Read the Conversation

EF: 2020 was the year of diagnostics, and 2021 was the year of vaccines; what do you think 2022 will bring?

JN: We have to factor in the unknown. COVID-19 was unanticipated, and we all had to learn to adapt quickly. Focusing on the patient will mean getting it right. companies need to focus on their employees more than ever.

EF: Going forward, how can we leverage the lessons and experiences from the pandemic?

JN: The focus on the patients can be multidimensional, and here are combinations of lessons we could leverage.

We had online store pharmacies that delivered medicines to patients and these evolved rapidly. Businesses across the spectrum, particularly retail, quickly realized the importance of getting the product to the consumer's home. Tourism took a hit as a market and we must now establish ourselves in accordance with the changes to attract tourists back to the country. Acino is in the healthcare space but is a very diverse and unique company; we do not just talk about patients' healthcare and healthcare professionals but consumers and retailers also. Our customers have changed their business model over the past two years. Private hospitals have put their focus on aspects such as emergencies and trauma. We needed to adapt our strategies. There has been an emergence of general practitioners offering services they did not have before. We are leaders in intravenous iron therapy, and during COVID-19, hospitals were not available for anaemic patients that still needed their iron. Facilities opened close to general practitioners so they could provide that service, we opened the Acino Med Reps which provides training to GPs on iron infusions. The market found ways of adapting and changing; some aspects have changed for the better but we still have work to do.  

EF: What is the role of healthcare in the recovery and future of South Africa?  

JN: In the healthcare environment, the pharma sector employs a lot of taxpayers. The more people we are in a position to hire, the better it is for the economy. Over the last two years, we have increased our number of employees by more than 10%, which is a significant milestone, especially with several businesses doing the same and impacting the economy. The change in logistics has been a lesson; we previously used air freight medicines and did not use sea freight. Airfreight has increased in cost and we have only got a 3.5% price increase on our drugs this year. These factors meant that we had to adapt to working differently.  

We are a multinational growth company and localization is now high on our agenda. We take our purpose seriously. We are a certified Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Level 1 company, and this is a significant milestone for us and an important part of our transformation. The company environment, the employees we bring on board, and our leadership programs look to the future and into doing things differently. If we cannot manufacture a product locally, we try and package it locally because it stimulates the manufacturing facility to be more involved in secondary packaging. As primary care medicine becomes more available over time, local manufacturing will grow.

EF: It is the third year you have the black empowerment program; what would be your advice to other executives who want to participate in social responsibility?

JN: Acino has achieved the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment level 1 status certification for three consecutive years, and it has been an important pillar. Change and transformation have to start from the top; the CEO, the HQ, and the immediate management line must back the whole transformation process. The process is complex, and all possible help is needed. We are a company that is transforming in several ways, and we have invested heavily in people, both inside and outside the organization in South Africa. We have a very solid leadership program and a corporate social investment program. We are invested in our country's president's YES initiative, a youth employment scheme, contributing both internally and externally. We look for what is important to the business and sustainable for the country; we put our strategy on paper and cluster the different items into the DTR scorecard. Everybody makes assumptions about the scorecard, but it has many elements with procurement being an example. We procure from other empowered companies, small and large, going through a stringent process. It is a three-quote system; over a certain value, it is a tender-driven system, and we are always looking for the best suppliers or partners to come on board. We strategically try to make the right decisions to align with our transformation and the DTR (Disclosure and Transparency Rules) scorecard, and we have been very successful.

EF: Could you elaborate on the strategic importance of South Africa and partnerships in the country to Acino?  

JN: Acino operates in selected emerging markets and has made several acquisitions over the past couple of years. The most impactful was probably the acquisition of primary care assets from Takeda in 2020, which resulted in Acino growing geographically and having a much bigger business in the META region whilst opening a business in Turkey and Egypt. We are looking to expand in Latin America. From a South African perspective, we are a major country in revenue, making a substantial contribution, to the overall organization.  

