CIGA Healthcare: Irwin Armstrong

Irwin Armstrong has forged a niche in the home-testing healthcare market. He tells us how.

CIGA Healthcare is certainly making a name for itself. Founded by Irwin Armstrong in 2005, the company’s self-diagnostic kits, which cover pregnancy and fertility, cholesterol, diabetes, temperature and heart monitoring are already generating turnover of over £650,000 for 2006 alone.

55-year-old serial entrepreneur Armstrong was recently named NatWest Startups Awards’ Silver Fox and CIGA’s success has so far emulated that of the management consultancy business he set up in 1982. The company’s growth has left the trophy cabinet at his home in Ballymena, Northern Ireland bulging.

“I think we’re doing well, but it’s always nice for other people to recognise we’re doing well too. I use the awards as a kind of external validation. It’s another reason for our customers to trust we’re good at what we do.”

Armstrong runs CIGA with his wife and son. Due to the business’ reliance on outsourcing and automated systems, it has only four permanent staff, all of whom are members of the family.

Armstrong says the original idea for the company had nothing much to do with self-diagnostics, but was based on the concept of developing a company on the principle of outsourcing and automated systems.

While shopping around for something to actually market and sell, Armstrong discovered a gap in the market which he felt he could exploit. The result was the creation of Armstrong’s Suresign brand of self-diagnostics.

“The self-testing market is forecast to double in the next five years,” says Armstrong. And by negotiating low prices from his various suppliers in the U.S, Europe and the Far East he is able to undercut the market. CIGA buys in volume, over a million pregnancy tests per year, which is one reason he gets the low prices he needs from his suppliers.

Armstrong says that the Suresign products are so much cheaper than their competitors’ because CIGA have a much lower mark-up on their products and invest in keeping the prices low rather than spending money on advertising.

Armstrong says he is confident the business will achieve a monthly turnover of £300,000 by 2008. Up against competitors such as Clear Blue and Predictor, he says CIGA already controls 10-15% of the UK pregnancy test market.

Another possible factor in CIGA’s success are the European Union rules that were brought in soon after the company started that enforced tougher regulations for those selling pharmaceutical products. Detailed records and standards now have to be kept; something that Armstrong believes is a deterrent to others who think they can follow in his footsteps.

CIGA already has its Suresign brand of products in 4,000 outlets in the UK including Asda. Armstrong says he never fails to get a kick out of seeing the brand he created from scratch when he walks into the supermarket.

By the end of 2007, CIGA plans to have its brand in every major European country. Last year the company made £40,000 profit, and this year sees it earning a clear £100,000 profit.

But Armstrong says he never worries about financing. After putting in £50,000 of his own money he borrowed another £300,000 from banks. “I’ve raised finance very easily because I know what the financial institutions are looking for. Because of our investments in IT and communications, they have no difficulty in seeing where their money is going. If I need any more money, I’ll get it.”

It no doubt helps that he’s been through it all before. He graduated with a degree in business studies in 1971, at a time when business was relatively new as an academic subject. After university, he qualified as an accountant and later worked for the Northern Ireland Development Agency, which was trying to help people get started in the business world.

“After Margaret Thatcher put a stop to it, those of us that worked for the development agency were offered a golden handshake. I took it and set up my management consultancy company, Centre House Management, which I still have today, 24 years later.”

Armstrong’s strength is in getting concepts off the ground. “I’m pathetic as a manager,” he jokes, and openly admits CIGA’s growth has forced him to take eye off the ball at Centre House. “I get bored very quickly. I’m a broad strokes kind of man, but I have people behind me to do the fine detail and mop up the mess.” But despite the dismissal of his own leadership skills, Armstrong seems to have got the hang of it. There must be something about the kind of mess Armstrong leaves behind, because it works for him.

© Crimson Business Ltd. 2006

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