Having sold the family home to take a chance on a start-up business in the mid-90s, Annette D’Abreo is now a multi-award-winning businesswoman and managing director of that same company – Bournemouth-based Ceuta Healthcare. Recognised as the leading international outsource partner within the health and beauty sector, Ceuta Healthcare helps to launch, develop and build over-the-counter (OTC) brands in both UK and international markets. With an annual turnover of circa £50 million, D’Abreo is in charge of the UK arm, while co-founder and CEO Edwin Bessant looks after the international team and grocery division. Among the company’s many plaudits have been listings in the Best 500 UK Companies to Work For and achieving IIP Gold status, while D’Abreo herself was recently named The Business Magazine’s Woman of the Year (Large Business) for the south of England, and in 2012 won Asian Businesswoman of the Year.
A surprise late baby and only child for her parents, who were 44 and 52 at the time, D’Abreo was born in Chiswick, London, after the family moved from Bombay so her father could pursue his career with Air India at Heathrow Airport. Studious by nature, she was head girl of her convent school in Isleworth, before going on to study French and economics at Kingston University. She took a temporary job in customer services at tobacco giant Philip Morris International in Feltham, where her potential was quickly spotted and she joined the graduate fast-track programme. Seven years later, she moved into the healthcare sector, joining Whitehall Laboratory (now Pfizer) where she met Edwin Bessant, who would go on to be her co-founder and now CEO at Ceuta.
Tell us about your first job
My first Saturday job was making sandwiches at Kew Gardens, but then I worked in Sainsbury’s two nights a week and every Saturday. By the time I left university, Mum had been diagnosed with cancer, so the temp job was a way to stay close to home. Philip Morris spotted something in me and they had a really good MD, Roger Thomas, who encouraged me.
How did your interest in healthcare begin?
After a while, I realised that as I was both a non-smoker and had many friends who were doctors and dentists, it seemed right to move into healthcare. I joined Whitehall Laboratory as a trade marketing controller, brought in some fresh people and developed my own team – we were voted top trade marketing company by Mintel.
Where did the idea for Ceuta come from?
Edwin was director of pharmacy and when companies kept asking for help to promote their brands, he realised there was gap in the market for someone to do that. He knew I had broad business skills and an understanding of the market, so he asked me to join him.
What happened next?
It was 1994 and it was a huge step to start our own company. We had no clients, but we had the certainty that our business model was valid, plus it was a very entrepreneurial time. By then, my father had also died, so I sold our family home and Edwin and I each invested our savings. The then Department for Trade and Industry gave us a £100,000 loan and 3i also invested £550,000 in return for 10% of the business. For the first three years, we made a loss but by year four we had turned a profit.
Why base on the South Coast?
Edwin was born in Poole and lived in Bournemouth, he had been commuting to London for years and wanted something nearer home. In the mid-90s, the M3 was finally completed, the airport was opening up and it was a very entrepreneurial area. Today, big clients such as Boots, Superdrug and Unilever still love coming down to visit us and we currently have 80 staff here in our offices and a further 120 in the sales team, out on the road talking to pharmacists and their staff across the UK.
Did you ever doubt your success?
We were focused on making this work and relentless in our marketing and fostering of contacts. We designed the logo, printed brochures and contacted OTC and pharma companies and trade embassies to let them know that there was no longer a gap in the market.
When did you know you had ’made it’?
Our first major client was Bayer, who asked us to look after Alka Seltzer, Autan and Canesten. When they came on board and people could see we were associated with a big global OTC company, it gave them more confidence. It was also the fact that Bayer outsourced the work rather than doing it in-house, others could then see the merit of going to an external provider.
Both you and the company have won many awards, do you see yourself as a role model for other Asian women?
I’m always amazed to be nominated and it is such an honour to win awards. Once you have that recognition you absolutely must embrace it. It is so nice when I meet people and they say I am a role model for them or their daughters. What is lovely about the Asian business community is the way they really celebrate success, people want to help each other and they are pleased you are doing well.
Who is your role model?
I am inspired all the time by lots of different people, such as the MDs I’ve worked with, my own Ceuta colleagues, speakers at conferences, stories in the press. I also really admire sports people for how they focus and what they have achieved, people like Paula Radcliffe, who is incredibly smart, measured and disciplined. For me, that’s what life is about, I don’t think you get anywhere unless you have that discipline and focus.
What’s the secret of your success?
You have to have that winning mentality. Just settling for mediocre is not the way if you really want to succeed. You have an absolute responsibility to people, for their personal lives, their families – you have to win for them and that’s really important to me. When I met tennis champion Marion Bartoli recently, I asked her why she had retired after winning Wimbledon and she said she wanted to go out at the top, because she had so much more to do with her life and she’s already doing that very successfully in business.
How important is giving back to the community?
We have around 200 employees and every year they all vote on which charity the company will support. This year it’s the Steve Bernard Foundation, which helps to develop young people through sport with projects across the South Coast. We also have a very good CSR programme with coaching and mentoring for our employees and plenty of events and activities to encourage healthy lifestyles.
What are your own aims and ambitions?
For the business, it’s to keep growing and to expand our international footprint by introducing new companies to our global distribution network. It’s also about bringing in more people with the right skillset and developing the UK healthcare business further by unwinding the potential we can see as the market continues to change.
We are also looking to expand through acquisition and to work with companies that could be aligned to us. We’ve just taken a majority stake in shopper insight business, Bridgethorne, which really helps us with our brand approach, and we’re looking at related fields so we can provide a real end-to-end solution for our client brands.
And on a personal level?
I always think today is the most important day, I don’t have a hope for the future or think that tomorrow will be better – it’s about what I have achieved today. I treat every day as if it was the first day at Ceuta and I want to keep all that energy and enthusiasm that I had at the outset.
I just want to keep learning, the world is changing so fast and peoples’ attitudes are changing – I think the biggest challenge is to keep up with what is going on and we have a responsibility to do that. The idea you had last month won’t get you through next year.
You need to have the physical and mental energy to get you there and that means training your mind and your body.
And finally, what do you do on your time off?
I love running, going to the gym and skiing. I can’t wait for the start of the ski season and I love being on the mountains.
Contact: Ceuta Healthcare Group