Healthcare diagnostics firm Randox has come a long way since being hatched in a backyard hen house. This year it surpassed £1bn in sales, became lead sponsor of the Grand National and now boasts customers in 145 countries. Director meets founder Dr Peter FitzGerald to talk tenacity, talent and international trade
Unless you work for a hospital or a laboratory, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of Randox before. But it’s a name that will finally reach the national consciousness on 8 April 2017 when the Randox Health Grand National takes place at Aintree. This year, the firm from Crumlin in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, announced a five-year deal to become the new title sponsor of the world’s most famous horse race – following in the hoofprints of names such as Crabbie’s, John Smith’s and Martell – while also becoming the official healthcare partner of the Jockey Club. All this comes in the same year the business surpassed £1bn in sales since its inception and increased its global trading footprint to 145 countries.
The £96m-turnover company, which employs 1,400 people worldwide, is clearly now very different to the one Dr Peter FitzGerald hatched in a hen house in his parents’ garden in 1982
with a skeleton staff of just six. “I was a researcher at Queen’s University in Belfast and I was looking for products to manufacture when I found the market of healthcare diagnostics,” he tells Director. “I set up a lab at my parents’ house to develop these products in the evenings and at weekends. The biggest challenge in those early days was money – I had saved up to get married, to put a deposit down for a house, but decided not to get married and put the money into buying a freeze drier instead.”
While, perhaps unsurprisingly, FitzGerald’s decision was a deal-breaker for his then bride-to-be, it would prove to be his making in business – the laying down of an R&D-centred philosophy that has driven the growth of his enterprise and influenced every decision since taken. Today up to 16 per cent of turnover is committed to R&D each year and Randox holds a number of patents – its Biochip Array Technology (BAT), a £220m investment, allows multiple tests and diagnoses to be made from one single sample of body fluid or tissue. The biochips, which can make crucial early diagnoses for a number of diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s, are now adopted by hospitals, clinics, veterinary practices and private research facilities around the globe. Indeed, approximately one in five of the world’s major labs now use Randox products.
But, says FitzGerald, finding his first customer was a big challenge, and he has advice for entrepreneurs who are at a similarly crucial moment: “We had to survive by getting sales, so I went around hospitals in the UK and Ireland. Selling from a very early stage is critical, especially if you come from a technology or science background,” he says. “The only way is to go out, actually meet potential customers and persist. You’ll get many setbacks, people will tell you you’re crazy and a lot of people assume – especially if you come from the outback – that your products won’t be that good. You have to prove that they’re good.” FitzGerald’s first customer eventually came in the shape of Aberystwyth University Hospital: “It was a very small amount of money, a matter of hundreds of pounds, but the fact that they showed faith in us – I can’t stress the importance of that enough.”
Today, Randox operates in an area of the healthcare sector undergoing dramatic growth as people across the planet demand more personal control over their wellbeing. The UK life sciences sector alone has a turnover of £56bn according to the Office for Life Sciences and the government has ringfenced £6.9bn for science investment between 2015 and 2021. “The diagnostic sector is growing very fast,” says FitzGerald. “People are realising the importance of doing more tests and measuring many things in the body, which helps to identify more personalised medicines or drugs.
“Medicine up to now has treated people from the herd aspect that everybody is the same, but obviously we’re not. We develop our biochips so that we can personalise particular measurements to each individual, which they can then track throughout their life, and similarly drugs can be based around how they personally respond to certain drugs… Medical healthcare is in a transformative period, an inflection point. We would like to be one of the most significant players in this area.”
The global footprint of Randox will be a huge asset in this ambition – since the business found its first overseas customer in the US in 1983, international operations have expanded to offices in 20 countries and customers in a further 125. “We’ve always felt it’s very important to get out around the world as much as possible, especially when you’re in one of the most westerly parts of Europe,” says FitzGerald. “We have to be outward thinking in everything that we do, so we travel extensively as a company – our scientists, our engineers, our people in sales and marketing. The key thing is seeing the end users, the hospitals or private labs using the products.”
With the use of distributors also crucial to generating sales worldwide, does he have any advice on finding a trusted partner to represent a UK company abroad? “It’s not easy, it takes a lot of work on the ground, but visiting your customers first can help you find the people who will support or market your product in that country. We feel it’s very important to not have too many layers of communication between you and the end user… Also, we’re always very keen to deal with nationals from the country as opposed to sending out expats or dealing with one market through another country. Similarly, our offices are staffed with people from that country – and I think that’s very important to people’s perception of us as a global company.”
The hiring and retaining of local talent is something that is close to FitzGerald’s heart back in the company’s native Northern Ireland, as the ‘brain drain’ the country endured in the 1980s proved a key motivator in his drive to grow the business in the first place. “We were in the middle of the Troubles and young graduates were leaving for England, Scotland, even America,” he says. “And I felt that this was a negative for the community – we felt it was socially important if the business could help in a very small way to keep jobs here. And it has worked – we employ around 900 people in Ulster today and we’re happy that we have high levels of graduates from the universities here.”
On the secret of retaining the company’s talented staff, he adds: “The key thing is to ensure that people have a job where they’re valued and have opportunity for growth and development, both financially and in job satisfaction. We’re not particularly hierarchical so people work in teams where their views are very well respected and we feel this adds to a high degree of creativity, which helps retain staff as well. The fact that we’re trying to improve healthcare does help too… our overall aim is to save lives and improve lives and people identify with that.”
The next stage in this job creation mission is the development of the new Randox Science Park at the former Massereene army base in Antrim – a £167m investment that will see several
of the company’s current functions move to the one site with the generation of a further 540 jobs. The project began in 2013 and so far is “about 20 per cent complete,” says FitzGerald. “It will help us become more efficient because currently, with some of our manufacturing, we have to move goods between different sites. Also Antrim is a town with better infrastructure for our staff.”
Randox has funded the development from its own profits, a £4.7m grant from Invest NI and bank loans – maintaining FitzGerald’s philosophy of refusing outside investment from other sources as a path to growth. “We were offered investment on a number of occasions, even in the early days – but we decided back then that we weren’t ready for it, and that investment would have made us go down a particular route,” he says. “But I have actually found that high street banks have been very supportive over the years.”
Having firmly established itself as a trusted name with hospitals and laboratories around the world, the company’s next move is to offer healthcare directly to patients. “One of our frustrations has been that as we develop new products using our biochips, we’re finding uptake in public hospitals has been very slow – we know people are losing their lives because they are not getting the proper tests done at the right time,” he says. “So we felt the only way forward was to set up our own clinics for people to walk in and get tests done.” After an initial trial in Northern Ireland, Randox Health has been expanded to London, with centres in Edinburgh, Liverpool and Manchester to follow soon.
With the sponsorship of the Grand National timed to bring the company’s new offering to a wide audience – “we’ve learnt the importance of branding more broadly and people recognising your name,” says FitzGerald – the next growth spurt for this healthcare thoroughbred is very much under starter’s orders.
Randox vital stats
HQ Crumlin, County Antrim
Staff 1,400 worldwide
Operating profit £20.7m
Products The business now has more than 2,000 products; one of the newest – a £25 blood test which can identify Alzheimer’s risk in just three hours – was announced this summer.
On Brexit “It hasn’t really affected us at all,” says Dr Peter FitzGerald. “But that’s assuming there’s no change in the ability of high-quality people to come to the UK. We are a very international company, employing 47 different nationalities within the UK; we like diversity and openness and we would be concerned with any change to that situation.”
To find out more about Randox’s past, present and future, visit randox.com
Dr Peter FitzGerald is a fellow of the IoD