are crying in to our cornflakes because the workplace is so toxic and horrendous.

By my calculations this guy could afford to give every pharmacist in the UK £2000 and still be rich.

I think that says it all, despite the cries from him that he doesn't have that much, maybe because he just bought *another* house this morning.

How many properties does he own? Well I will let him answer that one.

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

Peter, Your comments about me are personal, offensive and extremely hurtful. You have hounded me and made statements that are affecting my personal integrity without knowing the facts. Please can you confirm that you are not   writing under a pseudonym, an NPA member, and have your own pharmacy. You do not know me personally, but am willing to meet you, and resolve your difficulties about my personal matters which concern you. 

 

Alex Pharmacist, Community pharmacist

For me it’s less about what Mr Sodha earns and more about what Mr Sodha says in pharmacy media. It demonstrate a lack of vision and leadership which is very worrying for me as a member of the NPA. 

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

Fo

 

Hi Alex, The vision is to ensure that independent  members of the NPA have a fulfilling professional carwet 

 

The vision is to ensure that NPA members have a    fulfilling professional career and a sustainable business. The NPA will protect the values  of face to face availability, work toward ensuring supply and service are linked and support , represent and protect members though its services. I hope that clarifies. 

M B, Superintendent Pharmacist

The paucity of constructive and focused debate here is half the battle. What avenues should the NPA go along is the topic here. 

 

Mr Sodha has been elected fairly and democratically. Someone’s net worth should not come into play - the same opportunities were available to others then and now. Let’s commend someone who has been commercially successful for his continued effort to help the sector evolve positively. 

 

 

On the matter of conflict of interest/supply issues - let’s see if the DoH and MHRA interventions help. We don’t know if wholesalers alone are to blame. The situation is probably multifactorial. 

 

I ask all pharmacists to stand together and show their value and worth in making positive changes to patients health each day. Are you simply involved in the supply of medicines and/or positive outcomes for those patients you supply. 

 

Pharmacist led evidenced based services that are valued by patients AND other HCPs is the way forward. 

 

Good luck to all.

MB Patel, Community pharmacist

Nitin, you talk about unity but as you can see clearly from the comments here and elsewhere people see your NPA Chairman role as a conflict of interest and not something that unites us. As a contractor and NPA member I see pages of media publicity around you and Lexon but not a clear vision which is worrying. I shall be thinking very carefully about my NPA membership for my pharmacies when the renewal date is due. 

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

Dear MB, I see where you are coming from. I have never publicised Lexon, but have answered questions re my involvement, when this has been raised. Also for clarity, I do not work in Lexon, do not have an office there, and do not have any control over decisions. I am happy to meet you personally for you to make a fair objective decision. Regards, Nitin

John Smith, Community pharmacist

You are saying your businesses are heading south Nitin but you recently bought 10 plus pharmacies as part of your Knights group? How does that make sense? Are we seriously putting a multi millionaire wholesaler who is on the rich list in front of Steve Brine to advocate for community pharmacy? I mean seriously?
 

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

 

John, Thanks, this was a strategic decision made by a Board where I had no overall control. All I know was that it was funded fully though debt, and pray that it comes though. The team there is fantastic, and Knights Chemist Ltd, which I am the M.D. of , has no ownership of that business.

 

Jonny Johal, Pharmacy Area manager/ Operations Manager

... I guess Mr Sodha is doing his best to show the government that community pharmacy is in bad shape ( minus wholesaling of course ) and needs more 'funding', but if he can't even convince us, has he got any hope in convincing civil servants?

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

Jonny, That’s unfair, you have crucified me before having met me...civil servanta will not pander to begging bowls but a rational collaborative win-win scenarios and that is  all I am working toward hopefully in a united fashion. 

R A, Community pharmacist

Hi Nitin,

From the anecdotal stories I have heard it seems that the profitability of community pharmacies was due to favourable conditions introduced by the government in the 80s. This included restricting new entrants, generous reimbursement for dispensing and lack of competition on the retail side of pharmacy.  

Clearly, for the last two decades, the buoyancy of pharmacy was due to the rising tide and not because of the entrepreneurial skills of individual pharmacists.  It now seems to me that the contractors are facing a situation of having to actually swim in the water and not ride along the wave. 

How will contractors like you survive will you let the non-viable branches go under?

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

Morning RA, Apologies for delayed response. I assume your question is how will independents  will survive if established players are swimming hard. This is the critical issue for all, and the larger corporates are making pure commercial decisions re closures within this portfolio of businesses. For smaller indpendents this is their lifeline, and if tied to leases than it is a difficult scenario, particularly because they are also looking after many patients in the hearts of communities up and down the country. This is why clarity in expectations is needed. We know that change is coming, and independents usually are the first to adapt. In the meantime, my advice is to sharpen the saw, become more effective and  efficient. 

R A, Community pharmacist

Hi Nitin,

Thanks for getting back. I hope it works out for you and your contemporaries.

 

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

Let’s be united, at the moment just want to enjoy the England win, and offer open for me to meet personally. 

Ramesh Yadav, Community pharmacist

Some of the critisims of Nitin in here and in other related artcles are from people who have no idea about his character and personality. I have known Nitin for some times now (10 years), since when I joined Knights Pharmacy as a trainee. I have always known him as a humble, honest and hardworking man. I don't see anything wrong in getting into the rich list. It is an achievement and inspiration specially when you have started your first pharmacy in a portakabin. I am a NPA memebr myself and have absolute confidence in his leadership. He has been elected fairly lets give him a chance.I wish him luck.

