António Leão, General Manager of Lilly, Portugal, talks about adapting to a challenging economic environment, as well as the importance of the company’s portfolio and pipeline, in Portugal today.

Why did you decide to take on the position of general manager in early 2012, at a time when Portugal was in very difficult circumstances?

Indeed, it is a very challenging assignment to lead any organization in our days in Europe and even more in a country like Portugal. However, different times bring different challenges, which can be overcome as long as you dedicate yourself and are ready to learn. During difficult periods, you develop qualities that are usually unattainable in positive environments. I wanted to take on those challenges, and with a team that also wanted to engage in the transformation brought on by Portugal’s difficult scenario.

What were your initial objectives upon taking over the affiliate?

The goal is to always improve what you are given. While we want to grow, it has not been possible under current circumstances for a variety of reasons. That being said, most research-based organizations have great momentum, and Lilly’s portfolio is extremely strong, which provides me a clear picture of what it means to improve the current situation. For instance, drugs take 500 days on average to obtain reimbursement status in Portugal. This cannot continue, and therefore determining how to work together to get the information the authorities need to decide faster is a clear goal for the affiliate. Secondly, Lilly needs to anticipate and develop the right competencies for individuals that will be needed in the near future to return to a state of growth. The third challenge is to build an organization that always has our customers’ needs at the center of what we do, in our contacts with our different stakeholders we see opportunities to build positive experiences that add value to the Lilly brand.

What has kept international pharmaceutical companies here, as opposed to selling through a distributor?

The belief in the country’s potential and in the day after tomorrow has kept companies here. People here believe they can learn from the past and improve for the future. Above everything, you stay because there are patients that need you here. Companies are here to make a profit, but they have to deserve it. At Lilly, we believe we can add value to the patients, and help them to live more active and longer lives.

How collaborative is the industry with academia and the Portuguese government?

This is an area for improvement. As an example, Lilly has a very strong agreement with the Escola Nacional Saúde Pública (ENSP), with whom we work together in different areas such as improving the literacy of our co-citizens. As such, Lilly is helping academia to promote a knowledge-based economy. All scientific discussions and clinical trials that we support are an investment in knowledge and people. The solution for many of our economic challenges in terms of health management must be based on improving our co-citizens ability to manage their own health, of course in a close partnership with health care professionals. Our partnerships with different patient associations also play a very important role in this field.

What is the state of clinical trials in Portugal today?

The pharmaceutical industry size of investment in local clinical trials is smaller than it could and should be. The whole industry, in 2012 invested around €70 million in Portugal, but this number can be doubled. This area allows different institutions and countries involved to have access to an alternative source of income, as well as to new health technology, and therefore is extremely competitive. The different Portuguese governments were not active enough in order to help the research based companies, to bring to Portugal more investment in this area. Definitely we need to work together on this topic.

What does Lilly Portugal’s portfolio look like today, and what are its future growth drivers?

Lilly has traditionally been based in areas like diabetes, mental health, oncology, osteoporosis, and, in the past, antibiotics. The organization is now also adding new areas like cardiology and autoimmune, which will be a learning process for everyone involved. Lilly has one of the best and fastest-moving pipelines in the industry according to independent evaluators, and this affiliate has a strong focus on ensuring the products in that pipeline also are available in Portugal and help our patients.

How is Lilly’s diabetes portfolio represented here in Portugal?

Diabetes is critical for this affiliate. This therapeutic area is at the heart of Lilly—we were the first company to commercially produce insulin. Besides the different insulin we also have an oral antidiabetic in a partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim that recently received reimbursement approval. This drug is in the first stages of post-launch, and we are very excited about the potential results.

One of Lilly’s stated goals is the development of new, innovative drugs by listening to patients and responding to their individual needs. How is that reflected in the Portuguese affiliate?

As I have already mentioned, we aim to create positive experiences in every contact that we have with our customers that add value to the Lilly brand. Ultimately this can only happen through very strong teamwork and, at Lilly Portugal, we have been fighting to reach this stage from the beginning. Also from a purely management perspective, managing your investment ability is difficult; therefore, you must ensure your return is the highest possible for any given drug. Being close to the patient and really understanding his needs is the only way to be profitable in the long term. Many countries have strict regulations regarding patient communication. Companies in Portugal can contact patients but with strong limitations. However, that has never prevented Lilly from trying to better understand our patients. This knowledge is critical for our marketing decisions in different therapeutic areas like Diabetes, Erectile Dysfunction, Oncology or Depression. One thing is common in our learnings: the drug is only one part of the solution. Patient programs that help individual patients to better understand and manage their condition are critical, and I say this not only from the patient point of view but also from the resources rationalization perspective.

Lilly will have been in Portugal for 50 years in 2014. Looking back, what is left to achieve?

On the outside, I think there is still significant room for improvement to ensure that the community understands the role of the pharmaceutical industry and the value for the society that our medications bring. Our role needs to be better understood and shaped through the pharmaceutical industry communication.

On the inside, Portugal will never be a big country and therefore the Portuguese affiliate will never be big compared with any of the major five in Europe. However, at the mid-size level the affiliate comes together with a high level of flexibility and readiness to embrace change. I really want people here to be as involved as possible; if a new program or opportunity arises, I want that opportunity to come to Portugal, so that we may improve it. I want Lilly to invest in Portugal because we are bigger than our size. As an example of our strong competencies and positive attitude, Portugal has a considerable number of people based here working for Lilly’s international organization. The qualities that our people develop with us are extremely well valued for different purposes and challenges. It is very common for colleagues of ours to be successful working with or based in other countries using experience gained in Portugal. Lilly Portugal currently hosts a significant number of people based here who work completely outside this affiliate.

As another symptom of the level of trust that Lilly dedicates to our affiliate, Lilly Portugal is now also responsible for Angola and Mozambique and therefore these countries are also now at the top of our priorities.

In a broader context, where does Portugal need to go in relation to the rest of Europe?

Portugal’s current challenges are important; we are still working, and will overcome them. Let me underline the idea that it is not about one country. These issues are symptomatic and are present across the European community; thus, we must overcome today’s situation as Europeans. The desire of seeing our economies in a sustainable growing cycle is shared by all.  We have the ability to build the future we want.  We need to rethink and make some tough decisions as Europeans. We all know that it is easy to say but less so to implement. Portugal can have an important role in this process; not being a big country, we are well positioned to facilitate the needed bridges, as we often have in our history.

As Portuguese we also need to make clear choices, we need to choose our battles, meaning which important areas we want to compete in based on where our strongest competencies are, and then work to be the best. At Lilly we call it: “PLAN YOUR WORK AND THEN WORK YOUR PLAN.”