Walking on the bare street within the Metropolis and other regions of Ghana, one will come across pharmacies with inscriptions of Ernest Chemists Limited boldly written on them. However, one may not recognise the mastermind behind one of Africa’s most thriving businesses of our time should you meet him face to face. The prolific entrepreneur, Ernest Bediako Sampong has no over-the-top lifestyle nor flamboyance when you come into contact with him. He hardly avails himself to the media and has eschewed the public eye for most of his life.
The Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ernest Chemist Limited (ECL), Ernest Bediako Sampong is a refreshing change from many other prominent African business leaders, especially those who have founded multimillion- dollar companies. His charisma is his humility, integrity and honesty which he has nurtured over his 30 years’ experience in the pharmaceutical business. And when you expect the architect behind one of Ghana’s most successful brands to have an ego, you will be surprised by the lack of it.
In his slightly hoarse and stuttering voice and huge stature, he has remained honest, direct, and fully willing to talk bluntly about his let-downs, what drives him, and what he sees as the biggest slips that entrepreneurs can have. He openly admits that everything about him, from his struggles to opportunities which enabled him to accomplish this business growth, has not been an easy process. He did not just walk into the massive capital investments as seen today.
“As part of the Kwahu culture, parents and relatives want their children to go through a ‘training program in trading’. That’s why
during my primary school days, we used to go around Accra selling medicine such as APC, Paracetamol and Aspirin and also things like paper bags”, he says in one of his past interviews with Nana Akosua Konadu on The Hard Truth.
“That was where I acquired my entrepreneurial experience,” he added. The discipline he had with money in his young adult life would become the pillar of his future enterprise.
“I made money in the late 1970s and could buy a house then but my in-law gave me a place to perch, so I decided against doing that,” he stressed in an interview on the Joy FM Super Morning Show with Daniel Dadzie. “At the time, people were calling me a cheap man and all but I wasn’t bothered. I just ploughed that money back into my business so I could grow my capital. Today, I can buy whatever house I want. That sort of discipline with money is very important.”
It is not then surprising that his business, which now runs three main divisions – Manufacturing, Trading (Retailing and Distribution) and Exports – started in a shop in Kaneshie.
“I started my shop in 1986 when I was doing my national service at the pharmacy division of the Ministry of Health. I identified certain opportunities there because that office was where the license and permit for importation were prepared,” he disclosed.
“I looked at the addresses of some of these companies and to know the trend of products that were being imported. When I notice that certain medicines are being imported in big numbers, I wouldn’t go near them. This process allowed me to know the personnel in the pharmacy division and to understand the importation business, with regards to documentation and which companies to import from.”
His ambition was starting to pay off. “In less than two years, a second shop was opened in Okaishie.” But that came with a little setback. “Initially, Kaneshie wasn’t where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Okaishie, around GNTC Pharmacy so I’ll be closer to the pharmaceutical business terrain. But the people in charge there didn’t want to take me on because they knew I was a smart guy”, he says, with laughter.
“Due to the good reputation built over the four-year period in business, the company got the opportunity to represent some multinational pharmaceutical companies in Ghana in the early 1990s,” a business privilege that he has always been open to admitting. “This opportunity changed the face of Ernest Chemists Limited thereby introducing ECL to consumer-associated multinational businesses. ECL’s high standard of quality has been the driving force behind our hallmark in business operations to date.”
Delving into his career, Ernest Bediako Sampong has been able to get to a point where his pharmaceutical business is running like a well- oiled machine, something every business owner could only dream of. His visionary leadership and strategy have moved ECL from a one-sales outlet to a business entity with retail and wholesale shops across Ghana. His business savviness has led ECL to partner then and now, reputable multinational companies such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), AstraZeneca, Roche, Novartis, Unilever (Europe), Danone, Avent (Philips), Johnson & Johnson, Merck among others, either as a distributor, contract manufacturer or packaging of their products. ECL has also undertaken Human Resource Management services for some of these multinationals to enhance their business portfolios.
Before becoming the household name that even little children know of currently, the business faced certain teething issues. “Capital was very difficult to come by. There were times when we wanted to expand our operations but the banks required certain collaterals and securities that we did not have. The interest rates were also quite high,” he laments.
