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EF: You have been recently appointed as head of Africa and the Middle East; what is the mission you have set for yourself? 

BCS: The mission is to deliver on Sandoz’s purpose of finding new ways of enabling patients to access high-quality medicines in places of the world with acute needs. I have the privilege of managing Southern and Northern Africa – Rest of Africa, mostly Subsaharan Africa, is no longer in my scope- as well as the Middle East. We cover almost half a billion people with very diverse economic backgrounds, with a well-geared portfolio, expanding healthcare needs in the troubled times of Covid and general economic distress. My mission is to lead and help the organization deliver what Sandoz can offer. To this end, I am gathering insights for the countries I operate in. Secondly, manage continuity in a volatile environment and in a pandemic setting where markets and medicine requirements evolve. Thirdly, engage with the organization. We have almost 600 people in the region in various cultures and backgrounds and getting to know my team is the big priority to continue to enhance our legacy in the region. We want to be leaders and the most valued generic company in the area. We are growing faster than the market and aim to continue growing and achieving sustainability for Sandoz. The result is a given in terms of the expectation, but it could be a natural consequence of doing things right, how we deal and engage with our teams, bringing quality solutions to our patients, and if we continue down this line, we will end up with the same good results of the last few years. 

EF: What was Sandoz´s role during the pandemic?

BCS: We continued to provide high-quality medicine when lockdowns and restrictions were endangering the supply chain, and as our products are imported from all over the world, logistics was the first challenge we faced. Things were not going right for many other organizations and particularly in our part of the world, there was a lot of financial, economic and healthcare distress and we tried to step in. Novartis set up a global fund providing 20 million dollars to many organizations for various needs in the generous space. In South Africa, we provided significant funding to organizations simply helping feed people who had lost their incomes with the pandemic. It was essential to help, particularly in the poorer parts of the world. Secondly, we assisted in the scientific arena. Novartis has partnered and funded a lot of health research, used a library of compounds to test and see what medicines can be of use for Covid. When hydroxychloroquine was a compound of interest, we provided opportunities for the government to procure this medicine. Recently some partnerships have been announced where we tried to see if we could contribute  with our manufacturing infrastructure to support the production of vaccines where there are capacity bottlenecks in the system. Our CEO, Richard Saynor, also committed to freezing prices of certain vital medicines at the beginning of 2020 to keep the costs stable for essential medicines during the pandemic. It was a significant effort made to manage scarce healthcare resources around the world. At a local level, it was paramount to care for my team because it is through them that we are able to continue to deliver our products and ensure business continuity; to be supportive to our associates and their families both mentally and physically, also making sure infrastructure and technology work through the various lockdowns to achieve continuity through 2020 and 2021. With the Covid waves and the changes in the disease patterns, the portfolio pre-pandemic was not the same as the one needed during the pandemic. There was much less use of traditional anti-infective and more use of medicines either for Covid treatment or chronic diseases. Adapting to this change was a key part of our contribution. We had a few stock issues, but by and large, we have been able to address the demand of customers in the region, stretching our supply chain to deliver the needed products at an affordable price. 

EF: What were the lessons learnt by managing through this period? 

BCS: Working remotely through this period has been a new and different experience. I refer primarily to my time in South Africa as I have only recently come into my new role. My priority was to help our associates as, at the beginning, the lockdown was quite harsh in South Africa, and it was very stressful for everybody as nobody knew what to expect. We had very little understanding of Covid at the time. At the beginning of these uncertain times, the first focus and learning were looking after our people, keeping them safe, and continuing working while confined to our homes. It came down to speaking with our people to find out what was going on with them and their families, being supportive beyond the transactional aspect of the conversations to understand how people were feeling and taking care of those that were struggling. The second learning that worked very well for us because we had the infrastructure and technology to make it work was transitioning to a remote model. The company reacted very quickly, and we took immediate action after the lockdown was announced. Having a company culture set was vital, as it grounded us at a time the world felt upside down. We were already developing an “unbossed” culture, relying more on trust and empowering people instead of controlling and checking what they do. This was a significant factor in allowing us to continue to perform and have employees engaged. We do engagement surveys regularly and have solid engagement scores -people express how they are feeling and rate how the organization is working. Throughout the pandemic, we have had very high scores, and this means we are doing things right. Another learning is to be patient -everything takes longer-. We had to adapt our expectations accordingly and find new ways of measuring what we did. This has forced acceptance in the areas where we can no longer measure. I have been most impressed with my team’s resilience due to our strong company culture that was in place well before the pandemic. 

