When Dr Guy Braverman and Dr Allen Hanouka became businessmen, little did they know that they would build a multimillion-pound company that would save many, many lives.

Their career paths seemed set when Dr Guy Braverman and Dr Allen Hanouka were working at North London’s Royal Free Hospital in the early 2000s. Allen was set to become a registrar ophthalmologist, and Guy was on the path to enjoy a glittering future as a doctor. So when they suddenly decided to dump their white coats – and years of training – to become travelling salesmen, some thought they needed to have their heads examined.

But from Guy and Allen’s point of view, swapping their white coats, ophthalmoscopes and stethoscopes for suits, phones and cars made perfect sense. It was a risk, sure, but a calculated one. And if their plan worked, they would help many more patients than if they had remained as doctors. In fact, they may even save countless lives.

Their career volte-face stemmed from their observations at the Royal Free. Guy says: “I remember seeing the same stethoscope being used repeatedly and thinking, hang on, surely we need a quick and easy way to disinfect shared patient equipment. MRSA and superbugs were big news at the time, so I mentioned it to Allen and he agreed. And that was it – our lightbulb moment.”

Allen says: “Surprisingly, 20 years ago, not everyone believed that sharing patient equipment without regularly disinfecting it had any impact on hospital-acquired infections. Instead, the profession was focused on hand hygiene. So the shared kit – things like the observation trolley, blood-pressure cuff and pulse oximeter – moved from person to person without a second thought. Today, it’s different – environmental decontamination is a huge part of infection prevention.”

The two doctors came up with the idea of wet-wipe dispensers on walls, ready to use at appropriate points in the hospital. No one else was offering this solution but it suddenly seemed vital. Could they produce and market a new disinfectant product? If so, should they? After all, it wasn’t something that they could do in their spare time after work and at weekends. It was all or nothing.

Guy says: “I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, and after much thought, I hung up my white coat and started working from my bedroom. I found a factory that pointed me toward someone who creates wet-wipe formulas and commissioned him to make one for us. Next, I located a manufacturer and Allen and I invested around £25,000 of savings to make GAMA Healthcare’s first batch of wipes.”

Guy transitioned from doctor to start-up entrepreneur overnight. Soon Allen did the same. Some of their nearest and dearest were shocked – what were they playing at? There was no guarantee their idea would work, and what about all those years of medical training? Were they going to drop their highly prized vocation just like that?

If their business idea were to succeed, they had no choice. “We basically became salesmen, going from hospital to hospital selling our ideas and products,” says Allen.

GAMA Healthcare sold its first product – universal disinfectant wipes – in January 2006 to London’s Royal Marsden Hospital. In 2007, after a few more successes, Guy and Allen hired their first staff member, who still works for them today.

Their launch timing was excellent – which is partly why Guy and Allen had to act swiftly. To get on top of superbugs, UK hospitals started setting up infection-prevention departments. So it was a brilliant moment for two qualified, hospital-savvy doctors offering a new range of disinfectant products to enter the fray. The co-founders carefully and diligently built up trust with infection-prevention departments, who soon began asking them for a range of new products. For example, could they supply pre-surgery body wipes and cannula-cleaning solutions?

So Guy and Allen returned to the expert they’d commissioned to create GAMA’s first disinfectant formula – Adrian Fellows – and offered him the role of research and development director in exchange for a 5% stake in the company. He accepted.

Growth continued and three years ago, GAMA Healthcare hit £50m. In 2021 – due to Covid – turnover tripled. From last year, as things went back to normal, the business was back on track to continue its longstanding double-digit growth.

So what – apart from great timing, two monumental career changes and tons of hard work – are the reasons for GAMA Healthcare’s success? How did Guy and Allen water the sapling and turn it into the oak tree we see today? The co-founders suggest four main reasons:

1. We provide a uniquely effective service.

Guy says: “We offer products – but that’s only part of the story. At the start of our journey, we realised that training would be vital for infection-prevention departments because they didn’t have the time to do it themselves. So we offered training as part of a complete solution and, as a result, we’ve become famous for our after-sales support.

