As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell spoke with Thierry Durand.
MINAKEM is a fully integrated development partner (CDMO) and commercial manufacturer of API’s, Highly Potent API’s for Pharmaceutical companies. Thierry’s Q&A covers everything from his philosophy on staff retention, to the psychological aspect of managing a business through COVID-19 at 90% productivity, to practical advice for aspiring leaders in the Life Sciences and Pharmaceutical industries.
Alessandro Mantell: I’ve known Thierry for over three years and I’ve watched him develop from leading teams at other CDMO’s to his position at MINAKEM now, and thank you so much for joining us on the Mantell Associates Network. It’s really appreciated and I’m interested to find out more about you and the business. I think the best way for us to start would be for you to talk us through your life since the onset of COVID-19. Being a Managing Director of a top API CDMO, you’re currently responsible for hundreds of people, you have staff to motivate, and on top of that you have a family life to maintain. What’s your average day looking like at the moment?
Thierry Durand:First, thank you Alessandro for organising this interview. It is a challenging time – COVID-19 started for us in mid-March. What did we learn with COVID-19? We learned to adapt the business as you might imagine, we are more organised to anticipate and manage risk on a more routine basis. During COVID-19 we learned to manage emergencies every day, and this was a big challenge as we had to organise urgent situations and remain close as coworkers. Some people were still working on site running operations as we’re a clinical company, but under the guidance of authorities we were also able to organise home offices for people who could work from home. So, thinking about my average day now – I’m spending about 30% interacting with people on site in interactive meetings. The main difference for me is to be much closer to my teams because they need guidance and support in this difficult period.
Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely – I’ve been in the exact same situation in regards to my team, having to try and keep as close as possible to everyone and processes. You mentioned that you started to adapt and bring changes to the business. How has everything been going for MINAKEM as an organisation since COVID-19. At the start how was it, and how are things going now?
Thierry Durand: So, I will summarise what we have done. There are three main actions – to protect our employees, maintain business continuity, and support our local communities. So, we have organised an office for relevant functions and to allow people to work on-site when needed, where social distancing could also be maintained to avoid contamination within the company. So our first goal was to implement all the measures on-site to help maintain internal operations and business activities. The result is that we have maintained our three sites in France and Belgium – we have stopped no sites, no days, and made no redundancies. We have maintained all salaries and all operations. Of course, we have been affected by COVID-19, and the lowest productivity we have reached was 65% which was two weeks after COVID started. This was mainly due to adjusting our strategies and people settling into home offices.
Today, we are back to over 90% productivity and I’m very proud of what the team has been doing as they’ve shown some amazing results. We were thinking we would be in a worse position and potentially go down to 50% productivity for some months, and hoped we wouldn’t have to stop operations – neither of which ever happened. As a CDMO, MINAKEM has been able to survive through this period in a very good way, and within our organisation we have had very limited COVID cases.
Alessandro Mantell: Something which is incredible about what you just said, is that none of your staff have been let go during this period and everyone is still being paid full salaries. In the UK we have the furlough scheme which is where the government pays up to 80% of employees salaries where they would have otherwise been let go, but of course this hasn’t been a faultless scheme. For MINAKEM to be able to maintain full staff remuneration when the organisation is under more pressure than normal, is absolutely incredible.
Something else I’d like to ask – being a leader in the pharmaceutical industry right now, how have you personally adapted to managing your staff during this time period? I know you mentioned about home-working, social distancing on-site, and remaining close to your team. How have you gone about implementing that to the wider team, and what else have you done?
Thierry Durand: So first of all, we have implemented measures on-site to protect our employees – providing the right PPE, producing antibacterial hand gel which was distributed among employees. We have a social responsibility for both employees and communities around us, and we donated around 8000L of antibacterial gels across hospitals in local communities.
The second thing was to maintain operations, and social distancing was implemented through the revamping of offices, changing of work floors, protective equipment to allow people to work effectively and safely, and home office set-ups thanks to the quick work of IT departments. If you ask our IT Director it’s been a huge job and everyone had the same idea, so you had to buy and set up remote working equipment quickly.
As I said, we had to introduce a new management style. We implemented a daily checklist to make sure we had the right measures in place, the right equipment, the right HR measures for employees, management crisis meetings on a daily basis for the first four weeks which then moved to every two days, and now we have actually stopped these. Because as an organisation we have now reached routine, we have managed our supply chain, we have low absenteeism and we have established a new way of working, and it works!
Alessandro Mantell: Amazing. You have mentioned crisis management and staying on top of everything in the business, which leads on nicely to my next question. For any leader, the aim is to try and be in control of everything ideally at any point in time, but when a global pandemic comes along you have to accept in part that you’re not in control of certain things. How have you coped with maybe having to accept the things you can’t control?
Thierry Durand: Well it depends on your time unit and how much you typically control on a day-to-day basis. We have done our best to retain staff, limit tension and stress within the organisation, and continue heading in the right direction. We could not completely control productivity as we saw with the drop to our lowest productivity levels at 65%. What we have kept under control is planning – every day we have changed planning on all sites, urgency was the new mode of management for some time, and we have kept control of this on a weekly basis. We made priorities according to the business timeline, we have tried not to negatively affect our customers and continued to work within agreed margins, and our goal was to optimise our productivity, maintain our measure of business, and minimise the impact on our customers. Unfortunately, I cannot say there was no impact whatsoever but I doubt any business in the world could say that at the moment. We had to make communications with our customers more effective, and by doing this customers were more understanding, more friendly, more caring.
