A route that just keeps on growing

Last updated 08:18 22/06/2013
Mark Waller
DAVID HALLETT/ Fairfax NZ
EBOS BOSS: Mark Waller.

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Last year Mark Waller, well known in the business world and to Ebos Group shareholders, predicted the medical and pharmaceutical wholesaler and distributor would reach $1 billion by market value within five years. Eight months later the target was beaten. ALAN WOOD talks to Waller about his aspirations.

$8.9m Ebos revenues when Mark Waller took over as chief executive 26 years ago. $6b Ebos Group revenues once the Symbion purchase is bedded down. 

Mark Waller sees Ebos Group's horizon as boundless and wishes he had another 20 years as managing director of the healthcare products distributor to continue his vision.

That includes adding retail outlets.

Ebos has built a "highway" of distribution of medical, pharmaceuticals, petcare and other supplies that go to GP offices, pharmacies, hospitals and veterinary outlets New Zealand- wide.

"We've spent 20 years investing in the highway. It's multi-lane, it goes nice and straight, it's safe and it's super efficient and it's halved the travel time.

"So you (the customer) can pay a toll and use our highway or you can go the B roads and it's going to cost you a great deal more," Waller says.

His five-year forward plan is for "vertical integration", to perhaps one day own pharmacies and/or GP and vet practices that are now the retail outlets for many Ebos distributed products.

He also aspires to grow Australian operations "very" significantly.

"In some ways I wish I had another 20 years of energy left because there's just so much to do now."

Waller has already served nearly 30 years with Ebos Group, taking on the role as chief executive in early 1987 before the global sharemarket set the company back.

But it was shareholder-driven events around 1991 that most damaged the listed group before it rebounded, he remembers.

Ebos had been listed in New Zealand since 1960 and when Waller took on the job as chief financial officer in 1984, the majority shareholder was corporate raider Brierley Investments.

Asked about his stickability in a managing director role, where many move on after five years at the helm, Waller says the answer is easy. In an acquisitive company - Ebos has made 18 purchases in 12 years with more on the boil - the role changes every few years.

"You can just create new futures all the time, so it's not like you just work for one organisation."

Much of Ebos' dominance in its market and strategy dates back to around 1992 when it sought to reduce its role as an agency distributing products for manufacturers, and to instead become New Zealand's number one supplier of products to Kiwis through the life cycle from babies to the elderly. It is a much more customer-focused role, he says.

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At 59 Waller has just reached a peak in his career, helping oversee the $1.1 billion acquisition by Ebos of Australian-based Symbion that works in a similar space - health and animal-care products.

His salary is not to be sniffed at. He is probably Christchurch's highest paid executive. Waller got paid $3.39m including a one-off long-term incentive according to the 2012 annual report, up from $1.9m in fiscal 2011.

Symbion is being bought from the Swiss Zuellig family for cash and shares, with the Zuelligs gaining 40 per cent of Ebos. Like many other add-ons to the Ebos group, this can be tracked down to industry contacts.

Waller has known Peter Zuellig for years and his father is now 95 or so and still very active in Zuellig. "So when you ask me when I'm going to retire it's a bit embarrassing really. He's 95 and going strong."

Symbion will more than double Ebos' market value of market capitalisation to $1.35 billion.

Ebos' annual revenues will leap to $6b from about $1.5b now. To get the deal over the line took six months of 14-15 hour days most days of the week, and a normally chipper Waller admits to being a "bit tired".

"You do get used to it, I mean I suppose it's like a doctor on call in a public hospital environment . . . travel is a big part of the life."

When Waller joined the company revenues were about $8.9m and the previous managing director Warwick Redmayne had been in the role 38 years. It was just a small company but one that Brierley directors and Datacom founder Bernard Battersby (on the Ebos board) wanted to grow, giving him free rein at the age of 34, he says.

He counts himself lucky to have been mentored well. Early on Brierley's Craig Thompson and Ross Martin were two influencers towards an entrepreneurial path.

The early Ebos chairmen Waller answered to were entrepreneurs - Jamie Maddren who had been a founder of the venison industry and subsequent chair Philip Burdon, who had established Meadow Mushrooms.

