Emerging Pharma Leaders 2012 - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Emerging Pharma Leaders 2012


Pharmaceutical Executive


Avinash Potnis

CEO and Country President, Novartis Malaysia



Avinash Potnis, whose career began in animal health and expanded to include pharmaceuticals in 2005, attributes his successes to a philosophical outlook instilled in him during his childhood in India.

"Life is a set of, let's say, marbles," commented Avinash in explaining his outlook. "Every four black marbles will be followed by one white marble, that is, every four challenges will be followed by an opportunity at every turn."

Avinash applies this rule in his daily activities whether he is filling a staff position, or motivating a subordinate or himself in the face of a difficult challenge. "To find solutions," he notes, "I get more and more opinions to find that one white marble. That gives me control of the situation. Probably, that made me an entrepreneur."

Avinash became CEO of Novartis Malaysia in 2010. During his tenure in that position, Malaysia, the largest country in the region, has experienced large sales increases at ever-faster growth rates.

The most compelling aspect of his job, he says, is reaching outside his office to external stakeholders (i.e., patients, doctors, buyers, and officials in the Ministries of Health and of Finance).

Avinash feels that his greatest achievement is the company's "newly-defined identity" in the minds of patients and customers. It has improved the ability of Novartis to cooperate with the Ministry of Health in addressing major public health needs.

A new cross-divisional approach was the change agent in evolving the company's identity, as on an operational level, it merged pharmaceuticals with animal health, diagnostics, oncology, eye care, and other healthcare product units.

The approach helped to accelerate growth by providing "integrated solutions for customers through cooperation with multiple stakeholders, de-layering leading to faster decision-making, efficient integration of divisional back office, and greater ability to attract, develop, and retain talent."

Avinash received his grounding in the cross-divisional approach after being selected in 2008 to expand Novartis' business in Vietnam. His previous career had provided invaluable experience both in managing the sales and distribution of exports for a firm in India, and later in heading up Sandoz distributor markets in Thailand for three years.

However, the new endeavor was an "almost insurmountable challenge," which he faced virtually alone, putting to the test his philosophy of getting one opportunity in every five challenges. It was to become the most formidable experience of his career.

When he landed in Vietnam, the new language, environment, and healthcare structure were all challenges to be overcome. "I didn't follow anyone; I did it by myself. The pharmaceuticals division was set up; the other divisions had a fragmented presence or no presence at all."

He sifted through many people on the existing team and from outside for over six months until finding the right ones "who believed in what I was thinking and doing; and then we formed a task force and we never looked back."

"Had I not been living with this philosophy, to keep finding opportunities, keep finding the right person...I might have failed."

Avinash sees the industry as having changed significantly over the past 20 years. In the early 1990s, chronic disease care was important but not at the forefront as it is now. Things have evolved from an antibiotic portfolio taken for only five days to a portfolio including anti-diabetic medications in which patients treat the condition over their entire lives, Avinash commented.

The cost of treating so many people makes patient access to medications a big concern, particularly in countries where healthcare is paid for by the government. In the United States and Europe as well as emerging markets, companies' future discussions with payers are likely to be centered on cost.

As country president, Avinash tries to introduce people on his team to their own hidden value. "It is a time-consuming process to convince a person that he has strength in himself that can bring benefit beyond him to the team," he notes.

Avinash believes further that someone's flexibility and attitude matter more than their experience and knowledge. In his organization, employees are rated on performance and also on values and behaviors, such as trust, openness, and candidness with patients and customers.

Of change, he believes that "the difficult thing is changing people; the easy part is changing business structure or making a business impact."

His words of advice to others that he himself tries to follow: "Never give up; be a student of the situation; and learn all the time."

—Ann Roberts Brice


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