Honing your skills when working in a business at the wrong end of an overdraft

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In conversation with Jag Grewal

Sue Rees In Conversation with Jag Grewal, CEO of Omega Diagnostics Group PLC

Jag Grewal, BSc (Hons), MSc, MBA, has over 25 years of experience in the medical diagnostics industry, starting as a Clinical Biochemist in the NHS. He then joined Beckman Industries and developed a 15-year career where he held various sales, product management, and marketing management positions. In 2009, he left his position as the Northern Europe Marketing Manager to join Serco Health, where he helped establish the first joint venture in UK pathology with Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital. He joined Omega in 2011 as the Group Sales and Marketing Director. He was responsible for the group's Health & Nutrition division before being appointed CEO in January 2022.

Jag is also a past chair and current treasurer of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association (BIVDA).

Sue Rees: Jag, it’s lovely to speak with you again. Before we talk about you, tell me about Omega Diagnostics and your products.

Jag Grewal: Always a pleasure to chat, Sue. Omega Diagnostics is now an AIM-listed company that develops, manufactures and markets pioneering diagnostic products associated with food sensitivity and gut health. Originally formed in 1987 to design and manufacture tests for infectious diseases, Omega now focuses on products that allow healthcare professionals and their patients to identify lifestyle and dietary changes that can significantly improve long-term health and well-being, and we sell into 85 countries. We believe in promoting a personalised approach to health, and we’re developing further products in the health and nutrition space as part of the growth of the business. Why personalised? It has been shown that a one sized fits all approach has been ineffective with increasing prevalence of obesity and chronic illness globally.

SR: I’m always interested in the back stories of the industry leaders I talk to, so tell me a bit more about your journey to CEO. What was your childhood background?

JG: I guess my journey starts in West London in 1969, where I was born. My parents were both immigrants who arrived in the UK in the early ’60s with almost nothing and worked tremendously hard to develop careers and family life together. I grew up in West London and then Slough.

SR: Was science something that was always an interest of yours, or ran in the family?

JG: It wasn’t in the family, but as a typical Indian son of that generation, I was always likely to be “nudged” into law or medicine! So I was certainly encouraged to work hard at school, and I enjoyed my science, so medicine was the route I was encouraged to follow.

However, I didn’t quite make it into medicine, primarily because I discovered cricket, rugby, and the delights of a good pint! So I went to university in Cardiff to study biochemistry.

SR: And knowing Cardiff very well, I suspect your education in rugby and drinking continued!

JG: I couldn’t possibly comment, Sue! But I did enjoy my time there. Like many people back then who aimed for medicine but didn’t quite get there, biochemistry or microbiology were popular study routes. And also, like many people who did that, I wasn’t quite sure what I would do with my BSc.

After moving back to West London and trying my hand at a couple of things, I got a job with the NHS as a clinical biochemist at West Middlesex Hospital – it turns out just a stone’s throw from where I was born. I spent five very happy years in the NHS, completed a Masters degree in analytical chemistry, and was promoted to a senior biomedical scientist.

I found myself really enjoying the science, particularly the link to healthcare. Back in those days, you would be involved in a wide range of testing, cross-matching, and all sorts of work as part of a wider clinical team. We would be working across intensive care, A&E, special care baby units, and cardiac wards – it was really good to be part of that direct link with patients.

SR: So, what made you decide to move away from the NHS?

JG: Towards the end of my time there, I had become involved with procurement – buying technical equipment. That exposed me to the corporate side of clinical diagnostics. I was quite attracted by life away from a lab – travelling around, speaking to people about an area I knew well, and getting a company car! But I also realised that many of the people I encountered weren't doing a great job. They were pushing stuff on me and not taking the time and effort to get to know me, my lab, and what we needed. I just thought I could do better.

So I handed in my notice, gave my details to an agency, and got an interview and job offer within a week to be a technical sales rep. That was with Beckman Instruments, which became Beckman Coulter later on.

SR: How was life on the road after being in the lab?

JG: It was great! I started off with my own small patch, became responsible for larger territories, and then found myself in various sales management roles. I then moved into product management and marketing and eventually became the Northern European Marketing Director for Diagnostics and Life Sciences, which combined was a pretty large responsibility.

