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Burns brightly

Recently retired CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals, Bill Burns, remains up-beat about the future of the industry

A lit candleFollowing Bill Burns' retirement as CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals, the division he has led since 2001, and his nomination to the Roche Board, we asked for his views on the industry he has been committed to since 1969. Secretly, we hoped to get inside the mind of this respected leader and glean a few top tips for commercial success, because if ever there was an ideal candidate to provide such guidance, it is Bill Burns.

Under Bill's stewardship, Roche Pharmaceuticals achieved a doubling of sales and profit margin. Oncology product sales increased to account for more than 50 per cent of sales, with three products exceeding sales of over 5bn Swiss francs. Then, at the end of 2009, Bill received the PMEA Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his influence on the industry, as voted for by his colleagues and peers.

Winning formula
With such achievements, the obvious first question to ask Bill seemed: "What's the winning formula?" On both a personal and corporate level, through difficult times for the industry, what does Bill believe is the secret to his success?

"Roche's secret, if there is one," says Bill, "was the fact that it recognised, early on, the higher clinical hurdle and increasing need to clinically differentiate medicines." Roche has always been driven by innovation but, according to Bill, innovation in itself is not the answer; what that innovation translated into is. The ultimate goal of Roche's innovation, therefore, is the creation and commercialisation of medically differentiated products and services. If you take some of the top Roche medicines like Avastin, MabThera, Herceptin, Pegasys and Xeloda, you can see strong evidence of this.

"We have been very strict on finding differentiation and demanding of ourselves in the process. When such differentiation is found, it results in a virtuous circle where society compensates you, the patient receives the best treatment outcomes, payers are happy, and so are the shareholders."

Bill also states that, for an organisation to do well, it must be highly networked, with a strong common purpose. "Pharma is fortunate to have a clear and strong common purpose, namely to help patients," he says.

On a personal level, Bill attributes his successful leadership to his consistency and the fact that everyone within the organisation was always able to read him. "People knew when I was happy and when I was not happy. In addition, I have a very good memory, so I always remembered exactly what had happened in the past. This kept all of us on our toes."


Bill Burns
Bill Burns


Open and honest
"When chairing the new product development committee, I encouraged the team to bring data to the table with confidence. I always said we must celebrate in the same way when a team stops a project as we do when it carries on." Bill believes there is no room for politics in R&D, or the development of a corporate culture where teams won't tell you the bad news. "When all decisions are data-based, factual and constructive, and balanced with humility, you stay grounded," Bill says.

He cautions, however, that in a science-based environment it is easy to forget the human element of the business. "It is as important to develop the emotional intelligence of a pharmaceutical firm. Because the business is science-based, logic drives us, and when something goes wrong, we tend to blame the process. It is important to recognise that organisations are an equal balance of facts/skills and people/culture."

UK as an investment destination
When senior representatives from the pharmaceutical industry met with the Prime Minister in January 2009, they presented a wish-list to government, which included making the UK a more competitive destination for investment, to rejuvenate its ability to turn bioscience into products and create new incentives and opportunities for advanced manufacturing. In Bill's view, how successful has the UK government been in meeting these objectives?

"It is clear that the UK government wants to encourage more investment. However, let's not forget that the French and German governments want to do the same. So how is the UK going to differentiate itself? The key questions remain: is the tax structure conducive and do we encourage doctors to conduct trials? We are all aware that, if we're not careful, there will be a swing to the east – in China each year there are as many graduates in chemistry as there are in the whole of Europe.

"The best skills are no longer geographically confined, however, and talent will migrate to the area where a positive environment for research exists. Take our facility in Basel, Switerland, for instance; there are more than 70 nationalities working there. Yet, while the UK government recognises it must create a favourable environment for R&D, it also recognises that there is a disconnect between intellectually understanding this and being the payer."

According to Bill, the UK has a unique opportunity to differentiate itself in its ability to provide cradle-to-grave medical records. "Unfortunately, the £13bn Connecting for Health project has been put on hold again, as this could have been a very powerful tool if handled correctly. The problem with stopping it and starting it again is that it just adds to the cost."

When asked about the new era of public-private partnership, Bill comments that collaboration between industry and government has always been there. He cites the NHS Research Scotland Co-ordinating Centre (NRSCC) as an encouraging example of joint working. The NRSCC was established to provide a contact point for those wishing to conduct multi-centre clinical research. Its main focus is to co-ordinate the NHS R&D approval process for multi-centre research in Scotland and to make the process as effective and efficient as possible, as well as facilitate feasibility assessments.

"If this concept works, it will be very positive, as getting hospital-by-hospital approval is a slow and arduous task," he says.

