The Reluctant Pharmacist

Forbes Woman Africa
Published 8 years ago

Cape Town-born Hilda Lunderstedt is a  shrewd businesswoman and considered a pioneer in the pharmaceutical industry for bringing the nutrients and vitamins trend to South Africa.

Two years shy of 50, Lunderstedt has been in pharmaceuticals for almost 30 years now. She founded NutriLida, a vitamin, mineral and supplements business, in 2001 with a meager pension payout. Eager to build a client base, she sold her first batch of products at a 50% discount. Nine years later, NutriLida was sitting at a staggering nine-figure value. Lunderstedt cashed in, selling the business to South Africa’s second biggest pharmaceutical player, Adcock Ingram.

Today, she spends her time looking for investment opportunities in the international health, wellness and beauty industry. But her starting point is a far cry from the opulence she enjoys today.

She studied pharmacy at Stellenbosch University, graduating in 1987. Her father decided to enroll himself for medical school at the age of 35 in pursuit of his dream of becoming a doctor. Her choice of studying Pharmacy was an extension of her father’s dream for her.

“I honestly didn’t want to be a pharmacist. I just didn’t see it as part of my dream. I just knew that I wanted to do something related to beauty,” she says. Her father’s dream for her proved to be stronger than her affinity for the beauty industry at the time.

Armed with a BSc degree in Pharmacy, she succumbed to the lure of Johannesburg. With her bus ticket in hand and the promise of a job in a start-up pharmaceutical company described “ripe for growth and ready for takeoff”, Lunderstedt made the move to the City of Gold. In six weeks, the company had closed shop and the promise of success in Johannesburg had more than lost its luster.

“Everybody said don’t go to Johannesburg. That place will chew and spit you out. It did. My pride took a beating but more importantly, I simply didn’t have the money to go back to Cape Town.”

With empty pockets and her degree in hand, Lunderstedt maneuvered herself into a local hospital’s pharmacy division. Tasked with the procurement function, she discovered her exceptional ability to sell products and steadily began to grow and cultivate a global network, a network that would prove to be the key to unlocking her future success.

In the early 2000s, the pharmaceutical industry in South Africa was booming, with new pharmacies and products mushrooming in every major city.

“Back then, nobody knew anything about this untapped world of natural food supplements and vitamins. I knew I was on to something.” Lunderstedt was finally able to converge her love for health and beauty with her training in pharmacy.

Before long, she had latched onto a breakthrough – grape seed extract – that would change pharmacy as it was known in South Africa. She cracked the formulae that would unleash the therapeutic benefits of the extract, from healing wounds, treating high cholesterol, repairing nerve damage, and even preventing cancer. Convinced by her findings she quit her job to solely focus on bringing grape seed extract in product form to South African shelves.

Her laughter bubbles over as she recounts how once she had the formulae she reached out to partners in China for production.

“People said you can’t just transfer money to China so I arranged to fly and go meet the production team on the factory floor. I sat wide awake on the 15-hour flight keeping a sharp eye on my small bag of dollars!” A flight and a wad of money later, her product was shipped to South Africa ready to hit the shelves.

“In my first year of business, I got over every fear that I had ever had, professional and personal.”

Lunderstedt never looked back, moving from grape seed extract to other nutricare products. Finally her biggest breakthrough came with bringing probiotics to South Africa, catapulting NutriLida into the big league. She sold the company to Adcock Ingram in 2010 for “hundreds of millions of rands”, making her one of the country’s richest women today.