The initial board gave him a two-year training and transition phase.

"I went to all the international trade shows for medical, dental and diagnostics to get the product knowledge and all the market contacts."

Despite hiccups in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by the 2000s Ebos was attracting the attention of investors such as ACC (now the largest shareholder at 9.1 per cent), entrepreneurs Eric Watson and Tim Glasson of the women's retail chain and Mark Stewart, a Cantabrian from an established manufacturing family with a nose for a deal.

Stewart's choice to take a significant take in Ebos caused a stir. Other investors took note of the Stewarts' reputation gained through a deal with Vertex as being willing to take on boards in battles to create deals and wealth for the family. Around 2008 some of those "mum and dad" Ebos shareholders openly questioned Stewart's intentions.

But Waller said the many questions from outsiders about Mark Stewart had been overplayed and that as an investor in Ebos he had acted with integrity.

"He never once (threw his weight around). He was a thorough gentleman, a good director.

"He's an entrepreneurial guy . . . we the board collectively appreciated his experience around the Vertex transaction, some of the things he'd done there."

Waller remembers the most difficult time for Ebos came in the 1991 period when the 64 per cent Brierley stake came into play. Some former Brierley directors wanting to make their own corporate plays in the United Kingdom had purchased the Ebos stake but got into trouble in one bad transaction and had to unload the holding.

Peter Kraus, who remains on the Brierley board, was "in the money" at the time and loaned money to a syndicate group of dentists wanting to take the 64 per cent ownership around 1991.

However, the dentists soon defaulted on the loan to buy the holding and paid a lot more attention to the dental side of the business rather than the more important medical side, in Waller's opinion.

"The dental guys nearly tore the company apart. All they wanted was the dental bit, they didn't appreciate the medical was the big part of the business . . . Ebos had it's only ever trading loss, it was a tough time, really tough," he said.

"Jamie Maddren and I really fought hard to keep the company together at that stage."

Eventually Kraus himself took up the holding and today remains an Ebos director.

Waller says he battled on, gained traction and the growth started and the add-ons started to happen.

One of the most significant was the 2007 purchase of pharmaceutical wholesaler ProPharma & Healthcare Logistics which took Ebos' revenue from just over $300m to around $1.1 billion. That purchase was also from the Zuellig family.

In late 2011 Ebos agreed to pay $105m for Masterpet, a pet food distributor, including 50 per cent of Animates pet store group.

While he had early aspirations to be an oceanographer in the Jacques Cousteau mould, his father noted his more entrepreneurial abilities.

Whenever the family hosted guests in Fiji, when it was living there, it was young Waller's role to go with them to do the bargaining on duty free shopping.

"I was quite tough, apparently. So [my father] said no, I think you should at least think about doing something different.".

After work at the BNZ in Fiji, Waller came back to do a BCom at the University of Canterbury. He then worked with the Post Office Savings Bank, now part of ANZ bank and later worked with the Guthrey Group and Just Jeans in Melbourne.

Ross Smith, chief executive at SBS Bank, who employed Waller at the Guthrey Group in the 1970s and has kept in touch and says he deserves his success at Ebos.

"He's done an exceptional job, and this latest Symbion merger- purchase is a bit of a coup. He's a smart boy, and a real hard worker."

Waller credits his time both in Fiji and Australia for his working influences.

"(Fiji) was educational for me because I was a white minority kid in their country, and if you don't learn to appreciate their cultures and values . . . then you're just not going to go very well."

The day he took over as chief executive at Ebos he got rid of titles like "Mr and Miss" when people were addressing each other, instigating Christian names.

Family time with his wife Angie and two now grown children has remained important. He looks forward to becoming a "granddad" by the end of the year.

For time out, the family has a holiday home at Lake Kaniere, and another 18-month-old house at Denarau in Fiji.

Waller is not saying how long he would like to remain managing director.

TIMELINE

1922 - Company founded as Early Brothers Trading Co.

1960 - Lists on the New Zealand Stock Exchange.

1986 - Name changed to Ebos Group.

1990 - Kempthorne Medical Supplies Ltd is bought.

2013 - Buys Symbion.

- The Press

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