Veronique Walsh, general manager of Bristol Myers Squibb for Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (Benelux), recently spoke to PharmaBoardroom about her diverse career path, transitioning from medical doctor to pharmaceutical executive, and leading a large affiliate through the COVID-19 crisis.
Looking back over her slightly unusual career trajectory, Walsh, a French national, explains that “I started out as a medical doctor, initially working as a general practitioner, then I spent a period as a hospital doctor with a speciality in toxicology. I wanted to see how I could have more impact on patients, perhaps even to stop them from getting sick at all. Having completed an MBA to better understand the industry, I spent over 20 years working in the field of vaccines.”
Walsh worked her way up at Pasteur, later acquired by Sanofi, before joining BMS in 2010. Before taking over management of the Benelux markets in June 2019, Walsh acted as general manager for the UK and Ireland market, helping navigate the affiliate through a time of great uncertainty with Brexit looming. On taking on her new role, Walsh states that “I have been very impressed not only by the complexity of the Belgian healthcare system but also the determination to bring effective healthcare to patients.”
I have been very impressed not only by the complexity of the Belgian healthcare system but also the determination to bring effective healthcare to patients
Veronique Walsh, BMS Benelux
Continuous learning has been a key component of Walsh’s success story. “Over the course of my career, it became clear that policymakers were taking an increased role in healthcare decision-making at a national level,” she asserts. “Because of this, I decided to undertake a postgraduate certificate in health economics from the University of York,” complementing her medical training and MBA.
Walsh is keen to play up the opportunities inherent in pharmaceuticals for other medical professionals like herself and rebut some of the criticism often levelled at the industry. “The pharma industry offers so many options in terms of career choices,” she notes. “This is not only for medical doctors like me. If you are interested in science, there is a role for you. This is not limited to pharmacists or doctors: there are biotechnicians, immunologists, toxicologists and biostatisticians transitioning into the industry to give only a few examples. Even specialists in non-scientific areas such as communications and human resources are in high demand. What is important is that inner determination to make a difference. Often the pharma industry is depicted in a negative way, but from my perspective, I see an industry that wants to help and bring science to people.”
Although often grouped together, Walsh underlines that Belgium and the Netherlands have very different cultures and healthcare systems and therefore need different strategies. “Managing the Benelux region is particularly challenging,” she claims. “Fortunately, I am leading a team of talented professionals with a strong understanding of the countries, The efforts of my team are contributing not only to BMS but also to the industry as a whole, sharing our knowledge to help accelerate innovation which is the main mission of BMS.”
This challenge is augmented by the need to build a unified company following the acquisition of Celgene in late 2019. Walsh states that “Celgene possessed very strong human capital and pipeline. It is my goal to create a new corporate culture that works for everyone. I am encouraged by the fact that the underlying values in both companies were very similar from the outset. Both are committed to delivering innovation, although focused on different therapy areas. This ensures that we can work together to accelerate patient access to innovation here in Belgium, in Luxembourg and in the Netherlands.”
The times we are living through means that this process will not be a walk in the park. “Of course, this process has been hampered by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic,” laments Walsh. “Not only do we need to deliver this unique corporate culture, but simultaneously ensure that we deliver for patients in a way which is safe for our workforce and is respectful to the healthcare professionals with whom we work. They are under so much pressure. It is critical to respect their workload and reduce risks for them and their patients.”
Adapting to the sizeable challenges posed by COVID-19 has been top of Walsh’s agenda in 2020. “Our employees understand that they are contributing to our mission of assisting patients with unmet medical needs and who require continuity of treatments,” she adds. “We were able to adapt quickly to remote working, using virtual meetings.”
Looking forward, Walsh continues, “I believe that in the future we will be able to combine these virtual discussions with personal interactions to form a new relationship between our employees and the medical doctors. Face to face interactions will still remain essential so that we can understand the needs of our customers, but we will be able to utilise the virtual conditions for added speed and efficiency in some tasks.”
On a broader, company-wide level, Walsh outlines that BMS is “working with researchers, the biotech community, and the broader life sciences industry on ways we together can accelerate therapies for COVID-19. Among other efforts, we have identified approximately 1,000 compounds in our discovery library that we are making available to collaborators for screening for potential molecules to treat COVID-19. We are evaluating certain medicines in our portfolio that could be included in near-term clinical trials with a focus on agents that may have an impact on the inflammatory immune response associated with COVID-19. This research may advance as either company-sponsored or investigator-sponsored trials under the leadership of a cross-functional team focused on advancing this science with a sense of urgency. We are also participating in several cross-industry groups designed to foster collaboration and ensure that we are not duplicating research (e.g. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).”