Small company, big career

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Pharmaceutical Technology Europe

Pharmaceutical Technology Europe, Pharmaceutical Technology Europe-10-01-2008, Volume 20, Issue 10

The days of a 'job for life' at a Big Pharma company seem to be well behind us, whether we're at the bench or in the boardroom, but that doesn't mean we should view the employment landscape with trepidation.

As the industry landscape evolves, more and more pharma professionals are moving away from old-style 'jobs for life' and into less secure, but more challenging and, in many ways, more exciting work environments. This is particularly the case for senior-level personnel and executives, who often regard the challenge of helping to build up a small, start-up company more highly than they do a high salary or a spacious, oak-finished office. Similarly, there is growing acceptance that a bit of variety on one's CV — indicating adaptability, flexibility and a willingness to take professional risks — is more attractive to a potential employer than a lengthy time-served apprenticeship at a behemoth-sized pharma company.

Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty Images

It's no secret that big, multinational companies are not as safe as they once were. With recent redundancy announcements, such as UCB's (Belgium) decision to cut 2000 staff, the marketplace is becoming more crowded with ex-Big Pharma employees who may very much need, as well as want to, 'downshift.' The good news is that the small-to-medium-sized company landscape is an attractive and fairly buoyant option for those looking to 'make their mark.'

"In a small company, you can become a star; you can shine more," says Ugo Bettini, Vice President of Human Resources at Chiesi (Italy). "We may offer less money than some other companies, but we give employees a visibility within the company that they wouldn't necessarily get in Big Pharma. Salary won't be the motivating factor for someone coming here — it is a different experience." Indeed, an experience that would involve relocating to the beautiful city of Parma.

Nicholas Franco

At a decision-making level, this "different experience" may well be more creative — not a word that is particularly ubiquitous in the world of pharmaceutical production. Still, it is one that can translate into business success in a crowded (or even niche) market place. It also affords for a more individualistic approach, giving greater scope for personal contribution. "It's a lot harder in a larger company to move the needle," says Nicholas Franco, Senior Vice President, International Commercial Operations, with Axcan Pharma (France). "In a small company you can have much more influence on all aspects of the business and you see the impact of your work much more rapidly, whereas in a big company it often gets diluted."

Franco spent 16 years at a Big Pharma company before seeking out a creative change and he was enlightened by Axcan's approach, which he sees as much more entrepreneurial. "Smaller companies tend to avoid a bureaucratic approach to things," he says. "To be able to bring my experience to a small company as it grows to the next phase, while still keeping that creativity, is very appealing to me."

Small company benefits


The important thing to remember is that a career is about personal growth as much as it is about company growth. There has to be individual fulfilment even in the most regulated and tightly focused of industries. Today's pharma industry is moving more towards the individual, not just in terms of the treatments it is developing, but also with regard to the skill sets that candidates acquire as they move from position to position.

"If you stay with the same company, as I did (Novartis), for 15 years, you get institutionalized; you stagnate a bit," says Dr Iain James, Vice President of Discovery Biology at Almac, (UK). "It's important now to move around and to see things from different perspectives." This goes too for those who have already scaled great heights within the industry. Martin Hogan, for example, is now managing director at Stethos International (UK), but formerly he was a country manager for Roche at the age of 32. "That can be a big 'so what?' from a personal perspective, and then there's a big 'what next?'" he says. "Having that great experience at a young age with a true global leader gave me a substantial learning experience in addition to a new and valuable business perspective, which I've used to develop my career without the baggage of Big Pharma politics."

Ugo Bettini

Such an approach can only make a candidate more appealing to the growing number of small pharma and biotech companies that are actively looking for versatile senior staff. Jennifer Chase, MD of executive search agency Euromedica in France, offers the recruiter perspective on this: "Diversity and the ability to adapt are the key qualities that companies are looking for today, and to get those skills you have to put yourself in a situation where you're not necessarily in a secure environment. If you leave your safe corporate culture and make a success outside of that, then obviously you've clearly displayed that diversity and adaptability."

Using agencies

At the most senior levels this new era of company-hopping would be very difficult to facilitate without the help of recruitment agencies. Agencies are vital to the Big Pharma-to-small biotech dynamic. As Graham Dixon, Senior Vice President, Drug Discovery, with Galapagos (Belgium) says, "The specialist senior appointments aren't advertized, so the consultancies are crucial. The number of people moving into biotech and the number of opportunities is increasing." As a recruiter, Dixon uses Euromedica. Earlier in his career, he says that all the moves he made after leaving Big Pharma were facilitated by agencies.

From the recruiter point of view, selecting the right consultancy can be almost as exacting a process as selecting the right candidate for the position you have vacant; once you've found it, the consultancy can be used again and again, depending on the roles you're looking to fill.

Martin Hogan

Different companies look for different things in their 'perfect' agency. For Hogan, who is "tempted to call agencies a necessary evil," the secret of success lies in "personal attention, it's as simple as that." Hogan admits, nevertheless, that at middle-to-senior management level, agencies are vital. "Like everything else in industry there are good ones and bad ones. I tend to use two, maybe three during the course of the year."

Franco agrees that the agency should have a good agent, "a good person on the other side who understands your company", but what is most important for him is reach. "The agency should have a pan-European coverage, a good database. The main growth area for us is Europe so I'm looking for candidates with pan-European experience."

Making the most of the talent shortage

Just like the industry, the recruitment landscape is changing: the boom of the 90s has given way to less confident times. Chase, who is originally from the US, remembers: "When I was back in the US at the end of the 90s, biotech was booming and we could not fill the roles. That's not the case today." She explains that there are a few areas where it's particularly hard to find good candidates: oncology, regulatory and market access.

Although areas of talent shortage may be a headache for companies and recruitment agencies, they present golden opportunities for enterprising candidates who are prepared to be flexible. Other in-demand roles include senior medical appointments, chief medical officers, VPs medical and people with vaccine experience. The areas of pharmacovigilance and risk management are also witnessing a shortage of candidates.

Professionals with this kind of experience currently find themselves very attractive to a raft of international companies, big and small. As such, they are part of a newly empowered pharma workforce: a company may need them more than they need the company.

All this empowerment can mean better conditions for the experienced and adventurous candidate. Chase says: "Balance in life is more of a part of the negotiations now when we help our clients negotiate. People are accepting that more and as companies are drawing from a smaller candidate pool, they will have to adapt to that. I think people are putting balance into their working lives."

So, an inflated salary and the promise of lifetime security may not be on the cards when you move to a smaller company, but you may find yourself with a better work–life balance, a more creative working environment, less exposure to internal politics and the chance to make more of a recognized contribution.

It's a tempting prospect for those who are truly ambitious.

Julian Upton is Editor of Pharmaceutical Executive Europe.