The Medical Disposables and Supplies story

How a billion-dollar company was built from a car trunk

IN the boardroom at the Medical Disposables and Supplies (MDS) headquarters on Hagley Park Road, St Andrew, a small frame sits in the centre of the table which fills most of the space.

On the frame are depictions of the humble beginnings of some of the worlds’ biggest companies — Apple, Google, Amazon, Disney, Mattel, and in the corner at the bottom MDS.

“Some of the biggest companies in the world were found in a garage or a bedroom, a one-man band pretty much and it clicked that we started out similarly and it was just a dream for us, so why can’t be as big as any of these firms which started the same way,” said Nickeisha Boothe, business development manager and company secretary at MDS as I inquired about the picture. “We just had a dream and a prayer.” The journey of this company is our focus for Corporate Profile this week.

As she explained, I become more curious about the beginnings of the entity. It was started by the family matriach Myrtis Boothe in 1999.

“I had to work, I had to find something to do, and the only thing I knew was nursing or in the pharmaceutical industry,” Myrtis Boothe told the Jamaica Observer. She had been working previously as a nurse after her training back in 1966 at various hospitals across the island before turning to the pharmaceutical sector with Cari-Med when it was started in 1988.

“As a matter of fact, I was encouraged to start something on my own by a neighbour at the time,” she continued, citing that the encouragement came after she was wondering what to do in the aftermath of “a separation” from Cari-Med in 1999.

With knowledge about medical disposables, suppliers and clients, Myrtis said she took on the challenge, buying products and storing at home and then approaching “doctors, pharmacies and anywhere that disposable items such as gloves, cottons and so on were sold”, delivering the goods from her car trunk.

Her son, Kurt Boothe, who is now the company CEO, said at the time he was in college in the United States studying banking and finance. His holidays from school were spent helping his mother to sell.

“We were literally working out of the living room at home. There were times that we couldn’t see all the furniture because [the living room] was just full of boxes. So those early days I would accompany my mother on the street. Yes, it was literally going door to door,” he chipped in.

“You better believe that rejection was there as well,” the MDS CEO explained. “The common response was that ‘we have a lot of this already’, that’s what would greet us from time to time.”

He said because his mother was well-known in the industry she often got sales by customers patronising her business.

But still the business grew and Myrtis said she quickly realised she needed more space than her living room. On top of that, she said she “needed to set up somewhere that looked like a business location.”

The location they found turned out to be a small building that was once a house on 18 Westminster Road off Eastwood Park Road in Half-Way-Tree, St Andrew. In that building, each business occupied a single room. Myrtis moved Medical Disposables and Supplies into one at the front of the building.

“It was actually small. I think it was about the size of a car garage,” Kurt Boothe said, adding, “But it was our Empire State building because we were very enthusiastic about being entrepreneurs at the time. And even just to have an office, we were so grateful for that.”

He recalled the furniture for the small room was donated by an uncle who was migrating.

“I remember my mother going to the bank every day and picking up stationery off the desk,” he reflected on how things like pens, pencils, rubber bands, paperclips and staples were acquired. “That’s how we got our stationery at the time.”

But Kurt said he was excited to be driving to a business each day rather than “squeezing through the living room, walking sideways to the kitchen” because of the boxes that had taken over the family home. It was the beginning of what was to come.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Kurt continued, citing the opening line of Charles Dickens’ book A Tale of Two Cities.

“There were instances that were difficult. We won a tender from one of the hospitals. I remember one of our first shipments coming [to fulfill that tender] and the pallets were full of termites [which] started to eat away at the cartons. It was a devastating blow at the time and I remember my mother falling apart at the time and saying to me that she may have made a mistake venturing out on her own.”

Kurt said while that event stood out in his mind, looking back, he can say to budding entrepreneurs that a feeling of failure will creep in when things are not going right. But he believed then and told his mother “we’re going to make it, this won’t stop us.”

“It does require a certain amount of tenacity and determination to no matter what, never, ever, ever give up.”

He said rejections continued and businesses that accepted their sales were well appreciated.

Internally, the books were kept in order by his father Winston Boothe who has a background in accounting. The senior Boothe was also instrumental in giving the small business a structure. That organised structure, the Business Observer was told, played a big role in the company getting loans to add more products to the company’s portfolio and the push to add pharmaceuticals to the line of medical disposables that were being distributed.

However, the ventures into pharmaceuticals came with its own share of obstacles.

“For one thing, it is where we [were] located. It had to be zoned as commercial and I think at that time, [Westminster Road] was mainly residential. So we had to try to find somewhere to relocate. We went on the search and found a location at The Domes [on Hagley Park Road, St Andrew]. That was in 2002,” Myrtis recounted.

