Dr Kartar Lalwani’s simple appearance and his unpretentious demeanour hide the virtues that have made him one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs. This founder-owner of Britain’s first vitamin supplement company Vitabiotics is as unassuming as you can get. For one, he looks much younger than his age. At 72, this scientist-turned-entrepreneur displays an almost contagious enthusiasm for life – effect of consuming his own products, he suggests in all seriousness. For another, he’s actively involved in running Vitabiotics – he’s the President and CEO of the company. In fact, his pioneering work in pharma-medical research has got him four prestigious awards in the year 2003 including one for his company.
The first among the awards was The Queen’s Award for Enterprise bestowed by Her Majesty the Queen on the recommendation of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in recognition of the company’s remarkable contribution to International Trade. Then there was the Asian Achiever’s Award for Trade and Industry followed by Entrepreneur of the Year in UK sponsored by British Telecom and GG2. And most recently in December 2003, he was honoured with the Asian of the Year 2003-2004, awarded by the Asian Who’s Who.
Lalwani’s romance with nutrient technology began in the early 1960s when, as a young research scientist at AIIMS Delhi, he observed anomalies in the administration of some of the most basic vitamins and minerals. "The iron administered to patients at AIIMS was at least seven to eight times more than the recommended dosage," he remembers. Today, his company Vitabiotics is UK’s fastest growing vitamin company, exporting to sixty countries.
Lalwani has, in more ways than one, been a pioneer. And among his many pioneering efforts is Menopace, the first non-HRT remedy for menopausal women, which is today a market leader in UK. "Today HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) is under serious clout," declares Lalwani with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
He describes his lifestyle as simple and loves the old and the historic. Antiques and ancient works of art such as ivories, furniture and paintings fascinate him. His rare possessions include two of the oldest and most beautiful English homes in Regent Park in London. An exceptional painting of the beautiful Gayatri Devi by Augustus John adorns the living room of his home in Bombay, of which he says, "This one was a jackpot." He bought it at an auction in the UK some twenty five years ago. Nobody there seemed to know who she was – they referred to her as "some Indian princess". Augustus John was one of the best-known English portrait painters during the early part of the 20th century. He painted many wealthy and important people and Her Highness Gayatri Devi was certainly one such person.
He’s got a collection of historical books, with some amazing insights into times gone by, illustrated with beautiful sketches. In fact such is his interest in history that these days Lalwani’s is actively involved in co-writing a book about the role of British in the history of India.
In spite of all the wealth, fame and recognition, Lalwani has remained down-to-earth. From the moment you first meet Lalwani, he surprises you with his modesty. He wears simple clothes, speaks in an Indian accent and doesn’t talk much unless you happen discuss his favourite subject – vitamins and minerals. Then he doesn’t stop. He’s passionate about his work, his company and his vision of making it the world’s foremost vitamin supplement company.
Lalwani was born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1931. After partition, Lalwani’s family moved to India. "In Pakistan, my father ran one of the biggest wholesale and retail pharmacies of the time" he reveals. In 1956, after his B.Pharm, Lalwani left Indian shores for higher education. He acquired a post-graduate degree in pharmacy in London before proceeding to Germany for his doctorate in Medicinal Chemistry. After a brief stint in Germany where he worked as a professor, he returned to India, got married to a medical doctor and worked with the AIIMS as a research scientist for two years before returning to London where he joined a pharma publication in an editorial position. "It was a journal that published a compilation of abstracts of world patents in medicine. Almost all major pharma companies in the world were subscribers," he reveals proudly.
During the late sixties, Lalwani suffered from persistent mouth ulcers. He had tried lots of medicines, but nothing had worked. Finally, after having suffered for about five years, he had decided to find a cure himself – after all he was a qualified pharmacist. He invented a medicine which worked wonders – he used it a few times, after which his mouth ulcers vanished completely never to return again. It was time for him to use his knowledge of patents which he had learnt in his editorial job in London. He applied for a British patent for this new cure for mouth ulcers and got it. Next, he tried to sell the patent but no company would buy it.
