Interviews

How cosmetic doctor Leah Totton made a success of her appearance on The Apprentice

8 min read

08 July 2015

Former editor

When Northern Irish doctor Leah Totton won the 2013 instalment of The Apprentice she became the third person to receive a £250,000 investment from Alan Sugar, and set about becoming one of the few long-term shining lights to emerge from the show.

Winners of The Apprentice have been the subject of countless horror stores since the show began life in 2005: from 2008’s Lee McQueen calling in sick on his first day of work for Sugar; to 2010’s Stella English trying, and failing, to sue the man who’d uttered “you’re hired” – all for sexual discrimination.

Totton, however, seems to have bucked that trend and has created the foundations of a very promising cosmetic treatment clinic business alongside Sugar. With no business background when she entered the BBC reality TV show, having spent her early career training to be a doctor and then working for the NHS, Totton had to quickly adapt to the cut-throat nature of the experience.

“I gained business skills during the process, as when I went in I was the least experienced – I wasn’t working in a corporate environment,” she explained.

“It was a bit like being thrown into a pit of lions, a real rude awakening. Now that I’m working in the business sector, a lot of challenges I came up against [on the show] are true to life here. It was a steep learning curve, but I took a lot from it.”

Totton’s desire to leave the NHS and enter the business world stemmed from her natural gravitation towards the aesthetics side of medicine. With no formal training provided though the NHS, she had taken to doing private work in her spare time on London’s Harley Street – a dominant force in the cosmetic surgery space.

When Sugar picked her business plan for a chain of clinics offering a range of cosmetic treatments, she beat out competition from the likes of Luisa Zissman (who wanted to establish an line retailer for the baking trade), Neil Clough (an online estate agency) and Francesca MacDuff-Varley (a dance studio).

When I asked why Totton thought Sugar picked her business plan over the others on offer, she believes it was her capability of operationally running it that put her ahead. “A good business plan isn’t difficult to write. It is about finding someone who can action that. I am a very reliable person, so it was about my expertise in the sector and ability to deliver,” she went on to say.

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The hard part, she revealed, came when the show finished, the cameras were packed away, and suddenly she did have to execute. It took her about six months to launch Dr Leah’s first clinic, due to the amount of research that had to go into location and treatments offered. Her initial business plan had a maiden clinic being set up in Belfast, but that was quickly changed to London in the aftermath of the show.

Having crunched the data, Totton eventually settled on Moorgate as the base for her first clinic. This is one area she said Sugar was of particular use, due to his decades of negotiations in the property space. “In the end, when we were really struggling to fine one, he came round with me to find a unit – he was very hands on,” Totton remembered. “Another area I find him useful was managing the media.”

To determine what kind of treatments she and the clinic would be offering, which now include offerings such as anti-ageing facials, face peels, botox and tattoo removal, Totton did a countrywide tour. This, she hopes, will stand the business in good stead when it does begin to open new locations in a variety of UK destinations.

The issue with new locations comes down to what you might deem to be one of Totton’s, and probably most entrepreneurs’, biggest issues – the art of delegation. Realising she “has a bit of a problem with delegation”, and is not quite ready to hand over any control, she has now spent 18 months making sure everything is perfect at site number one.

It is only now that Totton has a team she values and trusts that the business can be actively seeking locations – a “very exciting time”, she added.

Part of Totton’s slightly alternative approach to the cosmetic surgery industry, and one she hopes will win over both potential customers and critics, is her desire to be a “gold standard” for safety and standards. She sees herself as a bit of a spokesperson for the sector, giving it some legitimacy and essentially business credibility. Another way she’s looking to disrupt the space is through her use of technology. Dr Leah is completely paperless and keen to interact with patients in the most “innovative ways”. Totton added she finds tools like her BlackBerry smartphone key in operating a company in this way.

“Accessibility is a key aspect of what I wanted to do. Harley Street clinics are archaic in a sense, and for us we are a young and fresh brand. I want to bring the cosmetic sector into modern times – that is one way we will beat our competitors and help customers.”

As one of the youngest cosmetic surgeons in the country, Totton now has a business to back up the skills she acquired while training to be a doctor. The acid test will come when she takes the clinic concept out of its tried and tested base in central London, and attempts to create a nationwide chain.

However, with the success of The Apprentice winners since the prize was changed from a job to a £250,000 investment showing the impact Sugar can have, it appears she has just the kind of mentor and sounding board many entrepreneurs spend a career looking for.