Monday 24 April 2017

Pharmaceutical boss McCoy aims to breathe real fire into new role as TV Dragon

Chanelle McCoy, who has stepped into the Dragons' Den, has big plans for her Galway family business writes Samantha McCaughren

Chanelle McCoy
Chanelle McCoy
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

Chanelle McCoy has been asked to appear on several reality shows over the years, but for all the wrong reasons. As the wife of champion jockey AP McCoy, she has often featured in newspaper social pages, assumed to be a glamorous WAG, while her own career has remained in the shadows.

It is only since she has been revealed as the newest dragon on RTE's Dragons' Den, that people have begun to pay attention to her role as a director of Chanelle Pharmaceutical Group, which has sales of over €100m a year.

"People would often say 'really, you work?'. They would look at you in shock," she says. "I think people thought I had this idyllic life, that I just followed AP round the country and was glamorous and it was all very rock and roll.

"But actually I was building up a business while he had to live with things like starvation (to keep his weight down), and injuries - he's had over 700 broken bones in his career."

Speaking from the pared-back boardroom of Chanelle Pharmaceutical's facilities in Loughrea, Co Galway, McCoy (40) says she has been content not to raise her own profile in the past.

"But the reason I did Dragons' Den was because I genuinely find the whole area of business so interesting.

"I'm a bit of an anorak when it comes to reading business books," she says. "And I really enjoyed it. It's probably the most interesting two weeks I've spent."

In her day job, McCoy has been responsible for driving the human generic drugs division at the company, which her father, Michael Burke, set up initially as a veterinary drugs company. She sees human medicines as her area of the business and veterinary as her father's.

"Now, dad and I are now neck and neck with turnover. Which is really exciting," says McCoy who is warm and open but clearly driven and determined.

"I'm quite proud to say that I have products now in 69 countries around the world," she says. "My father is in 80 countries in veterinary (products). So that's my next goal really."

Latin America and Asia are in her longer-term plans, but the short term target is for FDA approval in the US next year for both the medical and veterinary products. "We're aspiring for aggressive growth when we get into the States," she says. The company employs 385 people but expects that to increase to 500 in the next few years.

Both Chanelle and the company are named after a shop the family lived over for a time. One of five children, her father started off life as a vet before opening a veterinary shop and later getting into manufacturing generic veterinary pharmaceutical products. It was very much a family enterprise. "Every Saturday we were up there as kids sweeping the floor, we were relabelling products, we were packing bottles into cartons. There was always that work ethic and I just was fascinated with the business and by what dad had done."

"From a very early age, I always wanted to come and work in the business," says McCoy, who now spends one week a month in Galway and the rest of the time in the UK.

After studying marketing and finance in college she left Ireland to work in London aged 21. She joined pharma company Wyeth to work in sales, which she found to be a good learning ground but also a hard graft.

"They gave me what they call in England the reps' graveyard, which is Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and it was so hard to get into any doctors' surgeries.

"It certainly was very character-building because really you had to get past the receptionists," she says.

"I'm very solution-driven anyway so I saw this as a great challenge and I was absolutely going to overcome these receptionists and I was going to get past them, so learning about what were their favourite biscuits and what were their favourite hobbies and really just trying to build up a relationship with them."

Eventually she got to meet the doctors and made a success of the role. When she came back to Ireland a couple of years later, she outlined to her father her belief that the company should expand into human generic drugs, a much larger global business.

"My one objective was I wanted to make dad proud and I wanted to replicate what he did - and I wanted to show him that I was a high achiever and that I could be successful. So that kept me motivated all the time. I didn't want to fail."

The large generic drug giants have their own R&D pipeline but can't copy all products coming off patent. "They need companies like mine to be their gap fillers," says McCoy.

Her experience in the UK paid off and persistence was key to getting her first contracts. "After a while, out of pity, people saw me and I started to build up a relationship with them. I just was so hungry to get the customers."

When a drug comes off patent, a company such as Chanelle can access information on the ingredients but not the quantity used in any drug, so it takes about two years to develop a generic product. There around 3,000 drugs to choose from a year and the company chooses around 15 annually, a decision which comes down to McCoy's experience and intuition.

There are challenges facing the generic business but McCoy is adapting to meet the market's demand.

"We changed our strategy over the years because we used to do quite mainstream high volume generics but it is very difficult to compete against India and China.

"They are up to European standards. So what we now are doing is developing more niche and difficult products."

With AP now retired, McCoy is getting more appreciation of her work at home, as well as in the public sphere.

"I used to joke with him over the years and say to him 'do you actually know my job? Do you actually understand my business?'

"Now, he hears me talking about trying to get the products registered in Sudan or trying to get money out of Saudi Arabia and so it's great now because he quietly says 'God, you're quite good at what you do'," she says.

McCoy doesn't sugar-coat the challenges of being married to a highly-focused sportsman.

"They are selfish because they have to be to be number one. So, in a way, AP didn't have a lot of time to dedicate to what was happening in my life because he was so self-absorbed and I say that with respect," she says.

"So actually I got a lot of my self-confidence and my self-esteem from my workplace.

"I wasn't seeking that reassurance from him. I wasn't seeking that level of attention from him, because, do you know what, I got my fix in work.

"So I understood a lot about pressure and trying to achieve goals because I was going through it myself."

There have been challenging moments, however.

"I remember being in Germany and getting a call to say, 'AP's broken his back, he's in an ambulance, he's in a critical condition', and all you're thinking is 'I have got to get through this meeting and I've got to get the first flight back', she says." McCoy's other business interests include a boutique, Mojo and McCoy, which is near her home in Berkshire. She owns it with a number of friends. Among her partners is Camilla Parker Bowles's daughter Laura.

When it comes to fashion, McCoy knows her limits. Although clearly a fan of fashion, she recalls her partners talking about stock she had bought, asking 'who bought that rubbish left on the sale rail?'.

"Well, luckily when it comes to generics I know the right things to buy, that's what matters, isn't it?" she says.

"The girls know that my good contribution to the shop is managing the cash and managing the books and they're brilliant at buying and front-of-shop."

She will be one of three women Dragons when the new series of Dragons' Den returns next Sunday, a first for the series worldwide. She thinks that there can be a lot of focus on the negatives of being a woman in business but believes being a woman can be a 'great asset'.

"Women in some cases can be maybe a little bit warmer, can break down barriers," she says.

But she is a little nervous about how she will appear on TV and has not yet seen the show, which is produced by Shinawil.

"I didn't know if I was going to be a nice Dragon, if I was going to be a tough Dragon, if I was going to be intolerant. I can be intolerant of people who underperform, especially if they underperform repeatedly or they make mistakes repeatedly," she says.

"But you know, once that person came out to pitch to us, I felt in my comfort zone."

Last week she was with AP and their two children in Cheltenham. She says her husband can be a bit sad about leaving racing behind, but he is not bitter. McCoy herself loves the races. "I don't know a lot about the form or about horses. When we go racing, my very dear friend, Gillian Walsh, Ruby's wife, is so knowledgeable about the horses and the form. That's double Dutch to me.

"However, ask me where any bar is on any track in England, in any English racecourse, I'll tell you because I love the social side of racing.

"I love the people. I love the punters and it's been great escapism for me over the years to go racing on a Saturday."

But she has never let horse racing come ahead of her career, even when her husband was involved. "For me work always came first, before any race meeting. Touch wood we have a very strong marriage and I think the making of us has been that I have had my career going in parallel to his," she says.

"I've never lived my life through his career."

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