Big CEO interview: David Cole, Lanes Health
PUBLISHED: 10:24 06 January 2017 | UPDATED: 10:24 06 January 2017
Some of the UK's most familiar pharmacy brands have been made in Gloucester for 50 years. Now the company which produces them plans to go global, says managing director David Cole
Olbas Oil, Kalms and ProPlus. Familiar household names, and all produced in Gloucester by Lanes Health.
These brands are stalwarts on the shelves of pharmacies and supermarkets across the UK, and now managing director David Cole, is spearheading a 2017 export strategy to take them further afield.
With such well-known brand names, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Lanes Health is part of a big pharmaceutical conglomerate, but this is a fiercely independent family firm.
Pharmacist Gilbert Lane, a man rather ahead of his time, established the business in the 1930s. He had a passionate interest in the link between health, wellbeing and diet, writing a number of the books on the subject. Some of which are preserved in the company’s archives in Gloucester. The business was then known for selling a range of herbal medicines and when Gilbert died in 1964 his son Roger, also a pharmacist, took over as managing director.
The business grew and broadened under Roger’s guidance, most notably with the acquisition of the rights to manufacture and sell Olbas Oil, still its most familiar brand today. Olbas Oil, a blend of herbs and essential oils for congested noses, originated in Switzerland over 100 years ago and is in millions of medicine cabinets worldwide. Lanes Health’s acquisition of Kalms tablets quickly followed.
Lanes Health operates from premises, purpose built in 1974, on Sisson’s Road, Gloucester and employs around 175 people. Managing director David Cole isn’t a member of the family, but the chairman is: Janet Groves is Gilbert Lane’s granddaughter. Other family members also play active roles in the business, most notably Janet’s son Jon, the company’s commercial director. However, Jon wasn’t handed his role on a silver platter. He learned the business from the bottom up, first as a salesman. It took him five years to get to director level. Janet’s nephew, Robin, is also likely to join the business as a trainee engineer when he graduates next year.
For the moment, however, this £25 million turnover business is being led by David Cole, and he sees export as one of its big opportunities. With the company holding the (almost) worldwide rights to sell Olbas Oil (it can’t sell into Germany and Switzerland for historic reasons), it’s surprising that Lanes Health hasn’t gone for export growth before. Currently it exports only around 10% of its manufactured goods.
That’s because the company operates in the highly regulated medicine market, where there are no helpful EU-wide regulations a company can adhere to. Every country has its own regulations, each one of which must be met before the products can be sold there. It’s a potential minefield for independent businesses such as Lanes Health, but David is convinced that if he gets it right, the rewards will follow.
“We have products in Australia, Singapore and Greece, historically it’s been piecemeal, sometimes doing business on a handshake with likeminded people. Now we have a small team in-house working on this project, and we’re also working with expert export advisers, and the Government’s UK Trade and Investment team.”
While looking further afield for new markets, Lanes Health has also been adding to its stable of over-the-counter brand names to introduce, or reintroduce, into the market. In 2014 the company bought Earex, after David finally persuaded multinational consumer brands company Reckitt Benckiser to part with the brand.
“Earex was one of a number of brands owned by SSL International. In 2010 Reckitt Benckiser bought out SSL, purely for its Durex and Scholl foot care brands. But SSL also owned other great brands along with Earex: Ralgex, ReSolve, Burnese, Waspese and SeaLegs.
“These all had huge consumer loyalty and recall. Every student of a certain age remembers ReSolve. Reckitt Benckiser weren’t doing anything with them, and I knew we could.”
Part of Lanes Health’s plan next year is to reintroduce some of these brands to consumers. Ralgex is currently on stability trials and if all goes well, it will relaunch next year. “Our strengths lie in taking brands and applying new innovations,” says David.
In 2015 Lanes Health also bought the ProPlus anti-fatigue tablet brand from Bayer, another great brand familiar among consumers.
As well as acquiring well-known brands, Lanes Health is extending some of its existing ranges. The company has a separate new product development steering team and has introduced five new products in the last five years. There are now four different types of stress and sleeplessness relieving-Kalms, including brand new lavender oil capsules. These are the only ones not to be manufactured in Gloucester as Lanes Health has teamed up with another family business, this time in Germany, called Schwabe.
Thank to its constant innovations, Lanes Health is a prime target for takeover and David gets approached regularly. “Of course I know what our chairman’s answer will be, but I have to ask her all the same.”
Janet Groves always has the same answer for him: “No, Dave.”