Alan Press, Executive Chairman of Kimal, explains how a focus on finding customer-led solutions enabled a small family business to stay at the cutting edge of medical technology.
In 2017 Kimal was awarded £440,000 in funding from UK Research and Innovation to continue its work in medical technology. Today the business trades in 70 countries around the world and employs 530 people at sites in the UK and Egypt.
Kimal’s story begins in 1964, when it started distributing nascent technology such as heart pacemakers. But one of the problems associated with distributing other people’s products is what I call the “distribution dilemma”. If you do a lousy job, you lose it. But you can do a great job and still lose it once the product has established a market share. And it’s not simply a question of if, but when. For Kimal, the walls came tumbling down at the end of the 1970s, when we lost three agencies that accounted for about 95% of the business. But that’s also the point at which we decided to take control of our destiny.
“The walls came tumbling down when we lost three agencies, and it was then we decided to take control of our destiny.”
Alan Press, CEO, Kimal
Small but nimble
We’re a relatively small player, fighting against multinationals with massive budgets that we can’t compete with. What we can do is be smarter, slicker and much more innovative. The larger operators tend to try to milk their products for as long as possible, but we took the decision to update continuously.
Innovation was also key to establishing the next-generation Kimal – one that focused on our own as well as other people’s products. We asked ourselves, “What can we make that’s difficult for huge multinationals to do?” The answer was to be much more flexible, starting with mass customisation in cardiology. One of our early innovations was procedural solutions, which package together everything that’s needed to do a particular medical procedure, tailored for the individual hospital. Today, we make about 1.5 million of those procedure packs every year.
I don’t think we’d be able to take this innovative approach if we weren’t a wholly owned family business. It means we can make longer-term plans, which in many cases don’t have a return for several years, because we’re not driven by the next quarter’s numbers. And the family have bought into this concept of building a stable, sustainable business for future generations. Over the past few years, they’ve withheld more than 50% in dividends, enabling us to build up a £5m innovation “war chest” to deploy on projects such as developing a new R&D hub, and our new manufacturing site in Egypt.
Taking tough decisions
Speeding up our innovative processes was also critical, not just to keep us at the forefront of medical technology, but to help us become more global. I drew up a host of changes we had to make, beginning with the management team. That was tough because many of them had been there for 25-30 years, including my father, who founded Kimal.
I had to say to board members, many of whom were friends, that they were no longer the right people to deliver change. That was probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in business, and we were lucky that they were so understanding. One of them said to me, “Look, we’re voting for this. But we do realise that it’s like turkeys voting for Christmas.” And it was: within a year, they were all gone. But we needed a new, young team with fresh drive and vision to build the company for that next generation.
Freedom to focus
By stepping aside and allowing these new young bloods to concentrate on the day-to-day running of the company, I could focus all experience on driving innovation. I established an R&D hub and surrounded myself with experts – people of whom I could ask daft questions. Separating sales from development enabled these people to concentrate on the creative process. As a result, we brought some great products to the market, rather than just making simple incremental changes to our current portfolios.
Pure hard graft
A culture of innovation doesn’t just stem from a few members of a specialised team. Our success is in large part down to our people being willing to travel around the world visiting our customers. Getting on a plane and constantly being away from home is hard work, but nothing beats those face-to-face interactions. One of the key questions we ask the doctors we meet is: “What do you do with your most gravely ill patients?” And from those answers, for instance, we created a unique catheter that represents a huge breakthrough in critical care technology. Having the ability to go out and see doctors, who have some wonderful ideas and want to know how we may be able to manufacture them, is a vital part of our continued innovation programme.
A consultant cardiologist once summed up our work by saying: “Don’t think of what you’re doing as making a product, but saving a life.” I’m very proud to say that’s exactly what we’re doing.
In 2015, Alan opened VasTec, an R&D hub focused on vascular technology developments that has won awards for its innovation. Alan and his wife, Sue, have been Chelsea season ticket holders for 20 years.
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