In terms of contact, we have tried to keep the link with our co-workers. We have maintained and increased short calls – some people are on-site and some are working remotely, and making long conversations is sometimes difficult at a distance. We have adapted our management communications, for example instead of an hour long presentation we are presenting for 10 minutes on direct reports and main points, and then spending time brainstorming questions and answers on different hot topics.
Alessandro Mantell: So what you’ve really been able to do is control everything that you can control, and make the best as you can out of what is an awful situation. It’s amazing that your clients have been able to feel connected and in the loop, which is unbelievable. I wanted to ask a question in regards to sales, business development, clients – everything you have spoken about so far has been really transparent in terms of MINAKEM and the business this year, and I feel that transparency with clients and businesses is hugely important during a time like this. What I’m interested to find out as well, in terms of sales and business development, what kind of changes or ideas have you come up with to adapt with the times?
Thierry Durand: We have faced more care from our customers, and we’ve found that everyone has changed their behaviours in this crisis. We have become their preferred supplier and they have become stronger partnerships, not just customers. At the end of day, if we fail they fail, and we really feel like we become part of their company. We have created more productive communication – we have decided that we will communicate any changes we have to make and explain why, and we are being fully transparent with any issues that arise. This is because we knew that we were having issues as an organisation with COVID-19, so with our business team we have created more frequent communications, short calls, virtual customer meetings, and weekly and monthly update calls with some of our bigger customers. This is all to minimise the impact and discuss with customers how to best arrange things. So, the main changes were increasing the frequency of our communication, full transparency, and building partnerships.
Alessandro Mantell: Something else which is really important for any leader in any industry, is to make sure that they’re surrounded by the best people in their team to help push the organisation forward. So recruitment and headhunting remains to be important – how have you guys adapted to not always being able to meet candidates face-to-face?
Thierry Durand: That’s a good question! First of all, as a company we did not stop recruiting. While it was complicated to conduct interviews, it was more complicated to welcome people on-site because of special measures including people working at a social distance or remotely. But we never stopped recruitment, we have just postponed some non-critical positions because we had to prioritise. For myself and my colleagues, COVID-19 has added perhaps 20% to our usual workload and my job is to anticipate the future. As a team, we need to focus on and maintain the short-term, medium-term and long-term, and prioritise urgent activities that have inevitably been linked to COVID-19 lately. When it comes to recruitment, we need to understand we need to make some appointments without actually meeting the people. This is very unusual for me as I am a social person and when you meet somebody in person, you see a lot of things that you might not see on a phone or video call. But we need to accept that this is how things are at the moment, as recruitment is a competitive market. We also recruit a lot of people who aren’t based in France or Belgium where our sites are, and may not be able to travel to interview at the moment. If you refuse to adapt your methods and don’t show that you are more flexible, adaptable and open, you may not be in a position to recruit the best talent available. Of course you will take a risk, but you need to accept that.
Alessandro Mantell: 100% agreed, and that’s really the hardest thing – accepting the risk. I’ve got two different stances on it because ironically enough I’m the CEO of a recruitment company, but before COVID I wouldn’t have wanted to hire someone in my own team without meeting them in person, because so much about sales and business development is how you come across in terms of your body language and non-verbal communication. But my stance on this has now changed! Now, companies who are putting recruitment on hold and not adapting to virtual interviewing and remote onboarding are sending a message to candidates that they are unwilling to change with the times. Just one final question which is a big one for the potential impact on anyone in the pharmaceutical world, from leaders to more junior people. What piece of advice would you give to other business leaders right now based on everything that is going on in the world?
Thierry Durand: There are so many different insights that can be gained from this crisis. First of all, sometimes you need to adapt to urgency as a mode of action – you cannot refuse to work under urgency. If you do that, you won’t survive through the crisis. If I’m looking back to earlier this year, we would not have been without unemployment, without cutbacks, without low productivity, if we had not reacted with urgency. So, you need to adapt to your context and urgency might become a new mode of management, but you also need to keep your eyes on the future and manage mid-term and long-term as well. You cannot just focus on the short-term, you need to organise your company in a way that focuses on both the long and short-term otherwise you don’t anticipate – anticipation is key.
Everyone in your organisation should be open to accepting new ideas and preparing for the future. Also, accept risk management as a major business activity because if you don’t manage the risk of issues, then you’ll come up against problems. Lastly, keep your talent. This crisis has revealed issues but also lots of talent in our workforce – look out for new talents being revealed in different contexts. Keep the best talent around you because your future might be bright for the European chemical industry if we work together as companies, as an industry, with the states, authorities and the banks.
Alessandro Mantell: Thank you so much Thierry. I think another piece of advice that you’ve shown throughout this conversation but haven’t necessarily said, is to be positive! Your outlook has been overwhelmingly positive – this crisis is going to end at some point. You’ve been able to bring a whole company together while still working at 90% productivity, having no staff leave and instead uncovering new talents, and now looking into the future and potentially improving the way you manage the business going forward. There is a lot of positivity to take away from this discussion. So Thierry, thank you so much for your time and for joining me on the Mantell Associates Network, it’s been an absolute pleasure and speak soon.
If you missed Thierry Durand’s original podcast and would like to listen, please click here!