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SA

Dis-Chem’s Lynette Saltzman building a business empire that cares

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GILLIAN KLAWANSKY

That big-heartedness is just one of the many reasons why this almost 40-year-old pharmacy group is still soaring during the toughest time in the South African economy.

Dis-Chem’s growth has been exponential since Lynette and Ivan Saltzman started it in 1978. By the end of this year, they are set to have 125 stores operational. Dis-Chem was listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) in November last year. Listing 27,5 per cent of Dis-Chem’s issued share capital on the JSE, the Saltzmans retained the majority stake in the business. Since listing, shares have continuously climbed, solidifying the company’s strong standing in South Africa’s business landscape.

It is believed to be the group’s social responsibility initiative, the Dis-Chem Foundation, that gives it an added edge in an economic climate where young people want to use their rand wisely. Supporting socially aware companies that help others, it lives up to its promise: “Pharmacists who care”.

“We never had a vision of becoming a national chain; everything was done one store at a time and was based on what we thought we could handle,” reflects Dis-Chem co-founder and managing director Lynette Saltzman. She laughs as she recalls how worried her mother and mother-in-law were when she and husband Ivan kept buying new stores in their early days. “After we bought our fifth store, they said ‘it’s enough now!’ ” Yet, for the Saltzmans, growth was organic.

“Both Ivan and I are pharmacists; we met studying pharmacy and got married just as we finished studying,” says Lynette. They bought their first pharmacy in Mondeor where Ivan was doing a locum.

“We felt it had good potential and within about the first six months we’d doubled the turnover. A few years later we wanted to have a store in a mall. That was the hardest decision – everything we had went into that store in Randridge Mall, so it had to work. Fortunately it did and so the third and fourth stores were a bit easier. Both of us being pharmacists, also helped.

“While our vision grew, we were always very conscious that we wanted to bring down the price of medicine, because medicine and toiletries were very expensive.

“As the stores got progressively bigger, we started going into the bigger shopping centres like Fourways Mall, where we still are.”

Looking to increase their selection and lower prices as the stores grew in size and number, the Saltzmans travelled to Hong Kong and began doing direct imports. They later imported from China and attended cosmetic fairs around the world.

“Our travels were aimed at seeing new innovations and bringing in products at the most affordable prices – consumers want value.”

Central to the Dis-Chem vision is a pharmacy in every store. “We’re pharmacists and we’d never open a shop unless it had a dispensary,” says Lynette. “Another key aspect is the clinic – there is a professional clinic sister in all the stores and we offer customers a healthcare service.

“Our third main emphasis is service and professionalism. Even if we’re selling cosmetics, the sales people need to be trained and know what they’re talking about.”

Another early unique selling point for Dis-Chem, was their health offering, especially in terms of bodybuilding products, a division driven by avid sportsman Stan Goetsch, who was employed as a pharmacist by the Saltzmans when they opened their second store. Goetsch later became a business partner and has remained at Dis-Chem.

“We started developing those markets. We were ahead of the times and this resonated with our customers.” Lynette also took an interest in the vitamin and homeopathic medicine offering.

The Saltzmans officially launched the Dis-Chem Foundation in 2006, developing a benefits programme, using their success for the upliftment of South Africa’s impoverished communities. “Some of the first charities we went to were Jewish,” says Lynette who serves as founder and director of the Foundation. Selwyn Segal have been long-time beneficiaries and today the Foundation also donates to Yad Aharon and the DL Link.

“It’s a public platform, so we can’t be overweighted to one community, though, and there’s so much need in this country.” Other initial beneficiaries included CHOC, Meals on Wheels and POWA.

“As time went on, we wanted to open it up and that’s when I met Penny Stein, who now oversees the day-to-day running of the Foundation and runs it together with us,” says Lynette. “She wanted to do something with us and we wanted so many more people to benefit from the Foundation and so together we brought in more beneficiaries.”

Identifying food nutrition as one of South Africa’s biggest needs, the Foundation opened its food garden alongside their head office in Midrand. “There are a number of people working in the garden,” says Lynette.

“Recovering drug addicts in rehab work there and it’s quite therapeutic for them. We also have interns doing agricultural internships, alongside our other gardeners. We donate the food to various beneficiaries and all food is grown based on organic principles.

“It’s also educational for groups of children – we’ve had kids from King David and Yeshiva here and we have our gardeners take them around and explain where things like vegetables come from.”

While Lynette acknowledges that uplifting communities is good business practice, she says the Foundation has become so much more than that. “We have such an involvement with it. When you see the need from abandoned babies – we work with some of those homes – it’s just terrible. HIV created havoc among the population and children are growing up with no one to take care of them.

“Then there are old-aged homes where people are also faced by abandonment. The more you get involved, the more you see the need.” Having started as a family business, Dis-Chem has retained its family ethos. The Saltzmans’ three adult sons, Saul, Dan and Mark, are involved in the business to varying degrees and there’s a very low staff turnover as employees become part of the family too.

 “My cosmetic managers can come straight to me and the store managers can go straight to Ivan,” says Lynette. “It’s not a big structural thing, they know they can speak to us and deal directly with us. There’s a closeness within the company, staff feel that it’s their business too, it’s not just a job.”

Speaking of working with her husband, Lynette says that while there have been challenges, it’s been largely positive. “We obviously have our disagreements but they’re constructive and agreements are more common. We’ve managed to achieve a lot more together than we would have alone. To be able to support your husband and be there with him and build something together gives you a great sense of achievement and satisfaction.”

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing though. “At home it was very much a part of our lives and with the children growing up, it wasn’t that easy,” says Lynette. “Juggling work, the business and home was challenging, but there are a lot of mothers facing that today.” Yet family has always been central to the Saltzmans and today they have eight grandchildren. “We’re all together for most shabboses, which is very important to us.” Ivan and Lynette are also very involved with the Linksfield Shul and with various aspects of the wider Jewish community, including the IUA-UCF and Chai FM. “The Jewish community knows that we’re there, that it’s a Jewish business and that we do give to Jewish charities and support the Jewish community – both personally and through the business.”

Lynette has no plans to slow down. “I hope retirement is a long, long time away,” she laughs. “It’s a challenging, interesting, varied job and you meet fascinating people through the Foundation, our stores, our magazines and more. The sense of achievement that one gets from seeing one’s work paying off is very satisfying.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Kim Lowery Aglioti

    Nov 1, 2018 at 9:17 am

    ‘So good to read positive uplifting articles for a change. Clearly Dischem has grown in leaps and bounds. Obviously they are the market leader’s in pharmaceutical health and beauty product’s. Their health care section has also grown. Most importantly, they also seem to be very generous on the side of charitable institutions they fund and support. Especially in the troubled economy we face as South African’s. Good to see they are generous too. ‘

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