Dr Kartar Lalvani OBE, founded and chairs Vitabiotics. He has brought the business to the stage where it is now Britain’s best selling vitamin producer. Along the way he and his company have faced a number of crucial turning points, we sat down with him to get a better understanding of how these played out...
The firm, based in London, had a global turnover of $750m in 2015 (2016 figures not yet published). With Vitabiotics recognised all over the world it can proudly claim to be the only company to have won the Queen’s Award for Innovation in Vitamin Research.
Vitabiotics is helped by clever marketing. It’s endorsed by fitness fanatic-cum model David Gandy, Sky Sports presenter Kirsty Gallagher, former world champion swimmer Mark Foster and England international cricketer James Anderson. Businesses always need advocates, whether it is the CEO or other recognisable faces.
While developing the company into a market leader, Dr Lalvani had many turning points in his life; some small, and one or two really big ones.
Kartar went to medical college, but changed course when he realised that if he could succeed in creating some novel medicinal products that could help hundreds of thousands of people, he could be more effective than if he was treating one person at a time as a medic.
So he redirected and focussed on Pharmacy degree at Kings College, then going on to Medicinal Chemistry at Bonn University.
He has always wanted to reach as wide a market as possible, so, as an entrepreneur, he concentrated on this aspect with his products.
He also chose to be different, something that can make certain entrepreneurs stand out. An early example was when he received the patent for his first innovation, a product for mouth ulcers in 1967.
Among his various inventions was the first menopause product for women (with six international clinical trials) that was non-hormone. Hormonal products excluded 50 per cent of women buyers; those who had family histories of cancer.
Creating a first ever calcium brand with magnesium in 1968 was another landmark; it was developed after Dr Lalvani found that calcium without magnesium could not be fully utilised by the body.
Dr Lalvani had created his innovative products but he still needed funds to market them as he prepared to launch in the UK. He did not have enough support and banks would not give him loans at that stage. "It was very frustrating," he said. "I knew I needed the funds. I tried for nearly a year before I realised it wasn’t working out."
So he shifted his plans and decided to try another route to achieve his target of global recognition. He had contacts in Nigeria and Taiwan. He reached out to them so that they would make introductions for him. "Export of my novel products made in England became a simpler proposition," Dr Lalvani told me. "Omega H3 was my first product and it is still the best selling special vitamin formula in Nigeria. The brand has been going for over 40 years."
The contacts helped and products performed due to their quality and effectiveness. Kartar started exporting, and soon he began to receive the desired funds as a result. He explained that he was "happy as well as surprised at this early acceptance of my products within a year of their launch.
"The resulting revenue helped and arrived in time to support my marketing in the UK. My products were and are unique multi-micronutrient vitamin specialities. I had a soft landing."
This gutsiness is an essential trait of an entrepreneur, and shows how a complete reboot is sometimes required if our first plan is not working effectively.
"People began to have faith in my products," says Kartar. "The formulas have always been unusual and ahead of competition, supported by the very successful numerous placebo control trials."
Back in the UK, recognition for Vitabiotics was rapidly growing. Osteocare became the market leader of calcium brands. Today Vitabiotics is the UK’s largest and fastest growing vitamin company.
Pregnacare was also an instant success, due to excellent clinical results; it now accounts for 85 per cent of all pregnancy products sold in the UK. Previously, doctors had usually prescribed only iron and folic acid for pregnancy, "but Pregnacare, wide spectrum nutrient brand did so much more," says Dr Lalvani.
Finally, the lifetime business messages Dr Lalvani conveys are: "be determined to succeed no matter how hard things get and never stop learning. Always keep your costs and spending under control and stay ahead of the competition."