Sustainability

Revitalizing Purpose: Q&A with Elcin Barker Ergun

RRA Healthcare interview series “Healthcare Leading Forward: Sustainable Leadership in Action,” January 2021



Elcin Barker Ergun is CEO of the Menarini Group, a global biopharma company based in Florence, Italy. She joined Menarini as the Group CEO in 2019 with over three decades of leadership experience, including Merck and GlaxoSmithKline. During that time, she has held commercial, finance, and innovation leadership roles around the globe. 

Recently, Elcin spoke with Alessandra Abate, Managing Director and Leader of the Global Biotech and Pharmaceuticals Practice and Dana Krueger, Managing Director and Global Healthcare Sector Leader for Russell Reynolds Associates. She shared how Menarini has leveraged its strengths and revitalized its commitment to purpose during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The interview presented below has been edited and abridged for clarity.

Alessandra Abate

Thank you for being here with us, Elcin. Our topic today is sustainability and purpose. We are ten months into a new era in which COVID-19 has triggered a lot of thinking on these issues, particularly in the healthcare industry and among healthcare leaders. With that, we are curious to hear how you are talking and thinking about purpose and sustainability within Menarini.

Elcin Barker Ergun

Thank you very much, Alessandra. Indeed, it has been a little over a year in Menarini, and it has been an interesting time with COVID-19, which was certainly an unexpected global health challenge. But in a way, it has also been a very good time of revitalizing purpose in the pharmaceutical industry. I have never been prouder to be a member of the pharmaceutical industry and am privileged to have the chance to lead during these difficult times. All of us united very quickly, both across different companies as well as within each of the organizations, and have been trying to adjust as needed in the business, while also trying to keep our people safe, which was of course the most important priority when the crisis hit. Immediately after that, we had to be extremely responsible, recognizing that we are part of the solution.

A very immediate need in the beginning was sanitizing gels, so we converted part of our factory in Florence to start distributing sanitizing gels to healthcare professionals. To date, we have distributed around 280 tons of gels, and we continue to do that. We are one of the few companies that also has a diagnostics arm, and we were not initially in infectious diseases, but we have a great infrastructure to leverage, and evaluated how we could mobilize different units. Our team did a fantastic job, because the testing capacity and capability of each country by and large determined the pace of how the country could curb the disease. We started with bringing in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for essential laboratories, then continued with portable PCRs, and then moved to rapid tests, which have become an important screening tool.

In parallel, we kept our 17 manufacturing sites up and running all around the world, with rigorous measures to serve millions of patients who have to continue using the right drugs for their treatment. We have an important contribution to patients’ lives – the core purpose of why we exist in the first place.

These days, we are also trying to see what other ways we can contribute, which of course includes test developments, such as for the flu and COVID-19. We are also considering collaborations that will allow us to be the technology and manufacturing partner for an important Italian antibody initiative. If all goes well, that could come to the market within 2021. Our biotech facility in Pomezia-Italy is actually working on this technology at the moment, and we are anticipating that clinical trials can start early next year.

This whole effort, and what our teams are achieving, is very much in line with the core values of Menarini, the first of which is responsibility and the second, dedication and commitment. Our teams really embody the core, the DNA, of our company.

Dana Krueger

Thank you for that interesting and inspiring summary of how you have responded to the crisis and now how you are thinking about the future. You make it all sound so easy. Can you tell us a little bit more about your leadership and how you are tangibly anchoring purpose in the day-to-day, as well as how you are proliferating that through the other leaders of the organization?

This was a big team effort with a committed Board, and a task force comprised of our senior leaders in the company. We empowered the task force to come up with the right initiatives, and we truly delivered this through team collaboration, where we were able to mobilize Menarini’s entire global workforce of 17,000 people.

From a day-to-day perspective, our industry has two missions to deliver on impacting patients’ lives. One is innovation, bringing new therapies to patients. The other is access, making sure that patients can access those treatments. We have been focusing our research in oncology, where there have been some important successes in bringing high quality therapies to the market in the last five to ten years, but there is still unmet need in many cancer treatments. That is one area of focus for us. The other area where Menarini has been a leader for a long time is cardiovascular disease. Similarly, even though there are many relevant products in the market, cardiovascular disease is still the leading cause of death in the world. We will keep focusing our efforts on these areas.

