Stories of Growth

Mark Livingstone, Pharmacy2U: “I’m a business builder”

As part of our Stories of Growth series, we interview the CEO of the largest contracted NHS pharmacy in the UK.

23 October 2021

In 2016, BGF invested £10 million to help fund the merger of Pharmacy2U and Chemist Direct. We then contributed to an additional £7 million raised the following year. In 2018, private equity firm G Square became the majority shareholder in Pharmacy2U, after leading a £40 million funding round. We stayed on as a minority shareholder. Hear from the company’s CEO, Mark Livingstone, below.

Mark Livingstone, CEO of Pharmacy2U

I ended up doing entrepreneurial stuff because at 36 I found myself without a job. I’d spent the first half of my career at larger companies, such as Lego, but I made a job move in big business that didn’t work out.

That experience of moving from big business to start-ups was the making of my career. It made me flexible and creative, and it’s led me to help build a business, Pharmacy2U, which is not only the largest online pharmacy in the UK but the largest pharmacy.

We are a business that makes a difference in people’s lives. Over the past year, we have saved over 7 million trips for vulnerable people to their high street or local chemist. I’m proud of all the businesses I’ve run, but this one is doing something really special.

From film to drugs

After moving into start-ups, I learned a lot about subscription e-commerce by working at businesses such as Lovefilm and Graze. In 2016, I was working at Chemist Direct, an over-the-counter online retailer, when I noticed Pharmacy2U – it was doing distance dispensing of NHS repeat medication drugs. I thought to myself: there’s not much difference between a repeat prescription and a subscription.

I saw the opportunity to make things much more convenient for patients. Instead of going to your doctor’s office every month to order your prescription, and queuing up at a chemist, we liaise with your GP, remind you when your drug is due, and deliver it to your home address for free.

“Almost every other person in the UK has a repeat prescription”

The market is enormous. About 43% of the UK population has a repeat prescription – almost every other person. Right now, we have 630,000 customers and we dispense 1.3 million items of drugs per month. We hope to increase that to 6 million items. That would mean increasing our market share from 2% to 10%.

Pharmacy2U is not just a great business with fantastic employees, it really has a purpose. It’s great for vulnerable people and it’s great for the NHS. I’m really proud of the business we have built.

That’s what leadership is

Although I’ve worked at lots of start-ups, I don’t consider myself a true entrepreneur. I’m a business builder. I can spot businesses that could do with ramping up. I’m also good at spotting great talent who can help me. I’ve built several executive teams and I’m good at motivating people and making sure they are committed to the same purpose.

The great thing about having a brilliant team is that you’re not alone on the journey. When you have an off day and feel zapped, someone chips in and helps. Businesses are more relay than sprint. For different stages you need different competences, different people taking the baton.

This is where some founders come unstuck – they will try to control every facet of the business for too long. They don’t want to give away power or autonomy and the cracks start to appear. You have to let go of the reins sometimes. I’m passionate about the business I run, but I know that if I’m not the right person anymore, it’s beholden to me to make sure we have brilliant people to take it forward.

Leaders should be judged by the people they develop, not by their individual achievements. That’s what true leadership is.

Pharmacy2U COVID-19 vaccinations

Incredibly frustrating

There have been low points. A couple of years ago, workers at Royal Mail took industrial action with strikes and walkouts in various offices. I had the awful realisation: however brilliant my business is, we can’t control the Royal Mail, which meant I was helpless to deliver the end-to-end proposition of my business.

We managed to switch to using couriers and to choose sorting offices that weren’t facing industrial action, but some people experienced delays and I found that incredibly frustrating. I’m glad to say Royal Mail has got its act together now with a brilliant new CEO.

“You can kid yourself you have work-life balance, but it’s half of the story”

In terms of personal sacrifices, I haven’t made too many. I don’t work ridiculous hours, other than over start of lockdown when everyone was working as hard as possible. What’s less quantifiable is what’s on your mind. You can be in the room but that doesn’t mean you’re thinking about what’s happening in that room. You can kid yourself you have work-life balance, but it’s half of the story. How preoccupied are you?

My wife is brilliant at noticing when I’m stressed and thinking too much about work. You have to be conscious of that side of things. I became a Peloton junkie in lockdown. Since the start of lockdown, I’ve done six workouts a week. A quick 30-minute fix gets me straight for the day again.

The swankiest house

Long before I was building businesses, I was learning how to fix things up and improve them. I didn’t enjoy school and got a full-time job as soon as I could, working at a DIY store selling fitted kitchens. Because I wanted to extract every bit of value, I ended up fitting the kitchens as well. I’m basically a frustrated mechanic. I never read the instructions and learn by doing. I’m the guy who buys the most run-down house on the best street and then over time might end up with the swankiest house because I just keep working away and fixing it up and improving things.

Latest insights