Boots can help take the strain off the creaking NHS – and become famous around the globe, says billionaire boss Stefano Pessina
Supposing Boots the Chemist could bottle and patent the secret elixir that keeps its billionaire boss Stefano Pessina in the pink, then it would be mobbed with customers wanting some of what he’s having.
When I meet the 75-year-old Italian in a modest modern office tucked down an alley behind the Boots store on London’s Oxford Street, he has struck two major corporate deals in as many days and is thriving on it.
So, does a deal a day keep the doctor away? He laughs. Pessina says he doesn’t use any of his company’s anti-ageing creams, such as Protect & Perfect serum for men. ‘Maybe I need it.’ He doesn’t. He’s wrinkle-free.
One reason for his unfurrowed brow, he claims, is that he never feels stressed.
That’s despite being at the helm of Walgreens Boots Alliance, the multi-billion-pound global pharmacy empire he built with his long-term partner, Ornella Barra, at his side. ‘I am always calm,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what stress is.’
He met Barra, 63, now a senior executive at the company herself, back in the 1980s. Love blossomed over the spreadsheets when he took over her regional distribution company. They live in Monaco.
Pessina controls more than 13,000 stores in the UK, the US and around the world. He took over Boots in 2006 and then pulled off a £16bn merger with Walgreens in 2014.
He’s now chief executive and the single biggest shareholder, with a 13.3 per cent stake.
In the past few days he and Barra have signed a global partnership with billionaire Sir Martin Sorrell, founder of advertising agency WPP, to handle all their communications and marketing.
Just 24 hours earlier Pessina cut the price on a £11.3bn deal to merge with rival chain Rite Aid Pharmacy in the US, which could bring him up to 2,000 more stores over there.
Closer to home, he believes Boots can help take the strain off the creaking National Health Service.
A mole-screening trial will launch in March in 50 stores in partnerships with Screen Cancer UK.
It costs £42 for up to two moles. They will take a picture, send it off for analysis and then in a day or two tell the patient whether further checks are needed.
The company is also trying out tests in a handful of stores that would normally be carried out by GPs on sore throats to find out whether an infection is viral or bacterial.
If it’s the latter, the pharmacist will contact the customer’s GP and get a prescription for antibiotics. The test costs £7.50 and another £10 if antibiotics are needed.
‘Pharmacies could do much more than what they do today,’ he says. ‘Think of how much they could do as, let’s say, a port of first call.’
Although Boots needs to cover its costs, Pessina doesn’t want to squeeze the maximum profits out of this sort of service, which he sees as good for the community.
‘The NHS is a big cost and the system is really inefficient, so things will have to change. We are very willing to co-operate, to work with them, we are open to do whatever we can to make the life of patients easier, if possible.’
Pessina’s business is, of course, much more than Boots.
If the Rite Aid deal goes through it will end up with about 11,000 pharmacies in the US, where it is already the biggest chain.
He is trying to bring a bit of the Boots ‘ta dah’ factor to America, where the beauty counters are mostly bargain basement, self-service affairs.
Boots products are now in 1,800 stores in the States, where the company has trained 2,000 beauty advisers in the past 18 months. ‘Our most popular products in the US from Boots are No 7 and the Soap & Glory Skin Care range.
They are quite well known now,’ he says with pride.
‘There is scope for more deals in the US. It will take time, we have to digest this deal, but there are more things we can do in the US.’
China is the next big market in his sights. ‘We are very active in China but it is very slow,’ he says.
So as just one cog in this vast global operation, will Boots keep its identity, and just as important, its three-for-two offers and the Advantage card?
‘We will always keep the Boots name,’ he says, adding that research and development will continue to be done in its labs in Beeston, Nottingham, where ibuprofen headache pills were invented and cosmetics such as No 7 and Seventeen were developed.
As for the Advantage Card, he says it is celebrating its 20th birthday this year and that ‘customers will continue to enjoy its benefits for many more years’.
Pessina originally wanted to be an academic or a nuclear engineer, not a businessman. At the age of 30, however, his life changed when his father Oreste asked Stefano to help turn around his struggling pharmaceutical wholesale firm in Naples.
After making a success of it, Oreste’s friends began asking for his help with their companies. Stefano was happy to oblige – in return for a stake.
In 1984, he met Barra and their long business and personal partnership seems to be founded on their mutual workaholism.
Insiders say she is a powerful businesswoman who would have made it to the top in her own right, and Pessina is manifestly very proud of her.
‘She is always there, every year, on these rankings,’ he beams, referring to the lists of the world’s top female executives.
Are they the most powerful business couple in the world? ‘I don’t know, I don’t care about these statistics,’ he harrumphs, though the answer is almost certainly yes.
I have heard that the pair of them are always working, even when they are supposed to be on holiday, which he doesn’t deny. ‘There are always issues around the world and you have to step in,’ he says.
He loves art, and has an enviable collection of Old Masters. He used to love sailing in his yacht, but says ‘he is now becoming lazier and lazier’ so is taking to the water less frequently.
I hardly dare mention the ‘R’ word. He laughs: ‘What does it mean, retirement? If I woke up without knowing that I have to call someone, do something, well, I would be so bored I would die of it.
I could step down and do something else, but I am sure I will work until my last day.’
Originally published by RUTH SUNDERLAND for Daily Mail