As a leader, your key responsibility is to remove obstacles and enable the team so that they can deliver on the key missions of innovation and access. Additionally, you also need to be a role model in your day-to-day actions, beyond the strategic mission and accomplishments everyone is striving for. To share a small example from my past: I was the country head for a company that was engaged in a disease area that affects children. Some of the employees wanted to start a company orchestra and sought sponsorship from me. I was fully in support of this great idea but suggested they set aside dedicated weekends to perform for the children. They were initially hesitant to commit weekends, but also motivated and passionate, so the orchestra came true – and they did play for the children and they were very happy about that. It all stayed within the company by the way; we did not engage in any PR. For me, the key point was to plant a seed, to help people see that it is not just about the drugs we make – it is about the well-being of the people. If we are able to empathize with patients, and truly think about the well-being of people around us, these seeds will grow into actions that we as leaders can engage in, to help with the mission.

Thank you for sharing, Elcin, that is really touching. One of the things that I was curious about – and it is very much linked to this – how is the team evolving into a new mindset in light of all that has happened within a COVID year ?

The team in Menarini has always been successful in managing the complexities of our many operations. Of course, the COVID-19 period has added an additional layer of complexity, but again, it is through these difficult times that strong values of Menarini such as adaptability, and resilience shine through, and allow us to continue performing well.

What is very important is that even during the ongoing pandemic, we do not lose sight of other important priorities in line with our values. One of them, for instance, was diversity and inclusion. This is something that we take very seriously within the leadership team. As you can imagine, as a woman leader, this has always been important for me, because I fundamentally believe women have to help other women advance their careers. In my past, in different companies, I have always been someone who mentored, coached, and appointed other women who are doing very well in board positions, in senior positions, in large country positions. My experience was always that you have to remove the bias from the system as a starting point. If you can fundamentally agree with your leadership team that you have to put the right person in the right place, everything will flow from there, or at least it has always been in my experience. With this natural mindset, we have made key appointments that show a nice 50 percent balance [of men and women] so far. Given the period we are going through, I am really proud that the team has achieved this.

Menarini is clearly one of the beacons of the Italian healthcare landscape, and very globally active, as you have mentioned. In addition to what you are describing – being at the forefront of advancing the well-being of people, promoting DEI as a very strong agenda point – what else do you hope Menarini does for the industry under the theme of sustainable leadership?

One key area that I want to highlight is anti-microbial resistance. This crisis reminded us how vulnerable we are. Unfortunately, more than one million patients have died from COVID-19, but there is also about 700,000 patients dying from antimicrobial resistance every year. This number is increasing and increasing, and unfortunately, there are not enough incentives in this area for companies to find solutions. Many biotech companies went bankrupt before they could make any profit. And there is an important paradigm here in the sense that, due to the nature of resistance, it is difficult to pinpoint the right treatment moment, and these antibiotics are pushed to the very end stage. It is a delicate situation, because there is a possibility of losing the patient.

Given the extent of this crisis, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) came together and did a leadership event on this recently. And now, 20 companies have come together – we are one of them – and IFPMA made an investment pledge of USD 1 billion in the coming years to bring two to four new antibiotics to the market. In Menarini, we have a portfolio and we are one of the few companies in the world who continue to do research in this area and bring products to market. I want to highlight it, because I think it shows the sustainable leadership of Menarini in this area. Even though not many are investing here, we are committed, because we want to be part of the solution. What we will do here will impact the future – perhaps even prepare us for the next big crisis.

That is so inspiring to hear, because as you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, the industry has really come together in ways that it had not previously. And I love this example around anti-bacterial resistance because that indicates to me that this partnership model in some way is going to be durable for the most intractable health issues that we have on a global stage.

That is exactly the point. I think from here we will be in action mode and hopefully we will be able to also engage broader stakeholders around the issue.

Elcin, on behalf of all of us, we just wanted to say thank you very much for spending time with us today, for sharing your views, your insights at Menarini Group. We look forward to sharing this with a broader audience so that others can be inspired too. Thank you very much.

Thank you – it was really a pleasure. 

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Revitalizing Purpose: Q&A with Elcin Barker Ergun