“Initially, Allen and I would go into hospitals and show nurses how to clean shared patient equipment and high-touch surfaces. Today we’ve got a big training team who work with thousands of nurses every month.

“Our training service ties in with our company culture of focusing on positive solutions and becoming a trusted partner. We’re here to reduce infection rates – it’s a mission that goes beyond a commercial transaction.”

2. We learned how to sell effectively.

Allen says: “We spent years training as doctors but became salesmen overnight, so we had to get good at sales. Today our sales team knows more than we ever did. But there are still general sales golden rules we live by. One is to be polite and nice. Another is to know when to shut up. A third is to always take ‘no’ gracefully.

“In any industry there are times when potential clients are dismissive. That hurts but it’s vital to take knockbacks gracefully because those customers will often come back later. So we never burn our bridges.

“Equally, we never badmouth a competitor. Instead, we spend our time discussing the good things we can offer. Customers don’t like it when someone tells them that a certain brand or product is bad. Instead, they want positivity.”

3. We put absolutely everything into attracting and retaining talent.

Guy says: “Our team is the key to our success – no question. So we understand the importance of attracting exceptional people, developing them and giving them autonomy.”

Allen confirms: “We try to provide clear career progression paths. And we believe that homegrown talent – especially people who’ve gone through different departments – is the best talent. So everyone has a personal development plan and gets half a day off each month to work on it.”

Guy: “We have some great stories. Suzy, for example, joined as a PA 11 years ago and is now CEO in Australia – she worked her way through the business and we sponsored her MBA. Similarly, Carol, our Head of Acute Sales – the department that deals with the NHS – started as a sales rep ten years ago.”

“We also offer great benefits and as much work-home life balance as possible. We give bonuses to the whole company, not just salespeople, which creates a one-win mentality. So if the business hits a certain number, then everyone, whether they’re in admin, the creative team or sales, gets a bonus.

“We devise an individual Contribution Plan for every employee too – basically a target and appraisal system aligned to turnover, profit and company values.”

4. We understand the importance of building the right culture.

Allen says: “To retain excellent people, you need the right culture. So we spend lots of time building a positive culture.

“For example, one of our mantras is to have fun – we believe that to be good at your job, you have to enjoy it. We embody that by celebrating business wins and important life moments. So we mark birthdays in a big way. Every Friday, we sing Happy Birthday together and try to make work fun.”

Guy says: “Another one of our mantras is: we win together. So it’s not just one salesperson winning a new client; it’s not just the procurement team negotiating a lower price; it’s not just the R&D team launching an alternative product. By ‘we win together’, we mean that every single team member is responsible for making us successful in every aspect of the business. And we celebrate those wins together.

“We also work hard on staff engagement. So we run engagement surveys every six months, listen to what people tell us and initiate change as a result.

“Last but definitely not least, we recruit to the company values, hiring the person who best matches our values rather than the individual with the most experience. That’s because you can train someone, but you can’t change their personality.”

FEBE says…

GAMA Healthcare started as a gamble involving two people potentially sacrificing their careers to chase an idea that could come to nought. The co-founders ditched years of training and the medical profession’s prestige to become lowly salespeople, running around the country trying to get a business off the ground. However, the gamble paid off – and then some!

The first thing to say is that Guy and Allen’s idea has worked. Their innovation is reducing hospital infections worldwide and saving lives. GAMA Healthcare has published results of clinical trials to prove it.

Their idea worked commercially too. To achieve this, not only did the co-founders have to transition from doctors to entrepreneurs, they then had to evolve from entrepreneurs to CEOs. By mastering this double transformation, they have turned GAMA Healthcare into a fast-growth multimillion-pound multinational company boasting a talented team and an effective, happy company culture.

The two former doctors and their team have played a blinder, and we can’t wait to see where they take the company next.

Disclaimer: The statements made by our interviewees are an expression of their own views and opinions and in no way reflect FEBE Ventures’ views or opinions, nor are such views or opinions endorsed or supported by us.