Read the Conversation

EF: What was Trinity Pharma's role during the pandemic and the last year and a half?

GS: During the pandemic, there were major supply issues in South Africa and globally; the huge concern for pharma companies was not so much about the sustainability or the effects on their businesses but about being unable to deliver essential medicines to people in need. Very early on, we took the stance that supply would be critical and put commercial activities aside to focus on access to medicines for South Africans. We collaborated with other local pharma companies, sharing stock on hand where shortages could occur. I have been working in the sector for 26 years, and it is the first time I have seen competitors work together side by side, facing the many issues of shortage of supply in aid of providing access to medicines in the country. We did whatever we could to ensure we had adequate stock levels, and we ordered increased quantities of products we thought -at that stage- would be essential for the treatment of Covid. In collaboration with other pharma companies, we identified the possible shortages for chronic medicines and other essential drugs. Some things we got very wrong, as we didn't know the effects of Covid on the market at that stage. When the Covid protocols started to come through, one of our commercially unviable products was suddenly in the protocols, so we immediately stocked up as quickly as possible. Another role we played was assisting some of the smaller countries, Lesotho in particular. Lesotho is a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa, a very small third-world country that is very reliant on South Africa for healthcare and medicines, and suddenly, South Africa restricted exports of drugs and permits were needed. Because they were in desperate need, we worked very closely with their government procurement organization to get medications globally from Asia and Europe, assisting in getting urgently needed medicines into that territory.  

EF: What were the lessons learnt managing a company in such a complex environment?

GS: In times of crisis, one quickly learns who the correct people to have as partners are, and we certainly learnt the lesson of what manufacturers we were comfortable with. Some manufactures tried to take advantage of the situation and the short supply of medicines with massive price increases to profit from the pandemic. They are manufacturers I won't be partnering with going forward.  

EF: If you had to create a Master in Pandemic Administration, which two courses would you include as mandatory?  

GS: Definitely, communication would be one course; communication is vital in working remotely with teams and shareholders –with all stakeholders. The better the communication, the more successful the organization and the management teams are. The second course would probably be digitalization, considering the front row digital matters have taken, necessary to the new dynamic of managing digitally and remotely.  

EF: Do you think digitalization has come to stay?

GS: It has been proven that we can work remotely, in some cases, far more effectively. Pre-Covid, our team members were spread out over the country and working remotely in some of our divisions, and one of our regulatory pharmacists worked from Australia, so we were quite prepared when remote work was forced on us. I definitely think the system is here to stay, but I also believe parts of the company need to work in an office environment. There will be a mixture of the two models; not everybody will be in the office but there will be some return to the office environment. As far as international travel is concerned, I used to travel a lot to our head office in India and visit manufacturers, and I don't think we will go back to that. We have learnt it is unnecessary to fly across half the world for meetings, to conclude deals or make budget presentations as today it can be done effectively through digital means. There will be travel but nowhere near as much as pre-Covid.

The need of a country trumps anything and everything, especially in a healthcare crisis; it opens up the need for collaboration. Our people's needs come first, before the commercial aspects of each organization.

EF: Could you elaborate on the company's business units' performance and how your product portfolio evolved during the pandemic? Were there changes and how did you adapt to change?  

GS: We have seen a massive drop in antibiotic sales and a significant increase in vitamin sales and soft medication. Balance in the portfolio is extremely difficult to achieve as none of us knew where things were going. Some things we got wrong and others right, not through expertise but through luck as nobody knew what would happen. We are still not back to normal as with the lockdowns, the stages of colds and cases of flu, people wearing masks and using sanitisers; the acute elements are not affecting health as in other years. On the other hand, there has been a massive substantial increase in the sales of antidepressants. In pharma, we have to look three to five years in the future in terms of getting the dossier ready, registering, getting approval, and launching new products. To guess or forecast what our portfolio will be in five years in this environment is an impossible exercise at this stage. We aim for a wide range of products to balance our portfolio, only possible because it covers many therapeutic areas. We are taking into account the facts of Covid, but we are also considering a return to normal at some stage. Most importantly, we are not excluding any possible opportunity –we investigate everything, take all alternatives into account. Due to the present uncertainty, we have tried to diversify our portfolio as much as possible. Our core business and the RX side haven't explored new areas; we have stuck to our central core within the prescription medicine space.  

EF: Did you have to introduce any new KPIs this past year?

GS: Yes, we did; we increased our KPIs significantly and the periods of measurements. With everybody working remotely, we needed to make sure our people were working effectively and how they should be working. We had KPIs before, but since Covid, we have a stronger focus on KPIs, increasing them for this financial year. We measure general indicators with a focus on time, deadlines and objectives. Before, we were more open-ended regarding target dates, whereas today, they are more closely monitored and defined.  

EF: What would be your recommendation to ensure the security of supply in providing medicines for South Africa?

GS: A secure supply chain is a challenge indeed. We face significant obstacles on the logistics side; the cost of flying medicines has made them unaffordable. South Africa's pricing policy doesn't allow us to increase our prices, so we have had to absorb the astronomical freight cost charges. Today's tourism industry is practically nonexistent and the high costs are related to the lack of flights coming into South Africa. The freight cost has directly affected imports, not only in air travel but also in shipping; there is a huge shortage of refrigerated containers to bring our medicines to South Africa. We are not only experiencing over the top cost to get our product here but there is a long waiting period to access a container. The risk to the industry is that it is becoming unaffordable to bring products in, and we sell at a loss because we are not allowed to adjust our selling price due to existing policies in South Africa. Unfortunately, it is something we have no control over; all we can do is ensure we increase our stockholding, take into account longer lead times in our planning and assume the product will take longer to get to us.  

EF: Do you think the future employee will need a different skill set, will there be more soft skills required?

GS: I think the future employee won't need to be micromanaged; there isn't space in our organization for people who need to be micromanaged. We need a strong team and a team that can be relied on and trusted. I think the company hierarchy will be a lot flatter, which aligns with less required micro-management.  

EF: When you look back on this period in your professional career, what would you like your tenure to be remembered for, considering you navigated a pandemic?

GS: I would like to be remembered by my team as somebody who understood their personal needs during this difficult time. People have been emotionally affected in so many different ways, from the trauma of losing loved ones or having loved ones critically ill to the stress and worry of having kids at home while trying to work and leveraging schooling and other chores. I have tried to be as flexible as possible, consistently supportive and not unreasonable in my demands. I have allowed them the flexibility to manage their families and work.

October 2021
South Africa