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27.03.2008 Feature Article

The Number One Ghanaian Success at the Heart of London

At a quick glance, Charles James John Easmon does not strike a typical Ghanaian chord, unless you know a thing or two about the colonial medical service of the Gold Coast, where his great, great grandfather left indelible footprints of excellence. Today, a fresher version of those footprints is more than noticeable on Harley Street, London's medical heartland, where Number One Health commands a beaming presence. And it is a little more than a desirable coincidence that the highly renowned medical facility is housed at Number One Harley Street; the services provided at the clinic are also one of a kind. Dr Easmon, the medical director, is quick to concede that the number one post box on one of London's most expensive corporate addresses has been strategic in positioning his business competitively: “When I decided to be where the private doctors are, Harley Street was the obvious choice. There was a space available at 1 Harley Street. I looked around and said Number One Harley Street? This is the best address in the world; I could build a brand around it.” In five years that brand has succeeded in constituting its reputation into the conscience of thousands of health conscious individual and corporate clients, including the embassies and consulates of some of the richest countries in the world. So, when he adds that he has grown the “business from nothing to a turnover of over £1 million”, it registers on the average mind as a refreshing understatement.

Those millions have not come as naturally as the way leaves come to a tree; every penny has been accounted for and made to count towards the million. “As a doctor you don't know much about business. I have made all the mistakes. I have learnt the hard way”, Dr Easmon says. But it turns out that he knows a great deal about business, a knowledge he owes to the business and leadership books he reads. And it seems the methodical nature of the medical profession has helped his course very much. He believes in success, but he believes even more in the agents of success: “In everything you do in life, you need systems and processes in order to do it well”, he posits. He jokes that he does not have an MBA but the experience he has had in business is equivalent to an MBA. As he beams a gorgeous smile, it is evident that his 'crush' MBA, as he prefers to term his mode of hands on learning, is paying off. The clinic has been noted for an investment in people award this year. He is emphatic: “I have worked on my people. That is the first thing you have to work on, the team. I have a happy team.” With ten medical doctors, nurses and a host of ancillary staff combining great customer service with superb medical care in a lively multicultural environment, the clinic is number one in every conceivable sense.

Hours before our meeting, he had hosted Ghana's High Commissioner to the UK, Annan Cato, to a lunch, as part of attempts at reaching out to the Ghanaian community in the UK. “It's my own people”, he says, waxing nationalistic with a quintessential British accent and a rather refined version of the RP-Received Pronunciation, which he has almost personified. He is excited at meeting the new generation of Ghanaian entrepreneurs, and has been exploring networks to actualize that objective. His blackberry had gone off at least three times before we could start our interview. Just as he was ready to speak, the gadget went off again. He is a very busy fellow, and it makes sense. He is committed to a 'no asshole policy', so he doesn't leave the systems and processes he has put in place to chance; he shepherds them from wherever he is. He has developed a good brand at a place where reputation wins the day, and he makes no mistakes about that: “I am a professional; I have a well established clinic with great reputation. I am very proud that I can have lunch with the former Chairman of Rolls Royce. We work with some great corporate clients”, he says.

He ordered tea while I settled for the devil in a glass. It was 2pm and I wondered whether I had done the right thing. Soon it was clear why he looks half his age at 46 and is in great shape to run a marathon for his charity, Red R. “It is quite hypocritical to advise your patients on how to keep healthy and do the other thing”, he admonishes. That commitment to doing the right thing is the reason behind the success at Number One Health. It is perhaps no accident that the idea to establish the clinic was born in Rwanda, where he had worked for a British Charity in a refugee camp, giving off his best for humanity. They had started with nothing, negotiating with world health bodies and non-governmental organizations, to provide humanitarian services to more than twelve thousand people. And he is proud of it; “anything you do, do it well,” he submits, rather excitedly, preferring to call that refugee work his greatest achievement, instead of his Number One clinic, the humble man that he is.

That humility also underlies his commitment to development in Ghana and Africa. Since age two when he left Ghana to join his mum in Britain, the last time he visited his native country was in 1983, where he took an elective as part of his academic programme. As distant as that time sounds, he talks about Ghana with affectionate natural fondness that at once makes up for all the years he has lived abroad as a British citizen: “Ghana is making progress. We have a stable economy; a lot of people are looking up to us. Our reputation is very good”, he says. He is optimistic about Africa. He quotes Japan's Akia Malita that it is too early to tell the fate of the African continent. He describes the situation in Kenya as unfortunate but he instantly counters that with successes chalked in other parts of the continent. He cites examples in South Africa and Botswana, and comes back to single out Ghana as a place where good progress is being made. And he doesn't just dissipate nationalistic thoughts about development in Africa; he is already involved in Afrikids, a charity that is committed to supporting street children in Ghana.

