Supporting a major acquisition with proven people strategy: how Avicenna scaled up with help from a trusted people expert.

Building solid HR foundations can be challenging for any fast-growing business, but when that growth is radically accelerated by a major acquisition, the task becomes much more complex. Community pharmacy Avicenna called on People Puzzles to support its continued growth and we were delighted to step in.

Summary of case study showing advantages of a strategic People Director to help businesses manage acquisitionFormed as a collective in 1992 and funded through private equity backing, Avicenna Pharmacy has expanded significantly through its acquisition strategy. The primary guiding value is to “deliver fantastic locally connected healthcare that communities can trust”, and their pharmacies aim to dispense more than just medicine; they also support local community networks providing health and lifestyle advice.

Avicenna’s growth had previously been through multiple small acquisitions, but an opportunity arose to acquire two much larger businesses, taking them from 39 branches with 450 employees to 135 branches and over 1400 employees almost overnight.


  • To rapidly create the operational infrastructure to effectively support a trebled workforce
  • No standardised processes and policies across the newly merged business
  • Difficulty attracting and retaining the right people
  • Lack of clear progression and development pathways
  • Current HR capability needed support to manage the rapid expansion
  • Building a supportive, productive and cohesive culture across the business

The leadership team recognised the need for specialist people expertise and strategic direction, and they approached People Puzzles in September 2021 and People Director Zoë Murphy joined the team, bringing 25+ years’ of HR leadership experience to help develop the in-house HR team and build the right foundations to support rapid business growth.

The challenges of growth on a large scale

Reflecting on the sheer scale of the task at hand, Zoë says, “The acquisitions were actually two projects which ended up coming to fruition at the same time, with two larger scale, family-run businesses each with their own systems, terms and conditions, and processes. Neither Avicenna nor the two incoming businesses had a comprehensive database, so a centralised HR function needed to be built from the ground up, and quickly. It was a massive task.”

  1. Building and supporting in-house capability to lead business transformation

It was essential to get someone in place to have ownership specifically for the HR function internally to sustain growth ongoing, so it was an immediate priority for Zoë to recruit a new HR Manager to support with and manage the operational day-to-day.

The new HR Manager said, “It was very reassuring to always have that senior HR support from Zoë right from the very beginning.  Within 2-3 months of joining, we went from a head count of circa 450 to 1,400.

Zoë led the HR Strategy, whilst I concentrated on the day-to-day issues. She really was invaluable to me, and I am not sure how I would have survived without her constant support and coaching through a period of huge growth within the company”.

Zoë supported the setup of an operational Senior Leadership team and facilitated the development of a strategic ops plan, with regular meetings to ensure they were tracking progress, and making essential changes.

Quote from People Director Zoe Murphy speaking about the transformational impact of strategic HR

  1. Increasing capacity by embedding a new HR system

An employee database was urgently needed to collate, store and manage all employee information, and Zoë brought in a system called BambooHR. “It’s a super simple, self-serve system,” says Zoë, “and really quick to implement and get up and running, which was key for the business at that time.” With over 1400 employees, there was an urgent need for clarity and visibility of contract terms to enable the next steps.

  1. Creating a cohesive employee experience

With such wide-ranging differences across the various branches, it was important to standardise processes, policies, terms and conditions where possible to create a more consistent employee experience. Though not the normal approach for a TUPE transfer, some standardisation was required to avoid unnecessary complexity and inefficiency.

“We wanted to create an ‘Avicenna Way’ to roll out across the whole business,” says Zoë. Having reviewed all existing variants, she identified the clearest, fairest way forward for the majority, which in the main represented an uplift for those joining which supported a smoother transition.

A new employee handbook and suite of people related policies was also introduced to help embed a standardised “Avicenna way” across the wider business.

  1. Improving talent attraction and retention through enhanced Employer Brand  

Attraction and retention had become an industry-wide challenge following the impact of the pandemic and Avicenna had recognised the need to both attract and retain great people. Zoë therefore focused on enhancing the employer brand through improved employee experience, communication, culture and recruitment processes.

Employee engagement was a priority so, with the help of Reward Gateway, an employee engagement platform called myavicenna was created and launched to make all relevant employee information easily accessible. Zoë describes this as ‘one-stop-shop’ for all things Avicenna, which was essential given the large number of locations that Avicenna team members work across.

As well as providing a central hub for new policies, handbooks and guides, it provided the business with a two-way communication platform enabling the business to reach its employees (direct to their mobile phones) with newsletters, engagement surveys, business updates and team recognition, in a way that allowed everyone to like and share comments so that a real dialogue was created.

With the Reward Gateway platform in place, development was enabled of a comprehensive benefits offering providing the team with not only financial but also wellbeing benefits making it easier for employees to find immediate support and help when they need it in all aspects of their work and personal lives.

“The platform is also a way to strengthen the Avicenna brand,” says Zoë. “Narrated videos have been created to help bring to life the company’s vision and values, as well as being reinforced in all messaging throughout the platform.”

Other initiatives that Zoë implemented included:

  • Launching an employee survey. Monitoring and measuring progress and using the output to build improvement plans to address areas that were important to Avicenna team members.
  • Saving on agency fees by bringing recruitment in-house. The BambooHR system has an inbuilt Applicant Tracking System (ATS) which enables the team to address the ever-present recruitment requirements. In addition, it provided an opportunity to enhance the employer brand, providing potential candidates with a more professional and consistent interaction with the business.
  • Implementing a complete reward strategy, to help standardise pay, benefits and processes including benchmarking of rewards across the industry to bring in new benefits package as well as putting in place an annual pay review process.

Incredible progress to be proud of

Zoë is extremely proud of how far the business has come, especially in understanding the role of HR and the positive impact it can have on business performance. “Developing fundamental HR foundations and standardising the HR support functions and tools has not only been a game-changer for all employees across the branches but has also created a solid platform from which Avicenna can continue their growth journey.”

She adds, “I love seeing the transformational impact that HR can have within a business and how instrumental it is in moving a business forward to fulfil its goals.”

Business growth is never straightforward, and mergers and acquisitions create additional challenges. Avicenna has clearly demonstrated its commitment to providing the best experience for its people, bringing in specialist support to ensure its success through strategic people planning.

Zoe Murphy - HR Director - People Puzzles
Zoe Murphy, People Director

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