How Aspen Pharmacare Became Africa’s Largest Pharmaceutical Manufacturer

Aspen Pharmacare is a true South African success story. It was listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1998 via a reverse listing into Medhold. The company launched a hostile takeover of SA Druggists shortly after the listing, acquiring a manufacturing plant in Port Elizabeth and the old Lennon drug business, a pioneer in generic medicines.

Aspen has since become supplier of branded and generic pharmaceuticals in 150+ countries across the world, as well as consumer and nutritional products in a few selected territories.

Through a series of strategic acquisitions, Aspen has transformed from a domestic company into a global and geographically diversified pharmaceutical company.

It also has 71 established offices in over 50 countries, operates 26 manufacturing facilities across 18 sites and holds international manufacturing approvals from some of the most stringent global regulatory agencies in the world.


Stephen Saad

To understand the rise and success of Aspen Pharmacare, let’s take a closer look at the life of Stephen Bradley Saad, its co-founder and current CEO.

Stephen was born in Durban on the 23rd of June 1964. After matriculating at Durban High School, he enrolled for a BCom degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and obtained the qualification in 1985, he followed that with a Postgraduate Diploma in Accounting in 1986.

He completed his articles at Coopers & Lybrand and then went on to qualify as a Chartered Accountant (SA).

Stephen’s journey into entrepreneurship started out at Quickmed, a South African prescription drug distribution company which was also operational in black communities across the nation.

He convinced Quickmed’s management who wanted to sell off the business, that ownership of intellectual property would be the only way to save the business. After becoming a 50 percent shareholder of the company, he identified Covan — a family run business that manufactured eye-drops — as a merging opportunity.

Quickmed then merged with Covan to form a new entity, Zurich. Saad’s leadership on Zurich enabled it to double its turnover. JSE-listed Adcock Ingram saw the threat Zurich posed to its business and acquired company in 1993.

As a condition for the acquisition of Zurich, Stephen served a restraint of trade. During this period, he bought a stake in Varsity College alongside his long-time friend and business partner Gus Attridge.

Stephen Saad and Gus Attridge

At that time, Varsity College was ran poorly, and faced closure within a period of six months. The duo reshaped the business, restructured the overhead base, dismissed the founder(Craig Duff) and drove the turnover with a great marketing campaign which offered a money-back guarantee to any student who attended all the lectures and did not pass their exams.

Varsity College, Pretoria campus

They eventually sold Varsity College for a cool R100 million.

Mr Saad then returned to pharmaceuticals with the launch of a new company, Aspen Pharmacare in 1997 alongside Gus Attridge, Steve Sturlese, as well as a fourth shareholder.

His first move was to buy SA Druggists — the oldest pharmaceutical company in South Africa — for R2.4bn, a move he described as, “the biggest risk we ever took.” — Aspen Pharmacare Holdings was listed at R2.40 per share on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1998.

Brief History: SA Druggists

Barry Grey Lennon, an Irish chemist and nephew of the Governor of Cape of Good Hope, Sir George Grey, settled in Cape of Good Hope on suggestion of his uncle. In 1850, he opened B.G. Lennon and Co, a chemist and druggist store in Port Elizabeth.

Lennon Limited

In 1898, the company was changed to Lennon Limited and by 1930, it was the largest pharmaceutical company in Southern Africa.

Lennon Limited was one of a number of pharmaceutical companies that amalgamated in an effort to consolidate the pharmaceutical industry. In 1968, the South African Druggists group, which now included Lennon Limited, was listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

SA Druggists

In 1975, SA Druggists started a research and development department to develop and register generic drugs. This was in response to the Medicines and Related Substances Act of 1965. By 1988 they had become leaders in their field.

Despite being well resourced, SA Druggists was poorly ran, eventually the company was put on sale in 1999.

Aspen Pharmacare

Aspen Pharmacare

Today, Aspen is by far Africa’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturer, a pharmaceutical powerhouse with operations in 6 continents around the world.

“Aspen competes with multinationals – we started a domestic company and have gone offshore to become a global company manufacturing in South Africa for domestic and export markets,”

The company produces most types of drugs and is the largest producer of generic medicines on the African continent and the 9th largest producer of generic medicine in the world.

Aspen’s major pharmaceutical products are tablets, capsules, injectables, liquid, sterils, active ingredients, nutritional products, biologicals, pharmaceuticals and much more.

Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs??

“I believe you have to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you and adapt if and when necessary.

SA has so much potential and the best advice I could share with our youth is to harness that potential to its fullest. If you combine that mind-set with a sound education and an entrepreneurial spirit, you will have a good start in life.”

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