As part of that journey, I was fortunate enough to be funded to do an MBA and then got involved in several high-level projects, mainly mergers and acquisitions work, corporate transactions, and so on.

In 2008, I was involved in a huge transaction when the company bought Olympus Diagnostics for $800m. I believe that this was the first ever time an American company had bought a Japanese company. Because I had been exposed to international business, including setting up subsidiaries overseas, I was heavily involved in all the challenges that assimilating two very different business cultures could possibly throw up and the commercial challenges of merging two large organisations.

SR: That sounds like it was a tremendous experience, but I know you left Beckman shortly afterwards. Why?

JG: It was. I learnt a lot, and it was very positive. But it also made me sit back and think about what was next. If I stayed, it felt like I might be there for life – most of the very senior positions were held by people who had done just that. And I realised I wasn’t at a point where that felt right for me.

Ostensibly, I didn’t just want to be a cog in a big machine. I realised that it was all quite comfortable; if you did your time and talked a good game, you would be promoted. I didn’t want to stay in an environment where “promotion by Powerpoint” was a thing – that wasn’t me. What I really wanted to do was learn more about business. The MBA had fired up that enthusiasm, but I realised there wouldn’t be many opportunities to get stuck in that way.

SR: This was when you moved to Serco. Some might say that was an odd move for someone who wanted to avoid being a cog in a large machine!

JG: It’s true they are a big business, but their healthcare division was small at the time. I joined as the Business Development Director and worked on putting together the very first public-private partnership with the NHS. We developed a joint venture to run pathology services for a major London teaching hospital trust with over 500 staff and a £50 million annual budget.

SR: What did you learn from that experience?

JG: It was a fascinating exercise. In effect, we had to set up the equivalent of a startup business inside a long-established and pretty inefficient organisational framework that wasn’t used to change. One of the fantastic things I witnessed  first-hand was the difference a really good CEO makes to the success of a venture like this. Coming from an American company, I worked with several high-calibre MDs running sub-divisions and group companies. I’d learnt a lot from them, which had been a great experience, but this was the first time I’d been directly exposed to a great CEO. In Beckman, that was all handled from the US, of course.

So I met with Kevin Cox, who was leading this joint venture, in a small cafe in London. Even in that really low-key, informal setting, his passion impressed me so much that I decided to jump there and then. Kevin’s leadership taught me how good CEOs inspire and engage both internal and external stakeholders and how to drive a vision and a plan to get results.

I was there for over two years, and we achieved so much in that time.

SR: What was the primary lesson the experience taught you?

JG: How to facilitate change management. That I could contribute to affecting fundamental change within structures that were about as manoeuvrable as an oil tanker. Everything from building and managing a new board (I deputised for the Chief Executive by the end of my time there) to being able to change the entire way the different partner organisations worked. As well as bringing the people with us on the journey, we had to change entire processes and systems – including effecting a brand new IT infrastructure. Most importantly, we made changes that got innovations in front of patients that were directly improving clinical outcomes and lives.

SR: So why the relatively short tenure? I believe you left after just over 2 years.

JG: Honestly, primarily, it was because I was burnt out. It was such an intense period of time and such a unique set of circumstances. I was working with an NHS trust that was simultaneously a shareholder, a supplier (of labs, equipment, and our seconded staff), and a customer!  It’s certainly a challenge when a customer wants to haul you over the coals because of an issue with a major supplier when those are one and the same. It was really rewarding, but it was hugely exhausting and incredibly intense. I wasn’t alone in feeling like it had taken a lot out of me – most of the exec team was either gone or going by that point.

But I also realised that I had missed not having an international aspect to my work, so it was the right time to look for a different challenge. The original plan was to take three months off to decompress and recharge, but after just a few weeks, my wife told me that having me at home all the time was driving her mad! So I started the look for opportunities, and that’s when I saw a really attractive position for a Commercial Director had opened with Omega Diagnostics. This was an international business that had just received some investment and had started to move into the allergy space, and the opportunity looked really good. I knew their Chairman at the time, David Evans, who’d kind of mentored me as I’d made my way through my career. This was a successful business leader who knew everyone who mattered – in other words, an ideal chairman and he suggested I go and have a chat with them. After meeting with the CEO, I agreed to come on board, and that was over 11 years ago.