The focus on selected emerging markets differentiates Acino, making us an ideal partner, and I can say that long-lasting business relationships differentiate us. If we try and operate separately from the public sector, we will not achieve the outcomes that this synergy can achieve. We continuously look for future ways to partner, and as long as we have this thought process in terms of partnerships, the results will be there. This year we concluded a transaction with Aspen which shows Acino is here to stay and will continue investing in the country. It is not just about Acino and profit but about collaborating toward building a better country.

EF: How do you see digitalization in the healthcare industry?

JN: Digitalization means different things to different people. Businesses view digitalization differently depending on what phase they are in. The market is continuously transitioning from big malls to retail outlets, online purchasing through scripts, online pharmacies and mobile apps. Digitalization is growing; we are registering apps to provide education to patients that need our medicines. In terms of private insurance, healthcare professionals scan invoices to client processes and send scripts to pharmacies to get a product home-delivered. But digitalization is bigger; platforms can be used to educate patients on their diseases, and download information from reliable sources for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, resulting in accessing the information quickly.  

EF: Could you elaborate on your investment project in medical technology devices?

JN: We manufacture DNA test kits, crime scene test kits and produce animal DNA test kits. These kits are manufactured according to the custom specification -made specifically for the customers. Making these kits available to the relevant authorities significantly contributes to society. This particular business is expanding geographically. We manufacture medical technology, trying to improve its efficiency. The people who use the devices must also be trained, so we apply user-friendly technology, making the procedures as simple as possible. We look for improved processes through technology for pharmacies, healthcare professionals, and patients in the pharma business. We operate in the multiple sclerosis space, and we license a portfolio from Biogen, a US-based company. We have to educate patients compliantly, with the permission of healthcare professionals; for example, we teach patients to inject themselves. Post-pandemic, interactions have been primarily virtual meaning that other digital means are used. Digital will evolve and be used more in these situations as well as for rare diseases where good information is critical for the patients and tailored to specific patients. Considering the low number of rare diseases patients, it is possible to talk and work with individuals. We are using technology to improve our service to them. When patients are on a product, they can access all the information they need through digital means.  

EF: How do you see the future working environment model?  

JN: I have worked in the business for a long time, and I prefer an office environment as I like interacting with people daily at the office and going home in the evening to my family. We have evolved into a hybrid model; we allow people, when possible, to do their jobs from their homes. It is a limited option regarding the number of days a week, and it is job-specific. Even if there are jobs that can be done from home, my concern is the company culture built in the proximity of people. I walk around the offices twice a day to greet people, and pre-Covid, the two floors of our office were full of people; now, capacity is at 50-70%. We have added a vast number of additional jobs over the past two years but have not increased the size of our offices. After our lease finished in the coastal region, we took on new premises, but we do not need more space at our HQ after acquiring new space. I believe the pandemic experience showed that we will not lose productivity as the business evolves.  

EF: How do you manage to maintain engagement in the new working environment?

JN: We essentially structure the organization so that meetings are held at the office on certain days; the departments select different days of the week to have meetings at the office. We had to conduct Teams or Zoom meetings during Covid when health and safety regulations did not allow full capacity, we had only 3% of our staff in, with the rest attending remotely. Digital meetings work well and are practical, time and money-saving, but I prefer seeing people face-to-face if possible. We will have to set the ground rules to have the people we need in the office for the necessary meetings, but we work as a team to find the solutions such as maintaining regular conversations with employees, coaching and mental health programs, and the provision of authentic leadership. We are holders of the Top Employers award which demonstrates our efforts in this area.

EF: In the changing scenario, what is the new skill set you look for when hiring for the company?

JN: It is largely dependent on the position we are hiring for. Generally speaking, the business is centred on the customer, and if they change the business model, we adapt.  

EF: How would you like to celebrate the end of the pandemic?  

JN: We have learned to celebrate along the way. We have a very solid quarterly recognition program, but proper celebrations will have to wait until the pandemic is over. We have put effort into people being able to work together to build the culture and customer-centricity. Covid was global and forced the world to go online.  

April 2022
South Africa