Angela is Managing Partner and joined Signium in 1998. Her client base is mainly in Pharma/Biotech, Diagnostics, E-Health and Private Hospital Groups. She was the Leader of the Global Life Science Practice from 2013-2018 and is Vice Chair of the glob...
23 March 2021
As the pharmaceutical industry booms, its executives are increasingly sought after. Even so, Angela Westdorf, Managing Partner at Signium Germany, is adamant that far more can be done to boost its image. In this interview, the headhunter explains how the COVID-19 crisis could benefit Germany’s most research-intensive industry.
Undeniably, the company flying the flag highest for the German medical industry is Biontech, founded as recently as 2008, and one of the first to bring out a COVID-19 vaccine onto the market. What stand-out features set the COVID-19 pharma industry winners apart in your view?
Angela Westdorf: All companies like Biontech that have been able to adapt quickly to the new realities have reaped huge benefits. Biontech is developing personalised immunotherapies to treat cancer and infectious diseases. The company, fittingly headquartered at An der Goldgrube 12 in Mainz, saw the new market opportunities immediately and are synonymous with agility – the hallmark of entrepreneurial success. These things tend to start small – for example, when a mechanical engineering company or shirt manufacturer produces respiratory protection masks – and end up with pharmaceutical manufacturers checking drugs already on the market, for example, to combat the Ebola virus, to see whether they are effective on COVID-19 patients.
Who will benefit the most?
Westdorf: Over and above vaccine manufacturers – the World Health Organization counted a total of 238 global projects as of the end of January 2021 – all of which pharmaceutical and biotech companies rolling out solutions to diagnose and fight COVID-19. The scope includes the manufacturers of all diagnostic tests such as rapid antigen tests or PCR tests, syringes and cannulas, nasal masks and disinfectants. The same applies to medical software providers, those equipping emergency clinics such as those at the Berlin exhibition grounds and the vaccination stations that are being rapidly set up and deployed nationwide. But downstream producers also benefit from the pandemic, for example the manufacturers of the ampoules containing the vaccine doses as well as ventilation manufacturers. Chinese customers were already queuing up to patronise such producers, when nobody in Germany took the virus seriously.
The pharmaceutical industry does not always have the best reputation among the general public. Will Corona change that?
Westdorf: I think so. By now, almost everyone knows someone who has been infected, and some have it a lot worse than just a mild flu. Then there’s also the huge personal restrictions that everyone has had to contend with during the lockdown. Both these things have brought home to people how crucial pharmaceutical research and therapies are to combat the virus. The pandemic could pave the way for what was an industry on a downer to reinvent itself positively, because the companies go a long way to solving the problem and bring Germany high added value, secure jobs and stable tax revenues in the process. The Financial Times describes the opportunity to rehabilitate major pharma players and that’s how I see it too.
Losers outnumber winners in the industry…
Westdorf: The new AHA rules imposed – keep your distance, observe hygiene and wear a mask daily – have seen far fewer people than usual get the illnesses that typify the cold season, such as coughs, colds and sore throats, which has hit companies producing medicines in the sector very hard. Moreover, postponing non-urgent operations has seen demand for artificial hips, knee joints and implants plummet. Doctors’ surgeries are far less busy than usual with people staying at home, which, in turn, naturally impacts on material and medicine orders.
What does the COVID-19 crisis mean for Germany as a production hub? According to a survey in autumn 2020, two-thirds of European business leaders surveyed expected Europe to gain as a manufacturing location and supply chains to diversify.
Westdorf: I don’t see de-globalisation on the horizon. One reason why companies produce worldwide is to offer generics cheaply. Who would willingly fork out 20 Euros for a simple medicine because it was produced in a high-wage country? Without doubt, the supply chains will be widened to prepare for further lockdowns and to be able to switch to other locations if necessary. The only way companies can withstand external shocks like this is having a diverse supplier and production structure already in place.
Which areas hold most promise for the industry?
Westdorf: Pharmaceuticals is the most research-intensive industry in Germany as well as being key to production. Germany is where the latest high-tech drugs, vaccines and preparations for medical diagnostics are made. Many export-oriented industries are being hit hard by the global pandemic and I think the pharmaceutical industry can help stabilise the economy.
Your remit at Signium includes filling managerial vacancies in pharmaceutical and medical technology, diagnostics, laboratory chains, biotech and private hospital operators. How strong is the current demand for executives? And what kind of candidates are sought?
Westdorf: Early on, these sectors were also in a bit of limbo, but since summer 2020, demand has started soaring. Personnel decisions that were put on have since been made, either because the company needs to restructure or because it wants to consolidate business. For example, demand is growing for Chief Operating Officers to oversee what is, at times, rapid growth or the necessary restructuring. Producing flexibly depends on creating an adequate structure and aligning the entire supply chain along the value chain. What has also emerged is a renewed focus on optimal market access for new products in the pharmaceutical industry, which means experienced managers in the fields of Market Access and Governmental Affairs are once again in demand.
Angela Westdorf was Head of Signium’s Global Life Science Practice from 2013 to 2018.