“It Can Be Done in South Africa” – Billionaire Stephen Saad

Stephen Saad

VENTURES AFRICA – Stephen Saad – CEO of Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. – is one of South Africa’s richest men, having reached millionaire status at the tender age of 29. Saad is not done yet, though, as he steers Aspen on to new and higher heights.

Saad broke into the pharma industry in 1993, aged only 29 years old. Selling his shares in Covan Zurich to mammoth Adcock Ingram, he made 20 million South African rand ($2.4 million) with his first foray into the world of business – and pharmaceuticals. Recognising his niche immediately, Saad has not strayed too far from the sector, and is now CEO of the biggest pharmaceutical manufacturer in Africa: Aspen.

Saad cofounded Aspen in 1997 – alongside friend and colleague Gus Attridge – pooling resources to set up the company with only 50 million rand ($6 million) start-up capital. The duo had no idea of the success their business would see, initially setting up shop in a small house in Durban. However, Saad’s excellent business acumen, and strategic management was not to be suppressed; he propelled the business forward and out of the Durban townhouse to become the biggest pharmaceuticals company in Africa within only seven years. Aspen now boasts a market cap of 12 billion rand ($1.4 million), and Saad enjoys a personal net worth of $640 million (Forbes, 2012).

Remembering his master-plan for rapid development when he first founded Aspen, Saad insists he didn’t have one! He claims: “I thought I was going to run a small business from Durban. Now I run the biggest pharmaceutical company in the southern hemisphere. I don’t know what I did wrong,” – displaying his signature good humour.

This down-playing of his career and denial of ruthless strategizing is probably just Saad being modest, though. Aspen Chairman Archie Aaron has said of Saad that: “[he] is the sort of individual who is prepared to take calculated business risks”. Aaron adds that even with his own extensive experience in the business world: “Stephen is one of the best entrepreneurs I have ever met”.

Saad is not just interested in obvious opportunities, but has a significant agenda to all of his business decisions. A committed supporter of South African growth and development, he has played an active role in shaping the generic drugs market – with Aspen accepted to be a global leader in generic pharmaceuticals. Saad believes in supporting local South African communities and initiatives, and abides by the motto which says: “It can be done and it can be done in South Africa”.

Aspen is particularly renowned for its work in producing quality, affordable anti-retroviral treatments (ARTs), and has won global acclaim for securing multiple licenses from multi-national companies for the production of ARTs. The company is one of only three to be promoted by the Clinton Foundation as capable of producing quality ART drugs in the quantity and at the price needed to play a real role in HIV/AIDS battle.

When asked whether he is planning to change sector, or even retire early -given his outstanding successes to date – Saad insists his fate is to remain within the pharmaceutical sector, and that further, he is definitely not ready to step back yet. He says: “I enjoy what I do every day. I started Aspen and I’m passionate about it. I’m not doing it for money, I just love it.”