Entrepreneur has prescription that could cure NHS

Professor Graham Leslie of University of Huddersfield, pictured at Direct2Mums head office, near Barnsley. 19th May 2015. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe
Professor Graham Leslie of University of Huddersfield, pictured at Direct2Mums head office, near Barnsley. 19th May 2015. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe
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The National Health Service must return to its core values, says Professor Graham Leslie. He spoke to Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.

PROFESSOR Graham Leslie is a master story teller.

When he’s not reminiscing about the day he took his first steps into the business world by renting out copies of one of the most controversial books in history, he’s regaling you with his memories of the time he won over a no-nonsense Yorkshire bank manager by wandering into his local branch with a guitar over his shoulder.

But all his stories, and opinions, carry weight. He’s a serial entrepreneur, philanthropist and mentor, who founded Galpharm International in 1982 and turned the company in to the UK’s biggest supplier of non-prescriptive medicine, before selling it to the Perrigo Group for $88m in 2008.

He was also the founder chairman and creator, along with the local council, of the Galpharm Stadium, a 25,000 all-seater football and rugby ground which has become a landmark in his adopted home of Huddersfield. His professional journey has brought him into contact with two US presidents and the current Prime Minister, David Cameron.

He wants the NHS to keep raising its game to ensure that more people have access to affordable medicines.

Three years ago, he became the University of Huddersfield’s first ever non-academic resident professor of enterprise and entrepreneurship, based at the 3M Buckley Innovation centre – or 3MBIC for short. As a wholly owned subsidiary of the university, 3MBIC has created its own entrepreneurial “eco-system”, which helps fledgling firms have access to global markets, finance, mentoring and technology.

Born in Dagenham, in Essex in 1946, Mr Leslie was raised by Glaswegian parents and had a very happy childhood with his older sister and younger brother. The family moved to Middlesbrough when he was five.

Years later, he recalled walking around the streets wearing his kilt and being taunted by the local children, something that helped to build his innate resilience. The first signs of business acumen emerged during his school days.

“When I was at school there was a book called Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’’ he told me. “It was a Penguin book that was banned. We discovered there were some being sold at the docks in Middlesbrough and my friend and I went down, and we bought 10 with our pocket money. We brought them back and we went round the other schools, and instead of selling them, I rented them.”

He left school at 14 with no qualifications. After a short-lived attempt to become a dress designer, he had a brief, but successful, career in hairdressing. He became British hairdressing champion and was employed by Schwarzkopf, who introduced him to the world of sales and marketing. But he was to face harder times.

In 1971 Mr Leslie spent four months on the dole and attended 30 job interviews; at the 31st interview he was offered a position with Winthorp Pharmaceuticals. Eleven years later, he decided to go it alone, and established Galpharm International in a shed on Firth Street in Huddersfield.

It grew rapidly, moving first to Brighouse and then to purpose-built premises in Dodworth on the outskirts of Barnsley. Mr Leslie was a true pioneer, working to lift restrictions on the types of pharmaceuticals that could be placed on general sale, making them more accessible to millions of people. It also saved the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

Today, he believes the NHS must return to its core values.

“Look at the NHS,’’ he said. “Like a country it’s got a P&L (profit and loss) and it has to work. The only way you can do that is to make sure that you’re bringing in the right people.”

He’s proud of the role he played in making affordable medicines available to people across the UK.

He recalled: “In 1995 we switched Ibuprofen from pharmacy to grocery... by doing that we saved the NHS about £300m a year continually. We did lots of other drugs as well. Yorkshire could be a lead component in driving the pharmaceutical category.

“There are a lot of research companies in the region. There are lots of universities working with those companies. There needs to be a greater integration between those two, which is what we’ve done at the 3M at Huddersfield University. It’s vitally important that the health service goes back to what it was founded for, but also becomes very viable,’’ he added.

“You cannot have any organisation that is dominated by politics. Once it gets lost and absorbed in a political arena then the emphasis on driving the health service for the nation is lost, it is dissipated completely.”

He said the NHS had to re-invent itself, by taking control of the research and development work that leads to new drugs.

“The biggest problem with the pharmaceutical industry is them mopping up good little companies,’’ he said.

“So why doesn’t the NHS mop them up? They (the smaller companies) have been bought up because the larger companies can’t get to market quickly enough. It comes from the top, from the States, where you see massive acquisitions being negotiated, and rebuffed because they think they are worth $100bn instead of $58bn.

“Little acorns become oak trees. Galpharm was a little acorn. It became an oak tree because we came up on the blind-side, nobody knew we were there, which was lovely, for about 20 years, and you become a speedboat and not a tanker.

“Now you have got tankers all over the world fighting for shareholders’ profits. The Government should listen to the people on the ground that are running the hospitals, and listen to the pharmacists. The NHS has got 10 factories that are making (drugs) for different regions of the NHS. If you consolidate those... you’ve got a wonderful generic manufacturing facility.“