By Sairah Masud
A CEO of a multi-million-pound empire who prides himself on being involved in all aspects of the business – that’s Tej Lalvani – a father of two, husband, son and most recently, the newest ‘Dragon in the Den’.
At 43, he heads Vitabiotics, one of Britain’s leading vitamin companies, where he once worked as a forklift driver.
“I wanted to understand the business from the ground up” he told Eastern Eye in an interview last week. “I worked in every department from the warehouse and quality control to design, marketing and business development.”
His warehouse operative days are a far cry from where he sits today, behind his woodgrain desk at Vitabiotics HQ in west London. He appears as excited as he must have been as a young boy, accompanying his father to the office on weekends.
The vitamins company was the brainchild of his scientist dad, Dr Kartar Lalvani, back in the 1970s. And it wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that Tej’s vision helped grow the company into the success it is today, winning the prestigious Queens Award for Innovation.
What would be attribute his achievement to, transforming a small vitamin company into a multi-million pound empire?
“Be determined, be focused and believe in your product,” Lalvani said. “You need the vision to drive the business forward or else you’ll be driven out of your own business.”
Since its inception in Wembley, west London, it was Lalvani senior’s dream that as many people benefit from his inventions as possible.
And the passion for improving people’s health is shared by Tej, whose efforts led to Vitabiotics becoming the number one vitamin company in the UK in 2013.
Lalvani described it as the most defining moment in his career so far. “It was great because it seemed like a long way away when we first envisioned it, but when it happened; we instantly thought ‘what’s the next step’.”
For the visionary CEO, there’s still a long way to go, as he eyes the US and China for international expansion, and placing the firm as a frontrunner in the healthcare industry.
“There’s a lot of competition, but I don’t spend time worrying about what competitors are doing. The most important thing is how I am going to improve from yesterday… Every challenge is an opportunity,” he said.
In his most recent role, Lalvani is one of the five-strong panel in the BBC show, Dragons Den, thanks to the encouragement of his wife, Tara.
“It was my wife who pushed to have my name put down (for the show). Not being on camera before, it was all very new to me. I was a fan of the show, but it was just a question of whether I wanted to deal with being in the public eye,” he said.
He described his experience in the Den as ‘surreal’. There is intense pressure to make snap decisions about giving away his hard-earned money with the cameras rolling and simultaneously ‘fighting’ with other ‘dragons’ to acquire a potentially lucrative deal.
Lalvani said he’s long been in search of the opportunity to invest in other businesses, but stressed that there is a strict criterion that investees must meet.
“I look at the entrepreneur to see how easy they are to work with; are they flexible, yet persistent; do they understand all aspects of their business; does the opportunity exist in the market space.”
“You can’t judge a hopeful from the outset of the pitch. In the beginning you may not like it, but the entrepreneur starts to talk and you see how passionate they are about their product and how it tracks in numbers, then all of a sudden it becomes exciting.”
For Lalvani, client satisfaction is also key to running the business; he personally tends to all customer feedback emails.
“If I receive a suggestion in the morning, I’m thinking of how to implement it by the afternoon,” he said.
Feedback and customer correspondence gives him an insight into the life-changing effects his products have on consumers. One woman who took Pregnacare, after being told by doctors that it was virtually impossible for her to conceive, is now pregnant with triplets, he revealed. “We get amazing stories like this every other day and that’s what motivates me to get out of bed.”