We have been highly privileged working in an industry that has always been deemed an essential service and operated throughout the pandemic. Our employees’ well-being was of first importance because without this you cannot achieve any of the other goals that you may have. One of the things I realised is that not seeing people regularly put us at risk of losing what I call ‘social capital’, so we focused on trying to maintain a collective engagement through collaboration and innovation.

EF: Did you introduce any new KPIs over the last year and what were the changes within the portfolio?

BCS: We had to make some changes in building objectives for the team, mainly on how our teams were engaging with customers externally -our reps no longer visit 6 or 7 doctors a day. We had to adjust to the new reality, sending emails, having phone calls, digital calls to doctors that already were in great demand due to patients and they also were bombarded with digital requests. We had to adapt the KPIs to measure effectiveness, learning from our mistakes when not immediately getting it right. When we can’t effectively measure something, we have to be sure to align everybody to a goal and a purpose and trust that most people will work towards that goal in the best way they can, and this is where the culture is so influential. On the second point, portfolio wise, Sandoz has always been solid in antibiotics and anti-infectives. Still, infections were less transmitted with Covid, social distancing, and not seeing people for long periods. This also impacted other types of bacteria and infections, which is a good thing. Still, it has disrupted the standard flu or infection season demand, and the market has decreased considerably. Hospital elective surgeries were rescheduled, and with their activity significantly reduced, the need for antibiotics or injectable treatment also fell.  But on the other hand, people really stocked up on their chronic medicine because they didn’t know when they would be able to go to the pharmacy again. In some cases, they were buying 3 to 6 months’ worth of their medicines for hypertension or for Covid treatment. There was a lot of demand for anticoagulation products related to haematology and other products that addressed Covid symptoms. There were a lot of fluctuations and changes, which meant in some cases we had to be very flexible and bring in new or additional products. I believe it will eventually stabilize, maybe not precisely to what it was before in terms of the portfolio but it will stabilize. Infections will unfortunately come back but meanwhile our agility to meet the new demands and have the right product at the right time has been remarkable. I speak based on my South African experience but the same trends could be seen worldwide in the flu season and in hospital activity all significantly reduced. Lockdown was a 2020 universal occurrence as was the need for Covid related products, prevalent worldwide. 

EF: What do you think will be the skills needed in the future, and how can young talent be attracted to the pharma industry?

BCS: Novartis has already identified the influx and technological transformation coming into healthcare, and they have been working in this area. At a leadership level, it has triggered a wakeup call. Digitalizing our interaction with customers, and managing content online, is all part of the acceleration of a slow tech-revolution that already was underway. All our employees have been trained in the skills needed technically. Everybody office-based must know how to interact digitally. Everybody interacting with customers must be multi-channel communicators. We aim to expand and build on this skill set, and the pandemic has accelerated this process. We have several people across our region with diverse backgrounds, including technology, as far as attracting talent. We understand there is a need to import talent from more advanced tech industries, and it is something we are trying to do. Our organization is slowly but surely building the skills and I see the will to invest, explore and experiment in the digital space, we are pioneering skills in the market to reach new heights. We have to manage and leverage our wealth of data, identify and present our content in the best way possible using technology to create the best possible experience for our customers. We work on a face-to-face and a digital interaction basis and the orchestration of this is a new way of working is something that we are slowly but surely learning. It is a journey where we must find ways to add value and be most relevant as an organization rethinking the various steps of our interaction.

EF: What is your personal definition of access?

BSC: Access at Sandoz is about providing people who might not be able to get a specific treatment the opportunity to do so, without compromising on quality. Access is the reason for the existence of an organization such as Sandoz, whose strengths lie in both generics and biosimilars. Biosimilars are critical to access; medicines in South Africa cost thousands of rands, thousands of euros or dollars and most individuals cannot afford them. Our mission is to make sure that more people can afford necessary treatments for certain disease areas without compromising on the quality of care. Beyond the affordability, there are elements such as education or having a healthcare system that can deliver. It is not just about price but about working through the whole chain to understand how to get more patients to get the proper treatment. Sandoz serves more than half a billion patients worldwide, which shows that we know access and know-how to expand it, but there is still a lot more need out there to address. 

EF: When you look back on this period in your professional career, what would you like your tenure to be remembered for?
BCS: I would like it to be remembered for strengthening the organization and culture because I think what will persist in the future will be the organization and the teams we leave behind. If we are successful, they will have done the right thing and reached more patients. If we continue to grow and develop our teams centered on the right culture and driven by our purpose, that for me will be a fantastic legacy.

September 2021
South Africa