Read the Conversation
EF: Looking at 2022 in the context of the past two years, 2020 was the year of diagnostics, and 2021 was the year of vaccines; how do you think 2022 will play out?
LR: In short, 2022 will be about finally returning to the new normal. We have been waiting for the new normal to arrive, and finally, it is here. We are finally readapting to a new reality; we have started to have personal meetings with clients despite things not being what they used to be. We are approaching new customers differently; some customers have taken on more importance, and we are picking up the pieces to build into the new reality. As new situations appear in the market, we learn to deal with them.
EF: In the new normal, patients must be encouraged to return to care; what would be your advice for increasing patients' health awareness for infectious (Covid-19) and chronic diseases?
LR: Our company is a leader in anaesthetics, and with the pandemic, elective surgeries were delayed. Patients are starting to come back, but the real issue is not so much for elective surgeries but for those patients with cancer for example, where the consequences of not coming back to see their doctors are very serious. Patients with diseases that deteriorate their general health must return to care. I believe patients have to take responsibility for their health and recover the lost time as soon as possible. The message is simple: "go back to see your physician and retake what you were doing pre-pandemic in terms of health". Prevention is essential in all areas, and delays can be bad for the patient. A minority of people managed to do prevention during the pandemic, but now we must address the vast majority who haven't.
EF: What is the role of healthcare in developing the Colombian economy?
LR: Healthcare plays a fundamental role in Colombia; for example, plastic surgery is huge; in some institutions, the patients are 80% foreign, which is a big trend. We have very famous and renamed plastic surgeons, and surgeries are a powerful contributor to the economy. The Colombian pharma industry is an exporting business, particularly to Ecuador, Peru, and Central America, which are also important to the economy. Aspen must continue to grow, prepare for the future and contribute to the economy. Our industry is essential to the economy regarding the population's life expectancy and life quality. It contributes to having a healthy population with productive workers to help the economy. Colombia's healthcare system is atypical in Latin America because the players are private while the money is public. Unlike the rest of Latam, the industry has private actors in pharma, healthcare providers, consultants, etc., and many private businesses involved in healthcare. The model is excellent, with many private investors and multinationals building new clinics and laboratories coming into the country, making for a very vigorous industry with a robust economic engine.
EF: You mentioned Aspen is big in anaesthetics, so how did the pandemic force your hand to adapt to a new profile of customers, and did this impact your portfolio performance in Colombia?
LR: We are very big in anaesthetics, and during the pandemic, we were heavily impacted in this area. We are now addressing the new reality after doing what we could to bring products to the country. We managed quite successfully; we had record sales during the pandemic, although now we are going back to a pre-Covid situation. Our new customers were smaller players who saw the opportunities and took advantage of them and now have fluid relationships with providers, clinics, and hospitals. They used to work through other customers, and now they go through distributors or wholesalers, and we have had to adapt to those changes. We also have new competitors; we have been in Colombia for a long time, and in anaesthetics, we continue to be leaders in the market while adapting to the changes in the country post-Covid. Our physician relationships have not changed, but the commercial side and how the products go to the market have modified due to new players and having to deliver products more quickly. We are remapping the market proposing new deals and ways of going to market and supplying clinics and hospitals. We have shown commitment while adapting to the new reality and doing the changes with a new structure finding the balance and the strategy
EF: Is it a challenge to find the balance while remaining committed to your clients in Colombia?
LR: During the pandemic, we largely worked remotely, sometimes going to the field, making interaction with customers difficult, particularly if they weren't happy with the virtual model. Where possible, we adapted to each customer's preference, addressing the needs of each clinic, hospital, or wholesaler, shifting from how we did things pre-Covid or during the pandemic. The market has changed, and we must change and adapt to it, offering better proposals to fit the new circumstances. We are in the process of readdressing market needs, where necessary, and remapping our go-to-market strategies. We work on understanding each customer's key decision-makers as the motivations and drivers can also change.
EF: What is the strategic importance of Colombia and the region to Aspen?
LR: Colombia is the smaller of the biggest markets or the biggest of the small markets -the country right in the middle. Depending on the market, Colombia is important for some companies and not a priority for others. For Aspen, Colombia and Latam are of vital importance. Latam is important to the headquarters. Our business model is unique within the company because of the number of products we have. In the region I manage, Colombia represents two-thirds of the sales, and we are working on the growth of Ecuador and Peru so as not to be so dependent on Colombia. Latam matters to Aspen, and Colombia is an important country for Aspen in Latam.
EF: How did you manage to engage your team and keep them engaged in the new environment?
JN: Things changed during the pandemic when the world realized the importance of our sector's work. Pre-Covid, the pharma image was not the best, but with the pandemic, the industry performed, not just with the vaccines, which are our most critical contribution. We delivered the vaccine to Africa, where pre-Covid, there were no companies manufacturing vaccines. We will be the first company to manufacture vaccines in and for Africa. We got down to our home office screens at Aspen and delivered regardless. People made a big effort, saw the advantages of a hybrid model, adapted, and were productive –working on understanding the tools and adapting to them. My management team worked on collaborating and interacting efficiently, helping our personnel's productivity. We are now back at the office without neglecting the digitalization achieved through Covid. Paper is a thing of the past; everything is in the cloud, and files are accessible to the rest of the team to collaborate more efficiently. We need to go forward with this system. At first, not everybody was on board with the system, but most of our team is commercial and is all over the country (Medellin, Barranquilla, Guayaquil), so they have to work remotely. They now say that the remote system makes them feel closer to the people in the office as they interact more, faster, and easier.
EF: What can the pharma industry and Aspen specifically keep doing to maintain the new good image?
LR: We need to deliver our medicines to our patients. We need to keep providing our products so the patients have what they need when needed. We are dealing with a difficult situation; most of the industry is also tackling rising transportation costs, delays, and changes in international commerce. Getting the products from the manufacturing site to our distribution centres and the patients can be sometimes problematic. At present, we strive to get the logistics right, which takes time and effort.
EF: When you look back at this period in your professional career, how would you like to be remembered as a leader?
LR: There are a few things, in my opinion, we leaders must focus on:
- No leader has all the answers, but our role, mission, or purpose is to guide correctly, and it is very important that the team also believes in our purpose, strategy, plans, and actions.
- A leader must help the same group of people improve over time. The group has to deliver better than it did in the past.
- We all spend a lot of time at work, we are human and have issues and problems, and as a leader, we must be there for the people. Targets must be reached; they are non-negotiable; we can do that by enjoying ourselves or being miserable. I try to achieve the objectives by having a good time. I try to make day-to-day enjoyable for the team in a good environment.
Aspen is a family in Colombia, and indeed Aspen employees refer to their Aspen family as "La Familia Aspen," which shows their commitment to the company.
EF: Is there any final message you would like to share or reinforce?
LR: I hope we have all learned from these last two years; we cannot be the same people we were before the pandemic. The world has changed, and so have our professional and personal lives. After many have suffered the loss of loved ones, our priorities have changed. We must emerge stronger and better prepared for future similar situations – we cannot be the same, but learn from the past two years.