At the time, The Domes were just constructed and take-up of the spaces was slow. The Boothes said they decided to rent and luck would have it that one of the units came up for sale and the family decided to take it up. Because of the issues with getting the units rented, the family said they were offered “easy financing” which allowed them to lease with an intention to purchase after 10 years. The space there was much bigger at 2,200 square feet, though tiny in comparison to the warehouse the company now occupies a stone’s throw away from The Domes.

“My mother was wondering at the time what were we going to do with all this space?”

Deliveries were still being done from the car trunk the company started with three years before. “I remember coming home on holidays, being a part of those journeys, driving, taking the orders, coming back, packing up, delivering in the car. And I remember there were days when the car was so full that we couldn’t even see each other driving along the way.”

Additional staff were now being added to help with the work and everything was done manually.

He said the first computer the company secured was won as a prize by his younger sister Nickeisha in school. “She came first in the class and the prize was a computer and that’s how MDS became computerised. It was the early 2000s and we had a celebration. My mother was boasting that, listen, we’re no longer writing up invoices. We now have computer-generated invoices.”

More people were needed again to help with data entry. The company was now growing in terms of personnel. From a single employee, it now expanded to six. At the same time, luck would have it that a property came up for sale next door and that opportunity was taken up with the banks offering financing because the company’s books were in order.

“Somehow we found out we were selling and giving a big multinational company strong competition. We were told we were cutting into their sales and they were constantly calling.” That multinational company, it was later revealed, is what is now known as GlaxoSmithKline which produces and distributes pharmaceuticals such as Tums, Panadol, Voltaren and Augmentin. Boothe said GlaxoSmithKline looked at MDS’ sales and asked them to sell the products directly from its warehouse, which he did.

“From that a light bulb went off and we did so well with it that we said, listen, let’s search for other opportunities along this way. And we went out and successfully got other partners. And what we did, we crafted a sub-distribution model. So because we were now selling to pharmacies, we would [also] sell them other things like snacks or various beauty items and other things you see on the pharmacy floor.” He said for the big distributors, it was small business, “but big business for us. So we became distributors for GlaxoSmithKline at that point in time.”

At that time, Jerry White, the current quality assurance and projects manager came on and the expansion into pharmaceuticals continued. White previously worked at Glaxo Caribbean from 1980 as a medical representative before it was merged with Wellcome Pharmaceuticals to become Glaxo Wellcome before merging again with SmithKline Beecham to become GlaxoSmithKline. He joined MDS in 2009 bringing that experience and new products from India-based pharmaceutical company, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Limited.

“When we started in the pharmaceutical business, we realised very, very quickly how much we needed to capitalise the business further.”

To raise capital, the private market was considered first with his mother not gung-ho on going public. But after some convincing, the opportunity of listing on the Junior Market of the Jamaica Stock Exchange was taken. “We studied it very carefully. I remember looking at the other companies that went public at the time…and tracking its progress. After a while it was a no-brainer.”

Kurt’s father Winston, who had retired from the Port Authority of Jamaica said during that time, he was driving past another property on Hagley Park Road, the company’s current location, and saw a sign saying “property consultants”. He took the phone number on the sign and passed it on to Kurt to explore the option of getting that property to consolidate the business in one location. At The Domes, where the company was located, it occupied six units and the operation was fragmented.

“We took one walk through the building and we asked who designed this building for us. How did you know that we were coming?” Going public positioned MDS to take advantage of the opportunity and it was better able to finance moving into the building.

That was January 2015, another milestone for the Boothes in the company’s progression.

“I remember going back to my office and sitting in my chair and I couldn’t work for the rest of day and I played a song on my computer on repeat all day, a song by Journey called Don’t stop.”

With that growth, Kurt said the company lost focus on its medical disposables while focusing on pharmaceuticals. Changes had to be made and were made with a refocus and the company was divided into three divisions — medical disposables, pharmaceuticals and consumer products and beauty items.

Then acquisition followed in March 2021 with MDS buying a 60 per cent stake in St James-based Cornwall Medical and Dental Supplies for $275 million. That business was since renamed Cornwall Enterprises. The acquisition also allowed MDS to enter the retail space with three pharmacies that were previously owned by Cornwall.

Over the last 22 years, Medical Disposables and Supplies has grown from a car trunk to a business now valued $1.5 billion. In its last full year which ended March 2021, it recorded $2.4 billion in sales and exceeded that in the first nine months of the just concluded financial year. The nine-month period refers to from April 1, 2021 to December 31, 2021. With an added three months of data to come, it could well exceed $3 billion in sales.

“From where we sit at this point in time, things look good. Glory be to God. We’re very grateful,” Kurt ended.

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