July 20, 2017

German drugstore barons dwarfed by WBA

Young lady shampooing in a shower (photo: lenets_tan_Fotolia)
Global trend: Drugstore sales are foaming up
The world's insatiable demand for health & beauty products has made a number of drugstore owners seriously rich. These include Stefano Pessina, CEO of Chicago-based Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), and Li Ka-shing, Chairman of Hong Kong conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings and retail subsidiary A.S. Watson. Both are the largest shareholders in their respective companies and personal billionaires.

Götz Werner, Dirk Roßmann and Erwin Müller, the founders of leading German drugstore chains dm, Rossmann and Müller, also rank among the planet's wealthy. But their thriving businesses hardly extend beyond Europe and cannot match the US and Chinese giant in annual sales, store count or global reach. Put in health & beauty terms, they are provincial European belles in a Miss World contest.

A question of size

A Boots drugstore in London (photo: WBA)
A Boots drugstore and pharmacy in London
Even excluding substantial pharmaceutical wholesale revenues of €19.7bn, international drugstore sales at Walgreens Boots Alliance (€84.6bn) last year were nearly four times those of dm (€9.7bn), Rossmann (€8.4bn) and Müller (€4.2bn) combined. With 12,848 outlets on both sides of the Atlantic at the end of 2016, the world's largest 'pharmacy-lead health & well-being enterprise' also dwarfs Rossmann (3,627), dm (3,349) and Müller (763) by store count as per their last business years.

As of July 2017, A.S. Watson runs more than 9,800 outlets in 19 markets, in addition to a joint-venture with Rossmann in Germany and Central & Eastern Europe (CEE).

These realities must be compared with the international expansion of German drugstore operators who, with the exception of Rossmann in Turkey, have confined themselves to Europe. The US, Asia and Australia, let alone Latin America or Africa, are still terra incognita for them all and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

By contrast, WBA's Stefano Pessina has long been gunning to enter the People's Republic of China big time.

When one confronts German drugstore managers with the big difference in size, they are quick to point out that Walgreens Boots Alliance, created in December 2014 after the merger of UK market leader Boots and US multiple Walgreens, benefits from a different historical tradition where chemists (pharmacies) developed into health & beauty retailers and are frequently integrated on their sales surfaces.

It's a family affair

It is also true that dm, Rossmann and Müller as private, family companies cannot tap the international money markets via listings on the Nasdaq, S&P 500 or the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in order to finance their expansion.

But the fact remains that Walgreens Boots Alliance and A.S. Watson are thundering past the Germans on the takeover lane of the international drugstore motorway.

Should anyone doubt this, just look at the rate of store openings. Whereas dm and Rossmann will get a good 250 outlets up and running between them in Europe in 2016/17, the global giants each work in thousands.

A Walgreens store in USA (photo: Marco Kitzmann)
Marco Kitzmann
Feeding frenzy: Walgreens already has 8,200 outlets, but wants to devour nearly half the store base of rival Rite Aid on the lucrative US market
Despite the difficulties made by the Federal Trade Commission regarding the merger of WBA subsidiary Walgreens with competitor Rite Aid in the US, the FTC could still wink through the purchase of 2,186 stores. This is in addition to an undisclosed amount of organic growth in 2017.

In its company report for 2016, global rival A.S. Watson announced the opening of more than 1,000 new outlets worldwide this year. But COO Malina Ngai Man-Lin indicated to Chinese sources last month that the actual figure will be around 1,400.

About half of these will be in China, but a "significant share" will go to CEE, including the Ukraine and Russia, where as a Chinese company it will not be hampered by sanctions. The group will also expand in Western Europe, primarily through Superdrug in the UK and Kruidvat in the Netherlands.

A Watsons drugstore (photo: shutterstock)
Market leader: One of 3,000 Watsons drugstores in mainland China
This historic retailer has already proved its willingness to buy its way to growth. Only a few weeks ago, the company lost out to financial investor L1 Retail after making a €1.1bn-bid for UK health specialist Holland & Barrett.

The size and the pace of global growth at both Walgreens Boots Alliance and A.S. Watson will inevitably lead to increasing competition with Germany drugstore empires in western and eastern Europe. A partial exception will be Rossmann with whom A.S. Watson has a 40:60 joint-venture agreement.

To date, German drugstore chains have had to contend with a fiercely competitive local market, but with little interference from abroad. If one excludes WBA's acquisition of Frankfurt-based pharmaceutical wholesaler Alliance Healthcare, Germany is currently not on the global players' radar.

This has allowed dm and Rossmann to virtually carve up the Health & Beauty segment between them, despite spirited resistance from Müller and the surprising new plans by Edeka, Germany's largest grocer, to enter the market in partnership with Hamburg's local hero Budnikowsky.

They shall not pass

Another barrier for foreign entrants is the Pharmacy Act (Gesetz über das Apothekenwesen), making it all but impossible for multiples to break the cosy status quo enjoyed by local chemists. But given the numerous holy cows that have gradually been slaughtered on the altar of modern retailing even in Germany, change could come in due course.

Whenever that time arrives, Germany's drugstore stars must hope that they are healthy and beautiful enough to meet the global beasts.

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia

Podcast. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text:

Lebensmittel Zeitung with digital sister (photo: LZ)
photo: LZ
Our German retail B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German:
 'WBA und Watsons machen Tempo' by international editor Mike Dawson on page 10 of Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 29, 21.07.2017

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Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Alan Page
    Created 21 July, 2017 12:06 | Permanent link

    A.S. Watson's holding in Rossmann

    You seem to have negated the fact that AS Watson have a significant holding in the Rossmann business.

    Answer: You seem to have missed the two occasions where this was referred to in the text:

    "in addition to a joint-venture with Rossmann in Germany and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)"
    "Rossmann with whom A.S. Watson has a 40:60 joint-venture agreement".

    Intriguingly, the annual report of CK Hutchison Holdings Limited for 2016 gives its percentage share in Dirk Rossmann GmbH in Germany as 30 per cent and in Rossmann Supermarkety Drogeryne Polska Sp z o.o. in Poland as 53 percent. Yet Rossmann insist that the participation is still down as 40 per cent in their books.

    Hutchison's press team explain the 30 per cent figure with the dilution caused by a participation of Singapore's sovereign wealth fund Temasek in Hutchison and even sent the maths in writing (40% x 75% = 30%). Fair enough, but where did the 10 per cent go?!

    Regardless of whether the stake is 30 or 40 per cent, however, it remains a minority one. It is therefore a little curious that Rossmann sales in Germany and Europe seem to be fully consolidated on the Hutchison balance sheet.

    However, Hutchison is registered in the Cayman Islands where many things seem possible... :-))

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