SR: What was it about the role that attracted you?

JG: Even though it was a fairly large organisation, I would still be doing “raw business” there – it was all about the fundamentals. I would be dealing with the nuts and bolts, putting that MBA to good use, and learning about regulatory affairs, QA and R&D, as well as manufacturing and operations. That was great – I loved that bedrock stuff, and I was learning much more about how businesses in this sector operate at a fundamental level than I would have had I stayed at Beckman.

SR: What were some of the key aspects of that time in commercial roles with Omega that you think have served you well?

JG: Well, I think you hone your business skills best when you’re on the wrong side of an overdraft! For example, I had to work with tiny marketing budgets in those early days. It makes you very sharp in your decision-making and laser-focused on priorities because you can’t afford to make the wrong call if you’re not sitting on wads of cash.

Spending time on the commercial side also reminds you constantly about the importance of giving the customer a great experience. In our business, the last stage in the production is to assemble the kits correctly into final packaging. In some companies, that might be seen as a relatively low-grade and unimportant job, but I made it my business to tell the people on the line that theirs was actually one of the most important jobs. Those kits can be shipped worldwide. If one is opened in a lab in Mumbai or wherever and hasn’t been assembled in the correct order, that will give the customer an immediate negative impression of our whole business. So the people who touch your product last before it leaves to be shipped are the final gatekeepers for quality and customer experience. You’d be surprised how many businesses don’t let their people know that.

The same goes for letting your people know about the patient story. . Everyone in the business needs to know how they play a vital role in it. The customer/end-user story is so important to get across to your teams at all levels.

SR: After 11 years with the business, in early 2022, you were appointed CEO. What are some of the key aspects of your experiences to date that you’ve brought to the role?

JG: I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek, and he said: “When we work hard for something we don’t believe in, it’s called stress. When we work hard for something we love, it’s called passion.” You can’t get passionate about something that you don’t understand. Many people run businesses where they tell everyone what they must do, but they have never explained “why”. I believe in ensuring everyone knows the business’s vision and mission and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

It’s also vital that everyone knows their role and how important it is to that mission, and I was very proud of the results of a staff survey we ran after I’d been in position for eight months. It showed that over 90% of our people strongly agreed that they knew exactly what their role is and where that fits within the bigger picture. Having everyone understand the journey we’re all on is a huge part of making change management successful. Change can be scary if you don’t know what’s behind it, and it can be motivational if you do.

SR: It sounds like you’ve got a great corporate ethos and that team morale is important to you and the business. But the CEO position can be a pretty lonely one, so who do you turn to for support and advice?

JG: You’re right. Sometimes it can be very lonely indeed. But I’m fortunate to have a good network of contacts within the industry to bounce things off, but I’m even more fortunate to have an excellent chairman here. Dr Simon Douglas has a wealth of experience – over 30 years in biotech – so he’s pretty much been there and done that. We speak at least twice weekly, and he’s a fantastic sounding board. In my opinion, the CEO/chair relationship is so crucial in any successful business. He’s not just a boss; he’s a mentor, a confidant, and someone with great contacts and networks, which is so useful.

SR: It has been a turbulent couple of years for many companies, both in terms of revenue and investment. Are there any potential threats for Omega that you are keeping under close watch at the moment?

JG: Well, in terms of business performance, we’re in a pretty good place – we’ve grown our UK business by over 70% in some pretty challenging conditions. But we are very much a people-focused business, and recruitment and retention are something that you always have to keep your eye on, particularly in an environment of high inflation and a cost-of-living squeeze. There is competition out there for the best people, so recruitment can be a challenge. But as I mentioned earlier, our ethos of empowering everyone to know exactly what we’re doing, why, and the key part they play does help in attracting and retaining high-calibre people. Our staff surveys show that we’re a good place to work and that they feel like they are part of a family, and that’s a great message to be able to deliver when you’re looking to fill a role.

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