When Cathie Reid purchased her first pharmacy in 1998, her goal wasn’t to change cancer care in Asia. She simply wanted to improve health care delivery in her native Australia — a natural objective for someone who started working in a pharmacy when she was 16. And, knowing that cancer treatment was the largest component of care in hospitals and nursing homes, she quickly realized that pharmacists had a vital role to play in cancer care.
Over time, that lone pharmacy grew into the $1 billion Icon Group, which is expanding access to world-class cancer treatment. Instead of patients traveling to a large hospital, Icon offers a network of local cancer care centers: 28 in Australia, one in New Zealand, six in Singapore and additional sites under construction in Southeast Asia and China.
[Reid] calls things the way she sees them, and that might not endear her to everyone.
Emma Isaacs, founder of Business Chicks
“We built a significant business, but Australia still has only 24 million people,” Reid says. “The real opportunity is to take that cancer care model and use it throughout Asia to deal with the increasing cancer crisis that is looming there.” Reid points out that Icon Group provides cancer care services to 1 in every 5 Australians being treated privately, with just over 300 chairs across its network of clinics. By comparison, Icon’s first proposed partnership in China calls for 400 chairs in one hospital location.
Like many Australian businesses, Icon started to look toward China after the 2008 global financial crisis. Australia survived relatively unscathed by selling iron ore and other resources to Asia, Reid explains, and eventually it switched to selling services to the emerging middle class. Reid, 48, says that attracting a $1 billion valuation was not in the game plan 20 years ago, when she and her husband, Stuart Giles, founded the business. The key to their success was standing for a vision rather than a lucrative enterprise.
Reid grew up in Victoria, Australia. Her father worked at a coal-fired power station but quit to become a full-time cattle farmer, only to learn he’d contracted mesothelioma from asbestos exposure. He died at age 56. Reid’s mother worked as a teacher until the first of her three children were born.
Although Reid and Giles, both pharmacists, attended Monash University in Melbourne, their relationship didn’t spark until they ran into each other at a birthday party seven years after graduation. Three months later, they were engaged. Giles bought into Reid’s vision for improving pharmacy services, and they bought their first location in 1998. Within three months they’d purchased three more, becoming Australia’s first multistate pharmacy group, Epic Pharmacy.
However, their business nearly cratered when the global financial crisis hit 10 years later. They’d grown from acquiring pharmacies to building manufacturing plants for packing pills — not a cheap venture, Reid says. And then their largest client announced it was not renewing its contract. “Fortunately the banks had bigger problems than us,” she recalls, “but it wasn’t long before we were on their radar because we were $35 million in debt.”
But Reid had a plan: full transparency. Yes, they were losing money, but at least the bank would see they were executing a strategy. Emma Isaacs, founder of Business Chicks, Australia’s largest community for female entrepreneurs, isn’t surprised by Reid’s bold step: “She’s pragmatic in her approach to business and life. She doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything.” For this reason, Isaacs says, Reid “isn’t everyone’s flavor. She calls things the way she sees them, and that might not endear her to everyone.”
For her part, Reid credits her brother, Andrew — then the company’s chief financial officer — for the financial modeling and cash flow analyses that helped them transition out of debt. As they got back on solid footing, Reid and Giles decided to merge the four areas of cancer care: oncology, radiation oncology, chemotherapy compounding and pharmacy management. Knowing they couldn’t fund expensive radiation oncology equipment, they sold part of their company in 2014 to Quadrant Private Equity, a move that allowed them to expand and offer integrated cancer care.
Reid was able to reinvent her business because of her ability to identify trends and new opportunities, says Emma Croston, Reid’s co-founder at Epic Digital, a company that collects clinical data to do predictive analyses about patient care. “She can see where the next steps are going along the whole journey,” Croston says.
Indeed, Reid is focused on data as the next big thing. “There is so much data generated through health care, especially now that so much is digital,” she says. If you think of data as dots on a page, “the more connections you can make, the clearer the picture that emerges,” resulting in better treatment for patients.
In spite of its success, Reid believes the Icon Group model wouldn’t work in a place like the U.S. “The insurance companies are also the service providers in a lot of cases and own the hospitals and pharmacies, and the doctors work for them,” she says. By comparison, Australia offers publicly funded health care to all residents, with care provided by private medical practitioners or by private- or government-operated hospitals.
Even after selling part of their business, Reid and Giles, the parents of two teenagers, remain actively involved. In her role as digital adviser for the Icon Group, Reid studies how industries outside of health care use technology to improve efficiency. It’s a perfect fit for the self-proclaimed geek, who participated in the Google Glass test program in 2013 and is now training for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space program. Reid met Branson four years ago and promptly told her husband she wanted to go into orbit. “Stuart remembered and bought me a ticket for Christmas,” she says.
As Isaacs sees it, Branson and Reid are very similar: “Both are slightly left of center, see things a bit differently and are looking for opportunities.” This pharmacist turned mogul is still waiting for a liftoff date — the next step in her epic journey.
5 Questions for Cathie Reid
What’s your favorite book? Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg.
What do you worry about? Sitting here in New York, where it is snowing in April, while at home in Australia parts of our home state of Queensland are under threat yet again from extreme weather events: the impact of climate change, and whether the damage we have already done to our planet is irreversible.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without? I can’t imagine life without Stuart, my husband and business partner, but on a more frivolous note, Glamglow ThirstyMud is my absolute must-have to stop my skin looking like a lizard’s with all the long-haul flying I do!
Who’s your hero? I really admire Sir Richard Branson. Not only has he been able to successfully disrupt and build businesses across so many different industries, but he’s used the profile and opportunity this has created to drive impact on so many social fronts and initiatives.
What’s one item on your bucket list? Going to space!
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