In each edition of Private Affairs, we speak to an inspiring leader about what they have learnt on their business journey. In our first interview, Sarah Wood talks to Rupa Patel, executive director at one of the UK’s leading pharmaceutical businesses, Day Lewis. She tells us about the day her father unexpectedly passed away and how she and her brothers put into action their years of succession planning.
Few moments in life are as difficult as suddenly losing a loved one. When Kirit Patel passed away, his children not only had to deal with the grief of losing a much-loved father, but also consider the impact on the family business.
Well-known for his charisma and community commitment, Kirit co-founded Day Lewis Pharmacy in the seventies alongside his brother JC. Together, they grew the company from two pharmacies to a chain of over 250, making it the largest independent multiple in the UK, according to The Pharmaceutical Journal.
As many as 3,000 people attended his memorial. How can a business possibly prepare for such a leadership transition, from someone so successful and influential that he was described in the industry as “a king” and “the godfather”?
Can you tell us about when you first took over as one of the leaders of the business? That must have been a difficult time. What happened?
On the Friday night, I was in the office with my dad talking about a house I was thinking of buying. It was about a minute from my parent’s home and he was really excited because he thought my mum would love us living so close. We talked about some work for Monday too. And that was it. I left the office.
It was my anniversary so I went to Cambridge for the weekend. Out of the hundreds of phone calls I could have received, that was not the one I expected. It was very sudden. That weekend was a blur. It was all about family. Then it got to Sunday and we thought, “What do we do tomorrow?” We had to be there for our business family too. All three of us – myself and my brothers, Jay and Sam – went in one car to the office.
How quickly did you and your brothers take the reins?
Earlier in my career, my dad had planned for me to be part of the business alongside my brothers and uncle, but I had been quite happy for them to be the leaders. It’s a really big commitment to run a business of our size. That changed in those few hours and days of my dad very suddenly passing away. When it came to it, I decided I wanted the responsibility too and to pitch in with my brothers – not one, not two but all of us in it together.
It just made sense for the business to pool all our skillsets as Sam is an accountant, Jay is a pharmacist and I had all this knowledge about values and culture having developed them for the business. Within a week, we had worked with one of our NEDs to clarify our responsibilities and were ready to send a message out to the business and the wider industry.
How did you first get involved in the family business?
I can’t remember Day Lewis not being part of my life. Growing up, our dad would take us to the office on Saturdays. As teenagers, we worked in the warehouse or pharmacies every summer. It was almost a second home – it was just assumed we would be there, doing homework or more likely photocopying our faces and misbehaving!
Were there ever any other paths you were thinking of pursuing?
I’ve always been very independent and wanted my own career. I decided on dentistry and I absolutely loved it but just before I graduated, I sat down with my dad and realised I didn’t want to be confined in a small room. I needed to be out meeting people and we came to the conclusion I could be well-placed to look after the property and real estate side of the business with my uncle.
I didn’t even know what terms like ‘profit’ and ‘loss’ meant at that point so I undertook a Masters in Property Management. Later on, I completed an MBA where my thesis was on succession planning and values in family businesses.
What is it like working with your brothers? Do they ever drive you up the wall?
We’re only a couple of years apart in age so we are close. Part of the reason for that is that my dad always wanted us to do things as a family. He wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro so we all climbed it! He wanted to go sky diving and we all jumped, including my mum! Those experiences meant we’ve always looked out for one another. Plus, we were never allowed to snitch because if we did then we’d all get told off!
We’ve also worked really hard to make our work relationships strong. We joined the Institute for Family Business 10 years ago and suddenly I was in a room full of people who had been on the same journey as me. It was clear family businesses don’t fail because the commercials don’t stack up but because the family fails. We decided to look at our own family governance structure and realised that getting all of us in a room to talk about such important decisions didn’t work because we didn’t have the right way of communicating with each other.
Ever since, all of us, my mum, and our partners have attended family counselling, seeing a psychologist every two months. It’s a forum for us to share things that are going well and things that aren’t. We’ve learnt how to have those really difficult conversations.
The three of us also do a lot of personal work. We’ve had life coaching and done personality profiling to find and address our blind spots. We actually call ourselves “JRS” and we have a two-page set of JRS Ground Rules! Key are the principles of listening, encouraging each other and being tolerant.
We’ve touched on communication, training and development and building a close bond with family members. Do you have any more succession planning tips for other family businesses?
When all this happened, I didn’t know about probate or related HMRC queries so it’s really key to have the right advisers. We had a finance director who knew enough to be able to sort everything out and ever since then picking the right people to work with us has been a priority. They have to really understand you both as a family and as a business.
You’re involving your children in the business in the same way that your dad did with you, even taking them to meetings and when you speak at conferences! Do you think they may one day be leaders in the business?
We’ve each got two children under four years of age so it’s early days still! What I want is what is best for the business. It’s about having the right people to manage and run it. So, let’s wait and see and let them have their journey first.
What’s more important for the business now is our current senior team and how we build them up over the next five, 10, 20 years. We’re thinking of bringing in a Next Generation Board like the one me and my brothers used to sit on. It was a shadow board of the main board with people from the level below the Senior Management Team undergoing coaching and taking on more responsibility. It’s never too early to think about what happens in the future and how to keep the values of the business alive.
What do you think the future holds for Day Lewis?
I really want to make this point: what we have been through has been phenomenal and we are still on a journey. Half the time we are winning, and the other half we are holding it together. It’s only been three years. What I hope for is to keep improving, keep the business stable and to honour my dad’s legacy. For him –and now for me, Sam and Jay – it’s not just about creating a successful business: it’s about making a positive impact on the world and our communities.