We are Getting Closer to Curing Most Diseases
At the end of September 2012, the Management Board of the Manager Association awarded Vojmir Urlep, CEO of Lek, a member of the Sandoz Group, the title of the Manager of the Year for 2012. Slovenia’s pharmaceutical industry, in his opinion, is at the very top on a global scale. Urlep, who turned the Slovenian pharmaceutical company into the largest development centre within Sandoz, accepted the award as a recognition given to all employees and their knowledge and daily efforts. According to him, we are getting increasingly closer to making most diseases curable.
What is the business environment globally compared to that in Slovenia? What can we learn from other countries?
That is quite a complex and broad issue. The rules of the game are definitely much more stable and predictable in the international business environment than here. On the other hand, the international business environment allows you to encounter different business practices, cultures, expectations and a different kind of competition and you have to adjust to all that if you want to succeed. In addition to multiculturalism, other countries can teach us that without knowledge and the relevant added value of products you simply cannot compete with rivals on equal terms.
What specific knowledge and especially character traits are required for working in one of Europe's largest companies?
Novartis, similarly to the rest of the pharmaceutical industry, is based on extremely demanding knowledge from the fields of chemistry, pharmacy, medicine, biology and some other disciplines, making the industry increasingly interdisciplinary. The regulatory requirements the industry must comply with are increasingly stringent. Many more studies must be conducted today than several years ago to demonstrate the safety, efficacy and quality of a product. These studies cover numerous areas that in the past may not have been very present in the industry itself; hence the advent of new knowledge that must be gained and developed if one wants to meet expectations.
You have two master's degrees, in economics and pharmacy. Which area is closer to you?
It is difficult to say, but given that I have never really worked in my primary profession as a pharmacist, we might say that I'm closer to the field of management and, perhaps, to the area of marketing, within management where I have actually worked for most of my career to date.
What, in your opinion, are the characteristics of a good manager?
First and foremost, a vision. A good manager is able to predict the direction the industry will be taking and know how to translate that into action plans and the very strategy that the company will follow or even the trends it will be dictating.
Where does Slovenia’s pharmaceutical industry stand compared with the rest of the world?
At the very top. Of course, we have to be aware that the Slovenian pharmaceutical industry is restricted to the manufacture, development and marketing of generic drugs, the complexity of which does not lag behind the original drugs when their quality and safety need to be proved.
The fact is that many Slovenian experts move abroad – the so-called brain drain. Is this also happening in the pharmaceutical industry and how can we keep pharmaceutical experts in Slovenia?
This is a two-sided problem. On the one hand there is a spontaneous, uncontrolled outflow of personnel; on the other, if we only look at our own example, there is a planned outflow as professionals take career development opportunities offered by a large globally functioning system such as Novartis. They move to important and challenging positions within the Group where they can gain additional skills and experience. Of course, we hope that most of these people will return to Lek and use their new experience and knowledge to further contribute to the future success of the company.
Are there Slovenian students who have graduated or received their master’s or even doctorate degrees abroad but have returned to Slovenia and have you been contacted by any of them?
Of course, we also have quite a few Slovenian employees who either studied abroad or were looking for job opportunities abroad after completing their studies but have since returned to Slovenia. In other words, it is not a one-way path that only leads our professionals abroad. However, their return depends on whether Slovenia can offer jobs that are appropriate and sufficiently challenging for them to return from a foreign environment.
Do you, perhaps provide scholarships to Slovenian undergraduate and postgraduate students abroad?
Generally speaking, no. However, I have to say that we have a highly diversified internal education system: as a company, we cover the cost of education of our professionals in various fields abroad, whether as part of Novartis programmes or programmes provided by recognised education providers.
To what do you attribute Lek’s extremely good business performance?
I assess our performance as decent given the circumstances in which the industry, as well as other industries operate: a global financial and economic crisis, which is still in progress and whose end is not yet in sight. Our performance is based on the unique knowledge and rich experience of our employees and in particular, on the fact that we all understand very well what our goals are and what needs to be done to achieve them.
Have you met our fellow countrymen, perhaps even in leadership positions, on your visits abroad?
I have met Slovenes almost everywhere, not just on my business trips but also on my private journeys, whose destinations have been somewhat more exotic than those of my business trips. I can say that there is almost no place on earth where I would not find a fellow Slovene, even in the most unusual places in the world. I remember Togo many years ago. It was a business trip, when Lek was still an independent company and I was in the capital, Lomé, where I was a guest of the representative of the former Yugoslav company Genex, through which we were trying to penetrate the African market. One Sunday my host said he had a surprise for me, without giving me any hint about what it was. At the local beach, if you can call it that, in front of a local restaurant I noticed six children with a complexion that was slightly less dark... it turned out that the owner of the restaurant was a Slovene, who had spent 17 years in the Foreign Legion but when he left it, he settled in Togo and married a local woman and I believe I was one of the first Slovenes he met in Lomé.
How do you feel about the Manager of the Year 2012 recognition and what, in your opinion, did you do to earn it?
This is primarily a recognition of all the employees of this company, as without all their knowledge, experience and daily efforts the results, as the basis of this recognition, would not have materialised. I see it as the ultimate recognition of how successful we can be with our own knowledge, even within one of the world's largest companies and in one of the most demanding industries. This recognition opens up additional opportunities to share our results with the general public, a relatively tall order in this country, which has of late been more accustomed to hearing bad news about scandals and similar stories.
How far do you think pharmaceutical science will reach? Will we eventually kiss all diseases goodbye?
If we go back to the vision dimension, then this will probably happen at some point. Not only will we kiss them goodbye but I would say that we will be able to prevent most of them. Medicine will increasingly be moving toward disease prevention. Of course, if preventive measures are not sufficient, there will still be the traditional field of disease treatment but with new insight, such as the decoding of the human genome - by finding out what role individual genes play in certain conditions and how we can control their functioning, we are getting ever closer to making most diseases curable, although it is difficult to estimate when that will happen.