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EF: If healthcare has its own COP26 and you were a speaker, what would be your message to world leaders?
DC: My message would be that there is a new BC (Before Covid) and AC (After Covid) and that we will deliver better results if we come together as an industry. I did a master's in climate change, a subject relevant to the COP, but I changed lanes to pharma because I am also a chemical engineer. Climate change has had a much better reputation than pharma, tobacco companies and pharma are generally seen as the villain, but it's time to flip that discussion around coming together as an industry. Pfizer's solution was good, and Merck will probably follow suit from peer pressure. It is the right thing to do; we need to tackle issues together to advance. The healthcare sector is in the spotlight, and we must take this opportunity to make our intentions very clear, improve our image and show we are the most interested in offering solutions to "heal" the world. We must make 2022 the year of treatments, tackle the pandemic, and present a new and improved sector version.
EF: Could you elaborate on Grupo Somar's role in Mexico over the past nearly two years?
DC: We are part of Advent International, a prominent international private equity. Last year Advent International acquired another company, the Perrigo Group, in Mexico and Latin America. We are still waiting for the green light from the Antitrust Agency to start working together and become one of the major healthcare providers in Mexico. Even now, Grupo Somar is one of the major healthcare providers, producing 40 million units per year. Combined, we would produce around 120 million units per year, one for each Mexican. Our vision is to provide quality and affordable healthcare for all Mexicans in the near future. Historically, international names have had better positioning, but we can change that as part of a big group that serves Mexico and Latin America. Quality and affordability must be at the centre of the stage moving forward. Investment, R&D and innovation is key to our success, particularly innovation considering we are a local pharma company. Over the last years, we have invested more than 250 million Mexican pesos in R&D and innovation, bringing new quality products to market at affordable prices to benefit chronic patients on medication for the rest of their lives -expense making the experience unsustainable. We mainly focus on innovative and challenging to make medication areas. Mexico is at the top of the list in countries with diabetes and diabetes propensity, which comes hand in hand with a set of diseases attached, such as neuropathic diabetic pain, widespread and painful for the patient. Our drug is a combination of gabapentin and vitamin B, initially produced by Merck, it's an expensive product and not very easy to make, but at Somar, we already do a lot of work on combinations with Vitamin B. We innovate in combinations, tablets sizes and doses, making our tablets smaller and easier to swallow for older people, which helps the patients experience. We are now taking it to the next level bringing more solutions with vitamin B combinations for patients. Similarly, our scar medication used to be a gel, and we now produce it as a cream. We even have a product for hair loss in a foam solution, the first foam product brought to the market and is more practical in its application and easier for people to use. We are focusing on five or six therapeutic areas we know will have a future impact: i) neuropathic pain, last year we launched a new speciality line, ii) cardio-metabolic, iii) gastrointestinal affliction, iv) anti-infectives –they had a significant impact during the pandemic- and v) RX dermatology, an area we continue to pursue. As a local player, we will keep innovating; vitamins will be huge once the two companies join up.
EF: Could you elaborate on the lessons learnt during the pandemic, and if you had to create a Master in Pandemic Administration which two courses would you consider mandatory?
DC: The first course would be thinking outside the box. At first, when the pandemic started, nobody knew what would happen; we didn't overdo control and allowed people to explore. We let people move and work from where they wanted; for example, our all-star marketing manager moved to Puebla, where her husband worked. Issues such as freight, logistics and disruption were also solved differently. I believe we were one of the few highly flexible companies. We took risks; we bought new machinery that doubled the capacity at our Vitamin C plant at the end of 2020. As a result, in 2021, we sold more vitamin C than we ever thought possible, something that wouldn't have happened if we hadn't taken the risk at the height of the uncertainty and when we thought the pandemic would only last months. In the initial phase of the pandemic, we took risks with specific products that weren't Covid related, even if, for a time, they were, and we were the key producers. There was a period when API prices were increasing substantially, and we decided to overstock on APIs, as the trend was continuing to grow. We made the right decisions, and sometimes maybe we did not make the best decision, but thinking outside the box always was a positive move. For an MPA, my choices would be thinking outside the box, risk and collaboration. Team building and team playing remotely was a challenge. At a team level –with my directors and managers- I worked to generate trust and transparency by always keeping cameras open, having informal chats and things like wine tasting sessions to mitigate the lack of face-to-face contact, but it was not easy. We have struggled with our sales force after making changes during the pandemic. We had seen areas of opportunity pre-pandemic we wanted to tackle. As the pandemic got longer, we decided to implement the changes and integrate all the sales teams of the different areas, which were siloed and working as separate entities with different managers. We unified the sales force in multi-lanes, under one manager to integrate all the teams and all the learning, a very challenging task mainly because people who work in sales are visual and like face-to-face contact. We worked on integration schemes organizing interactive meetings through zoom, first with smaller, then bigger and finally with regional teams until they all started working smoothly.
EF: What do you think will be the new soft skill set required from new employees?
DC: We need self-driven, self-motivated people with home office skills. We know things will change; we are looking for new offices, something we couldn't do during the pandemic. We need people to work without being controlled; they must be responsible, self-motivated, and secure in their tasks. It is vital to be secure as they must be prepared to make the necessary decisions. Things have changed and accelerated, there isn't a person telling another what to do, and the individual must decide what is best for the project. Being aware that you might on occasion make bad decisions is acceptable. We must learn fast from mistakes and quickly change course, and that is a very relevant soft skill. The capacity to motivate people remotely and make them feel part of the team will be the next big challenge, as will making future generations feel part of the company. Traditionally people feel connected to the company because they are there every day; they know their colleagues, spend time with them and feel part of a team, but now there is a disconnection that will affect upcoming generations.
EF: Grupo Somar is already on a hybrid model; do you think this model is here to stay?
DC: The changes came to stay. Optimal interaction will only get more challenging in the future, but we will not go back to work as we did pre-pandemic. Some companies are changing their workplaces, and a major shift of company workspace is not done for a couple of years; it is done with the future in mind. There already was a trend in this direction, but the pandemic has accelerated the trend enormously. Of course, the changes are only for certain areas as people who work in plant production must be in situ. With the combination of the two companies, we will have six factories in Mexico and almost two thousand employees at the plant level, where the hybrid model is impossible. The accelerated changes will only happen at a team and home office level.
EF: When you look back on this period in your professional career, how would you like your tenure to be remembered, considering you navigated a pandemic?
DC: I would like to be remembered as somebody who took difficult decisions and stuck to them, and that I made my people feel safer. It is vital to feeling safe both health-wise, in terms of Covid, and have job security in a work environment. We got to a point where the sales force was not as successful as it should be, and while other companies downsized, we never did. We believed we could regain in some areas what we lost in others; in paediatrics, for example, children were not going to school, no diseases were being spread, and we consistently lost for a year. Our anti-infective sales force worked in prevention, and even if promoting OTC vitamin products to physicians wasn't initially easy, things changed in that arena with the pandemic.
In Mexico, the people are more concerned about basic needs. Mexico is a key country in terms of vaccination; it has excellent vaccination programs, both free and very accessible -even the Covid vaccination is working well. In Mexico City, I understand 80% of everybody over 18 is fully Covid-19 vaccinated. Now treatment needs to kick in and we need to work on treatment in 2022. I hope that the combination of therapy and vaccines will be enough for people to feel safe in a more normal environment. I would like to be remembered as a person who was thinking global and acting local, and leading in Mexico.