“After some years in business, the 1998 massive depreciation of the cedi to the dollar also led to the increasing cost of importation in Ghana. At that time, the mainline of business for Ernest Chemists was the importation of pharmaceutical products. Prices of pharmaceutical products became high which led to the loss of market share as consumers within the lower economic bracket – who form the majority of the market, could not afford the products. It was at this point that a very important decision which has been the main factor for the growth of Ernest Chemists Limited was made. The Management of the company decided to do backward integration, and that was to start the manufacturing of pharmaceutical products. Manufacturing started in 2001 and through this, Ernest Chemists Limited has been able to meet the pharmaceutical needs of all segments of the market with affordable medicine.”
This year, with the dramatic spread of COVID-19 disrupting lives, livelihoods, communities, and businesses worldwide, Ernest Chemists Limited has taken the mantle to further improve healthcare delivery by supporting worthy causes.
From donating to the COVID-19 Trust Fund set up by the President of Ghana to donations to COVID-19 isolation facilities at the Greater Accra Regional Hospital (Ridge Hospital), Tema General Hospital, Kwahu Atibie Hospital, Tamale Teaching Hospital, Volta Regional Health Directorate, and Margaret Marquart Catholic Hospital, Ernest Bediako Sampong is bent on continuing to deliver a visible brand that helps minimise threats on the health and well-being of Ghanaians as well as limit disruptions to their livelihoods. This willingness to leave a sustainable impact on his community and, his business shrewdness, is what has seen Ernest Bediako Sampong in recent times being adjudged the CEO of the Year – Pharmaceutical (Chief Executive Officers Network, Ghana), Most Influential CEO in Ghana (Ghana Pharma Awards), CIMG Marketing Man of the Year (CIMG Awards), Entrepreneur of the Year (Ghana Business Awards), Man of the Year (EMY Africa Awards), among others. But the story is not just about him. It is about a family of entrepreneurs who have gained significant success in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sector. Whilst all of them have dealt with the hard and ruthless periods of the pharma industry, it hasn’t deterred them from providing a full range of quality pharmaceutical products to people at affordable prices. And that’s because they have something in common: within the pharmaceutical space, they are all known for making smart choices, finding niches that others have ignored, expanding outlets and taking bold gambles. But just like Ernest, they just like to keep remarkably low profiles. As it stands, the Bediako family owns about 25 pharmaceutical companies: Ernest Chemists Ltd, East Cantonment Pharmacy, Bedita Pharmacy, Big Maron Pharmacy, Ebenezer Chemists, Renie Pharmacy, Media Pharmacy, MediMart Pharmacy, Bibs Pharmacy, Abed Pharmacy, Kent Pharmacy, Pills & Tabs Pharmacy, Nungua Pharmacy, Jebina Pharmacy, Charps Pharmacy to mention a few.
Nonetheless, even with the family’s success and his business reaching amazing levels of popularity and making a good profit, Ernest Bediako Sampong is not relenting on his urge for laurels and achievements. He longs for a day where people from his motherland will be the ones with seats at the table creating wealth for themselves and the country at large.
‘The pharmaceutical industry and business should be in the hands of Ghanaians,” he continues to stress. “Ernest Chemists Limited started as a retail outlet and then into importation as well as wholesale and now manufacturing. If really, we want wealth to be in the hands of Ghanaians, I think we need to look at this chain; retail managed by Ghanaians, wholesale managed by Ghanaians, and then with the manufacturing, we can partner with other foreign businesses. That’s how we can create wealth that doesn’t go out of our country. I truly believe that indigenes should be encouraged to manage the pharmaceutical space.”
The conviction of seeing other Ghanaians do well is rooted in the vision of Ernest. “Everybody should have a vision. Managing a business is a journey and you should have a plan before you undertake this journey. For us at Ernest Chemists Limited, our vision is to be one of the Top 10 indigenous pharmaceutical companies in Africa and we think that we will be able to achieve this,” he says.
“Looking at where I’ve come from, I think the youth can do very well because I never thought that I will be where I am today,” he articulates to Joy Business News. “But whatever you’re doing, there will be challenges. Don’t let it stop you. For instance, I lost everything when I started my business because I was saving the cheques in someone’s account since I hadn’t registered the business. He squandered everything. But that wasn’t the end of the world. So, to young people, have focus. Be disciplined. Be credible. Be honest. Be patient. And you will make it.” You still may walk past Ernest Bediako Sampong on an empty street and not know that he’s the mastermind behind one of Africa’s most wildly successful businesses, but let his main advice continually ring in your head. “Apprenticeship is very important in the journey to be a successful entrepreneur. Learn from experienced people, go through an apprenticeship, and understand the business to be successful.”