International trade bodies
Roche UK's decision not to renew its membership to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) last year caused some to speculate a causal link to its earlier suspension from the body. Bill clarifies that such decisions are based on an individual assessment of the company's particular needs on a national level and how aligned the representative body is with meeting those needs and objectives. "This applies around the world," Bill says.

"As the industry consolidates, there's less common ground. For instance, Roche is the largest biotechnology company in the world – it accounts for two-thirds of our turnover – so we will have nothing in common with companies that are moving into biosimilars.

"My feeling is that if it makes sense to join a body in a particular country at a particular time, you join. If not, you go it alone, which takes courage. In my opinion, trade associations are at their best on the technical side, ie navigating the regulatory environment, and not so strong on political and commercial agendas.

"Whether a member of a country's trade association or not, Roche is still committed to complying with that country's sales and marketing code of practice and laws and so will be accountable still for working within the confines of the ABPI Code."

Defining marketing excellence
Sales rep responsibilities are evolving due to a new and diverse customer base. Similarly marketers face new challenges as a result of pressures to reduce costs, the depletion of new drug candidates, expiry of patents and generic competition. What advice can Bill offer those working in this environment?

"Marketing is defined as the co-ordination of a company's goods and services to meet customer needs. However, I believe it lost its way in the 1970s and 1980s in that it became a functional department in itself. How do you co-ordinate across a company on behalf of the customer? Marketing must remember what its role is. Marketers are the movers and shakers on behalf of the clients.

"A good marketer," Bill continues, "must be a good networker, clear, articulate and be able to mobilise people and take them with him or her, without being over the top. It is a unique individual that possesses both the interpersonal skills to be a good marketer and the ability to read science and synthesise it into information that will make a difference to the customer.

"There are only a handful of people that are brilliant at it. When it comes to sales, I would always say to a new team, if you oversell, you lose the doctor's trust, and you owe it to your patients not to do that. But if you undersell, your manager will come down on you hard. Finding the right balance is the hardest part."

Bill also believes that being able to defend a product intelligently when challenged is an important aspect of being a winning salesperson. "Doctors don't want 'yes' men."

Despite the challenges facing sales and marketing teams, Bill is adamant that it is still an exciting and energising area to work in. "There is nothing more exciting than being a part of an industry that helps people," he says.

Pandemic changes paradigm
We couldn't talk to Bill Burns this winter without mentioning Tamiflu. Bill explains that with 30,000 to 40,000 deaths recorded every year as a result of influenza, Roche was in a race with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to develop a new class of medicines for the winter flu that would decrease the duration of infection as well as sequential infections by the virus. Japan gave significant support to the drug's development.

Seventy per cent of Japan's population lives on 17 per cent of its land area and families often sleep in the same room, so the spread of infection in that country is great. While Japan gave full reimbursement, Europe gave no reimbursement and the US gave 40 per cent. This meant that although Tamiflu captured 80-90 per cent of the market, it remained a very small one, until the advent of Avian flu, followed by Swine flu (H1N1).

"Previously SARS showed us how quickly a virus can travel around the world, which was a wake-up call," Bill states. "So when the H1N1 pandemic hit, the WHO took the lead and our job was to meet the need. I am very proud of the organisation; it was unchartered waters for everyone and Roche moved well to face the challenges."

This included pulling together and managing the full supply chain through a partnership of 15 companies. "Thank goodness, it was a relatively mild virus, because it was a fire drill for the planet and I am not sure if we passed the test."

According to Bill, the learnings from both the SARS and H1N1 pandemic need to be digested and a taskforce established to ensure that, if another major flu pandemic hits, the world is better prepared. This includes policies such as those adopted by Roche for the supply of Tamiflu to treat swine flu, namely tiered pricing for people living in the least developed countries, licences for the manufacture of generic versions of the antiviral in India and China, and implementing a 'reworked goods' policy – when the shelf-life of Tamiflu is reached, Roche will rework and revalidate it for a reduced price. This has an ecological benefit as well as a financial one for countries holding stockpiles of the antiviral.

Going forward
What does the future hold for Bill Burns? "It is a new chapter of the book," he says. Bill plans to continue his active involvement with healthcare through a seat on the Roche board and advisory boards for a patient organisation and a bank for healthcare investment. He is choosing to involve himself in areas where he feels he can make a difference.

"There are a lot of challenges, but I, for one, am very encouraged and positive about the future of the industry," says Bill. "The knowledge of biomarkers [diagnostic markers] should focus on treatment options for subsections of the population that offer the clinical differentiation needed to change outcomes for patients. Roche is working on developing diagnostics tools to give us the in-house knowledge to better adjust treatment to patients. In fact, scientific knowledge, generally, is growing exponentially and there's still so much unmet medical need in society. Our challenge is to keep writing the medical textbooks."  

The Author
Bill Burns was interviewed by Natalie Uhlarz group editor at PMGroup

To comment on this article, email

2nd March 2010


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