His failure to sell the patent was a blessing in disguise as Lalwani then decided to produce and sell his new creation himself. Having studied pharmacy locally, he had a fair amount of knowledge of the local market. He also knew that people often rely on pharmacists for such things as headaches and ulcers. So he packed a dozen units of Oralcer in a neat box and sent them to all the local chemists along with a letter and a return stamp and address. He reminisces, "I said in the letter: You know that nothing works for ulcers. This is the first treatment in the world that will work. If you’re happy, you sell the product, and if not, you may return the box. Only ten per cent of the boxes came back. The rest of them sent repeat orders." This was the beginning of Vitabiotics. Then, when he visited Nigeria, Lalwani noticed that there was a market for multivitamin brand there and decided to introduce a multivitamin supplement. He developed an attractive packaging for the brand and called it Omega-H3. Today, Omega H3 is the largest selling nutritional supplement in several countries around the world.
Lalwani has stuck to his vision of making products out of natural ingredients like vitamins and minerals for prevention and treatment of a range of health issues, from common ailments to lethal ones like AIDS. His believes that vitamins and minerals combined in accurate quantities can cure as well as, and sometimes even better than, traditional medicine – the belief has certainly paid him rich dividends.
The success of his children means a great deal to him. He proudly describes the achievement of his eldest son, Ajit Lalwanii, who is a medical doctor at the Oxford. Ajit has achieved a rare distinction of inventing a test for tuberculosis which has 99 per cent accuracy with the results being available on the same day displacing a hundred year old test that required six days for a result and has an accuracy of only 80 per cent. According to Lalwani, TB was not a disease of the developed world, so multinationals never took it seriously.
Talk about the awards bestowed on him and he shifts uncomfortably from shyness. He was reluctant to accept the Asian of the Year award this year as he thought that it would be one award too many in a single year. Yet he was persuaded to receive it this year itself. However, his true source of delight, he contends, is the appreciation and positive feedback he receives from the thousands of users of his products from across the world about how his medicines are benefiting them. He even recalls an incident of a young girl who attempted suicide because her mouth ulcers were so bad that she felt that "life was not liveable." Her desperate attempt came after nothing had cured her. Then she was given Oralcer, and her condition improved immediately and gradually she was permanently cured. These and many other episodes are the driving force behind Lalwani.
"It’s not profit that drives us. We sac
rifice a lot even today. We don’t jump into something simply because of a fad. It’s true that success would have come to me quicker if I was more businesslike. But that’s not been my philosophy. If I am not satisfied, if I am not sure that a product will truly benefit people, I will not get involved in it, even if trends suggest that it would be profitable to do so."
Compassion is written all over his face, as he tells us how he prices his products low in developing countries. When it comes to generosity, he does not distinguish between nationalities. He will donate money and help needy people wherever they are. And he thinks doing charity is no big deal. He recollects an incident that took place about two years ago. A young English man aged about 24 years, came to Kulu Manali for an adventure trek. While paragliding, he was lost. His mother was a nurse and father was school teacher. The boy’s parents contacted the British High Commission for assistance who in turn contacted the Indian High Commission. They were told that the search operation would cost them a lot of money, which they could not afford. When Lalwani read this in the newspapers, he instructed his secretary to locate the hassled parents and then sponsored the entire search operation for two days. Although the search did not yield the desired results (the boy was unfortunately never found), at least the parents were satisfied that a serious attempt had been made.
Ask him if he has any regrets in life, and he says he has none. He has lived a good, contended life. He does have dreams, though, that he’d like to see coming true in his lifetime. Like Vitabiotics being a major International player and an India with 100 per cent rate of literacy. Lalwani thinks that India’s future can be bright if only our literacy rates could go up. He also leaves us with a thought to ponder: With a population like ours, if every earning Indian would set aside only one day’s income for a charitable purpose like education, India could attain hundred per cent literacy in five years.