 

Peter Sainsburys, Community pharmacist

I am certain that Nitin is a fantastic guy, friendly and hardworking. I don't think anyone questions that. What they are questioning is the glaring conflict of interest, plus the fact that he has more money than most pharmacists could ever dream of. It just makes people worry.

Then he says that "he is struggling just like us" despite having 141 million in the bank. You can see why people are not especially pleased.

Galling doesn't even begin to describe it.

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

 

 

 

 

Peter, let’s get the facts right, I do not have that kind of money ( happy to show you my accounts and assets, including debt, which is probably much more that you can imagine. The real issue is that all pharmacy companies are struggling and need to be sustainable to ensure they invest in their businesses and pay their staff. At the moment I do not draw any salary. I hope we can have a constructive debate and happy to meet you. Let’s have a collective united approach rather than be part of Life of Brian’s , Peoples Power of Judea..or is it the Judea Peoples Power? 

Peter Sainsburys, Community pharmacist

Well, you've got enough money to get on the rich list, and there are pictures of you drinking champagne to celebrate. That proves the point. I presume that you are only doing this to raise your profile and earn even more money?

Whilst the rest of us are *actually* struggling. Imagine not being able to pay a bill or mortgage payment, Mr Sodha.

Even if you have assets of 141m and debts of 140m then you are richer than 99% of pharmacists.

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

Hi Pete, Just for your information, I don’t like champagne, and hardly have a tipple. May Have had held a glass of bubbly or a pint! Like you I have debts to pay off and have live in the same house for the last 27 years.

david williams, Community pharmacist

Give him a chance, I have met him and he is a genuine guy, supportive of all pharmacists. He mentions Scotland and Wales have done well - we have- left wing governments in both. This conservative goverment is the problem, not the wholesalers or manufacturers-they want a profitable business also and the more stable the network, the more secure their business. As I have posted previously, stop the infighting, it is counter productive.

Alex Pharmacist, Community pharmacist

Dear David, It is not about not wanting to give him a chance but when you see pages and pages of articles in Pharmacy media where Mr Sodha is giving publicity to Lexon when contractors are having issues with cash flow, you think enough is enough. He says Keith Ridge “tell us what you want, tell us how we can do it”. I don’t think there are many contractors out there who don’t know what Keith Ridge wants. The NPA ran a campaign around that under Ian Strachan’s leadership, Mr Sodha should remember that. As a sector should we not be proactive and tell the Government what we CAN do rather than waiting to be told what to do?! Should he as Chair of the organisation representing us not be leading on that? This is hopelessly poor leadership, not to mention the conflict of interest being all over the place.

david williams, Community pharmacist

Hi Alex,

I think the quotation "tell us what you want Keith Ridge" is a good one. We all think we know what he wants, but he has not said it. I think Keith Ridge displays qualities of a very poor healthcare professional and a very good political animal. i.e. he has an agenda and wants to follow it-be that the end of community pharmacy, however he is wise enough not to show a duty of candour (some may call it honesty) and astute enough to want to dismantle by stealth. I think Nitin's question invites Keith Ridge to be honest and open in his distaste of community pharmacy and his reasons why. Then we can start the real arguements. As I stated earlier, he is an appointee of a conservative government and as such is barking to his political bosses desires.

I believe he was tasked with cutting costs on the NHS and has approached it from that end and made up the facts to fit the conclusion. Certainly not evidenced based.

However, confrontation with government is not the best approach even if my opinions of Keith Ridge would be censored if i was daft enough to print them.

 

Hope Nitin proves you wrong Alex. But condeming someone without knowing him or giving him a chance is probably not fair. but hey, you are entitled to your view and you may prove me wrong.

Peter Sainsburys, Community pharmacist

You don't need to have known or have met someone personally to decide if they are suitable for the role. How many times have you voted for someone you have never met?

Most pharmacists can see the glaring conflict of interest combined with the fact that this guy obviously likes making money. If there is an honest way of making that kind of money without treading on people's shoulders I would love to know about it.

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

Peter, firstly I do not have that kind of money, and the latter has never been my driver... but sustainable businesses do create jobs... honestly!

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

Dear Alex, I have worked many years with Ian and have been his Vice Chairman for the last four years and would never compromise him or his contribution to the NPA and profession. Please contact me personally in the spirit of constructive and fairness and I will happily clarify any misunderstanding.

Jonny Johal, Pharmacy Area manager/ Operations Manager

"Half my businesses are failing" - can I ask if that is because retail profits are re-distributed to wholesale?

Nitin Sodha, Superintendent Pharmacist

Dear Jonny, Apologies for the delayed answer. I have no day to day invovement on wholesaling, and so the truth is I do not know and am equally interested in where the profits are going. What I do know is that generics is a global supply chain that has been affected by a perfect storm of a combination of factors. Prices have been driven to an all time low, the currency is weak, there have been regulatory issues with some manufacturers, and concession prices do not appear to catch up fast enough. Most wholesalesalers work on a needs basis just as pharmacies do. I hope that answers your question. You might want to talk to the BGMA and let’s wait for outcome of the inquiry.

Jonny Johal, Pharmacy Area manager/ Operations Manager

Mr Sodha is a prolific responder to people’s comments here, I just wondered why he left my innocent little question unanswered? His silence on this subject is deafening, especially at a time when the government is investigating pharmaceutical wholesalers’ unexpected profits.

Leon The Apothecary, Student

I believe Mr Sodha is currently in the top 40 Rich List with an estimated value of £131.6m in assets. I don't think we need to be sending him food parcels just yet in my humble opinion.

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