Belgium is a vitally important country for Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical arm, Janssen, globally. In addition to their R&D centre and a pharma production plant in Beerse, Janssen also has a chemical production plant in Geel, a Clinical Pharmacology Unit in Merksem, and a Phase I research institute in Antwerp – not to mention the only European JLABS (Johnson & Johnson’s life sciences incubator initiative, managed separately). This significant presence in Belgium meant that the affiliate had to scramble to ensure that operations were not disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.


As Sonja Willems, managing director of Janssen Benelux shares, “many global supply chains for J&J are based in Belgium. We produce either the finished products or intermediates, which are subsequently exported. Our international distribution sites in Courcelles and La Louvière play a critical role in delivering our medicines quickly and safely to pharmacies and hospitals around the world. Our main priority has been maintaining production levels to continue providing medicines to patients.”


In addition, she continues, “given our unique footprint, we [were] called on by the government for assistance with regard to diagnostic testing of COVID-19. At the onset of the crisis, Belgium had limited testing capacity. Therefore, the government reached out to Janssen and other stakeholders to utilize some of our lab capacity. Within ten days, we were able to re-distribute resources and are now providing a large number of diagnostic tests for the Belgian government.”


Janssen has proven itself to be a true partner of the Belgian government long before the COVID-19 crisis. As Willem indicates, “in 2015, under the leadership of Health Minister Maggie De Block, we signed the Pact of the Future between the pharmaceutical industry and the Cabinet. I was the president of the national pharma association at that time and was heavily involved in the process.” Furthermore, she shares, “locally we invest EUR 1.5 billion (USD 1.64 billion) into R&D each year, much of which manifests itself through partnerships with local research centres.”


Having been with Janssen since 1987, Willems had the following advice for aspiring pharma industry executives and leaders: “anyone setting out on a career in the pharmaceutical industry should first and foremost focus on their strengths. The best way to achieve success is to be aware of one’s strengths and understand what is most rewarding. For example, a detail-oriented person could specialize in finance, while someone more strategy-oriented could best utilize their talents by moving into management.” On the other hand, she supplements, “it is important to take risks, embrace the unknown, and learn from any mistakes or setbacks.” Having worked with Janssen in Canada and German in addition to managing the Benelux affiliate, as well as nearly five years managing Johnson & Johnson’s Ethicon medical devices division, she is testament to the rewards of diversifying one’s industry experience. She also shared a special message for young women in the industry: “be confident in oneself and believe in one’s own ability”.


Read the full interview with Sonja Willems here