My nose is as stuffed as the Northern line in rush hour when I arrive at the North Circular Road headquarters of Vitabiotics, the UK’s largest vitamins business. As I croak a greeting to the man at its helm, Tej Lalvani, he rushes to the cabinet behind his office desk to pour a restorative drink.
It’s not a hot toddy, alas, but Wellwoman Energy, one of the 23 vitamin concoctions in the corporate apothecary that’s seen Lalvani and his chemist father, Kartar, who started the company in 1971, rack up a £390 million family fortune.
Vitamins, the supplements that were once gobbled only by the odd kid with the hemp jumper at school, have long gone mainstream.
Still, Lalvani can’t guarantee that the lurid orange drink in my hands will eradicate my cold: “We’re, er, still working on a cure but it’ll help you feel better,” he promises.
He’s more rhapsodic about some of his other vitamins, citing a clinical trial with HIV patients who were given Vitabiotics’ lurgy-buster Immunace “which showed it reduced the mortality rate by 50%”, and another that found UK bestseller Pregnacare can “double the chance of women getting pregnant”.
There’s no mention of NHS advice that most people can “get most of the vitamins and minerals you need from your diet without having to take supplements”, but Lalvani, who’s best known for his role as a dragon on BBC2’s Dragons’ Den, is unsurprisingly well-rehearsed in his role as vitamins’ biggest cheerleader.
The 44-year-old joined Vitabiotics, then his father’s £2 million-a-year start-up, 25 years ago, driving forklift trucks and labelling boxes; since taking over as CEO in 2010, Lalvani’s push for international growth has seen Vitabiotics slug it out against bigger rivals like Procter & Gamble’s Seven Seas, Pfizer’s Centrum and Bayer’s Berocca.
But at the start of his career, most of Lalvani’s job was convincing shops that vitamins would actually sell. “We couldn’t get a listing at Boots at first. They said, ‘that won’t work. Go and sell a couple of hundred thousand and come back to us…’ Eventually, we did.”
Vitabiotics’ success at doing so means Big Pharma regularly knocks on Lalvani’s door for takeover talks. “Drug companies and private equity firms approach me, a couple every year. It is tempting… but I think it’s interesting to see how we can grow organically, as a private company.
“I’m happy staying independent. This is a family business; I grew up as a kid coming into the office when it was just one small room. I don’t see any need to sell it. Not just for the cash. It’s not about that.”
Lalvani says his father, still chairman at 87, “has always been frugal. And I’ve sort of followed that pattern.” His £160,000 Bentley SUV in the company car park doesn’t scream frugality but he does put in the hours for his rewards, from early West End meetings near his home in Marylebone he rarely leaves the office until after 9pm.
Then when he’s back home, he turns to the property investment firm he runs with his wife, Tara: “Whenever we’ve got any spare money, we’ll buy an apartment and rent it out. I love looking at floor plans.”
Weekend mornings are reserved for meetings with his Dragons’ Den investments. During that show’s six-week filming blocks, Lalvani moves to Manchester and sees seven pitches a day.
Then there’s travel: only a third of Vitabiotics’ revenues come from the UK. It’s just launched in the US, with beauty supplement Perfectil stocked in Walgreens. Lalvani’s signed up model Heidi Klum to promote the pills, but is more obsessed with Instagram influencers.
He reckons new, straight-to-consumer vitamin firms like Care/of, which sends personalised supplements in the post, and Insta-savvy makers of chewable “gummy” vitamins, such as Olly, are more threatening than Big Pharma vitamin brands “who I think will flatten or decline, because they’re not engaging with digital”.
America’s most Insta-dominant family shouldn’t expect a call, though: “the Kardashians promote an adult gummy that’s just a fad, with a sugar coat around it and fluorescent packaging. A lot of adult gummies are just sugary sweets.”
It’s the closest he’ll get to an insult: when Lalvani signed up to Dragons’ Den, the BBC asked him to be nastier. “The producers said they wanted me to be a lot more ruthless, but that’s not me. I tend not to be too rude to people on the show. They’ve sacrificed a lot to come on there.”
Lalvani also knows what it is to be the new guy: “I went to 10 different schools before I was 16,” he says, after growing up in Bangalore, southern India, and spending his childhood zipping between the UK, where his father was growing his business, and India. They included a primary school in Golders Green, O-levels in Bangalore, and A-levels at Dulwich College. “And my parents got divorced and then my mum married again and then she got divorced. So it was, um, all going on at once.”
Amid a chaotic childhood, though, there was never a doubt as to Lalvani’s ultimate career: “Indian families… you’re expected to join the business. I liked other things — composing New Age dance music, mostly. But I was always going to work here,” he says, waving to his office’s framed wall pictures which, in place of the usual artwork or beaming snaps of children, host graphic line-ups of every Vitabiotics vitamin.
Lalvani studied business (“because there were too many doctors in the family”) at the University of Westminster. His first job was at McDonald’s in Colindale: “I cleaned the toilets, then moved on to cooking. It was always my goal to get on to the till. But I never did.”
He still harbours resentment at Ronald McDonald: “I used to go for two burgers but they’d always limit me, saying, ‘you can have either one filet-o-fish or one chicken burger, not both.’ It still annoys me. I don’t eat there anymore!”
Junk food is off the menu mostly, anyway: the head of a “wellness” business can’t afford to be unhealthy. And Lalvani’s Vitabiotics seems to be thriving.
As for me, despite glugging the vitamins, I still have that cold two weeks later.