With so much faith in Ghana and an all-consuming desire to make a contribution to development in the country, it is almost ironic that Dr Easmon cannot speak any Ghanaian language. But you would find reason to forgive him, because he talks about that innocent loss of language with a great deal of compunction. In fact, he apologises for that. The Queen's language may be his second nature, but his first nature is his Ghanaian identity. “I am a hundred percent Ghanaian by birth”, he is firm to establish. When you hear him mention Sekondi, his place of birth, it sounds like the name of the next major city after Stratford-Upon-Avon, in the English county of Warwickshire. The fact that he is married to the daughter of an English aristocrat, Sir Egerton Nevil Coghill, 8th Bt, would almost justifiably give you reason to believe that he is forever locked up in the fierce privacy of the English aristocracy, where nobility is guarded and revered beyond compare. So, he is often confused with his uncle, Prof Charles Easmon, who is a Commander of the British Empire, CBE, an honour given by the British Monarchy. Instantly, he makes a distinct clarification: “No, no the CBE is actually a relative of mine, a microbiologist, not me.” With the same measure of sincerity, he admits that his wife's noble parentage is heartwarming but it has not given him any advantages in what he does: “I have worked hard, I have studied hard, and I like to apply my brain”, he says.

That he has studied hard is not just evident in the reputation he has managed to carve for Number One Health; it is a well-known fact in British medical circles. His colleagues joke that his academic qualifications outnumber the dinners they have had in their lifetime. He dissolves into infectious laughter at the mention of that adulation. “I like that”, he jokes, still laughing. He pours himself another drink and quickly gathers himself together to answer my next question. Are you a thoroughbred in medical science? “I like to be humble”, he submits, almost apologetically, as if making regular appearances on BBC and serving on the board of the British Travel Health Association, a rare achievement for a black medical practitioner, had meant nothing for the record books.

He admits that there are barriers to progress for the black man in multicultural Britain, but “you either have to deal with it or you don't.” And it is clear he has dealt with those challenges: “In a way, to be honest, I have been protected by my profession and the schools I went to. There were times that I was the only black guy among 300 students. If I hadn't dealt with it I wouldn't be here today”, he says. But he concedes that those barriers could be limiting if you don't belong to what he calls 'the old school type', a combination of colour and culture. He recalls his days in the NHS, where the old school factor stood in the way of progress, but the triumph in his voice is discernible: “If you went to a better school your path was eased, if you didn't have an overtly African name your path was eased, obviously if you had a lighter skin, your path was eased.”

Next, he distinguishes between ignorant and educated racism. He is not definite whether he has been a direct victim to any. Indeed, he says he has only been a victim in a very 'limited' sense. He prefers to call it the odd comment. He cites Australia as a place where people could be racist because they are ignorant of the existence of other races, but “when they find that you are good, everything is gone, everything is back to normal.” The form of discrimination that exists in Britain, according to him, is 'educated racism', “where no matter how great a guy is, the fact that you are black, you are still black.”

But racism, educated or ignorant, has no place in a purpose-driven life, and certainly not in the life of a medical doctor who has written three plays and immerses himself in best selling leadership and motivational books. He quotes freely from Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and other great authors with breathtaking accuracy. When I asked him his key tips for success, he was loquaciously philosophical. He quotes one of his authors: “You used my hands all these years, but you had my brains for free which you never used. In any business it's all about the people, you need clear parameters with regard to intelligent thinking”, he adds. So, at Number One Health, the stethoscope does a good job, but sharp brains run the show. He believes in himself but he believes in others, too. He praises the doctors in Ghana as 'well educated and talented' and laments their economic migration (he thinks the term brain drain is a misnomer). His solution: A charity should supplement their income. Not a bad idea. I gulped down my last devil at exactly 3pm. We said good bye and soon the blackberry was ringing again.

Interview by Benjamin Tawiah
At Harley Street, London

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin, © 2008

The author has 235 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwesiTawiahBenjamin

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