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Mantell Associates Network: Q&A with Peter Halling

​As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell spoke with Peter Halling.

As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell welcomed Peter Halling, CEO of Fertin Pharma A/S.

In this episode Alessandro Mantell speaks with Peter, who is an executive professional within the Life Sciences field. He has over 21 years of experience in companies like Novozymes, Ingredion and DohlerGroup, and is currently the CEO of Fertin Pharma A/S. Peter does not come from a strictly traditional background – as a Commercial professional he has been involved in Direct Sales and Account Management for past businesses, and is now in charge of taking Fertin Pharma, an 800 strong CDMO operating across Denmark, India and Canada, to the next level. 

Alessandro Mantell: Hi there all, thank you very much for joining me on Episode 11 of Mantell Associates Network which has been a huge success so far. I am being joined today by Pete Halling who is the CEO of Fertin Pharma. Fertin Pharma is a CDMO organisation that specialises mainly in dosage forms as a business and is based just outside Copenhagen in Denmark. He actually has an interesting story, this is Peter’s first ever position as a CEO of an organisation. He joined just after March so right after COVID-19 and straight into everything! Peter, you mentioned that there are sites that you have not been to yet, so you have has to learn about the business, take onboard everything and build up the leadership team and get to know them virtually. So thank you so much for taking the time to come on, I want to get straight into it and really get your opinion as a whole on COVID-19, on everything and how you see it? 

Peter Halling: That’s a grand question. First of all, thank you so much for having me, I have really been looking forward to it. So first and foremost it is obviously a tragedy with COVID-19 for the whole world. But that said it is also one of those times where you stop and you really start thinking about how you can make a difference here. How we can thrive in a completely different environment. Obviously that has been one of the things to focus on. Coming in as a CEO for instance, how to get yourself grounded here and get to know everybody, all of your new colleagues. We have sites here in Denmark but also in India and Canada and not being able to travel and meet them obviously meant that I had to do a lot virtually. I have spent a lot of hours in front of the computer, like everybody, talking to people, customers, colleagues etc, so it has been quite crazy!

Alessandro Mantell: Paint a picture of coming on board Post-Covid into an organisation, being the CEO. How did you at the start establish yourself in terms of running everything, getting to grips with everything? The reason I ask is, that we have had hundreds of people find new positions through Mantell Associates during this time period and the advice would mean a lot to them.

Peter Halling: I think first and foremost coming into any new organisation you really need to make sure that you take the time to get to know people. I have been lucky in the sense here in Denmark we have 7 out of 900 employees. So in the time of COVID I still had the chance to get around the site and meet as many people as possible. Then you need to make sure that you really are present, that you are grounded and can spend a lot of time with the teams. On top of it, it is very important that you don’t lose vision of the external world, you have partners, you have customers etc and it is a very easy when you get into this kind of fog.

You have to have a lot of focus on internal staff, you have COVID, you need to make sure that the teams are safe and sound and on top of it you still need to drive the business. That means you have to keep contact with the customers, have a high focus of keeping them engaged and yourself present. That has been very important to spend time on. You asked for, I wouldn’t call it advice but for me it has been super super important to do that and it has been very important to make sure that people get to know me. I took over from the previous CEO and he had been here for more than 20 years. So coming in as a newcomer and not being known to the organisation that was obviously where you needed to do a lot of communication. Making sure that you are present, that has been the key part to me. 

Alessandro Mantell: I love that, I love in particular about the fog and the fog is basically the distraction from the task at hand. In this world where we have everything on the news, everything going on, difficulties with even manufacturing goods, it can be difficult. I know you guys manufacture goods and something that I have seen with a lot COs and CDMOS is that things are being held at airports, things are being held up, normal distractions taking people away from the goal and staying focused. What would you say has been for you the biggest challenge that you have faced since being the CEO during all of this and how have you and Fertin Pharma adapted to it? 

Peter Halling: I think coming in, the team before me did an excellent job around COVID-19 so it has basically been a big change around. Every single day we are making sure we have a focus on managing COVID to keep our employees and the teams safe and healthy, that’s the number one. Also, keeping the operation running and obviously to make sure that our customers get the products on time, in full and that we really do our utmost to keep the wheels rolling. As I said you have this tendency of stalling a bit when you get into a situation and as a result turning your focus.

I think the biggest thing for us has really been to ensure that we keep an outwards focus so that we execute on the strategy. Keep driving that and not get stuck on things that we cannot control. It is easy to sit down and have the conversations about COVID-19 and the concerns and all of that but in the end we cannot control it. You have to go with the flow a little bit and make sure you have everything set up the right way. You really have to make sure that you don’t lose track of what is important. What is important is first and foremost safe and healthy employees, a company that operates well, we deliver to our customers and continue to focus on our strategy. If you do that I think that you are in pretty good shape, it hasn’t been easy but I think it has been manageable. 

Alessandro Mantell: Love that! I guess staying focused on the task at hand and providing the highest level of service not only to the CEO, to your employees but also to your customers as well, that is a challenge in itself. Just to give you an example, when Mantell Associates started out in 2019 we were just another headhunting firm. I think in London, in the UK alone you have 46,000 headhunting firms, recruitment companies and you think about what makes us unique and what makes us different. I guess I found that during this period it was our culture, our togetherness, our work ethic and our rate.
I truly believe in the companies that I have worked in before, this is what puts us in that high percentage of the top companies, even though we are young and up and coming. I guess a lot of companies have found what makes them unique. What makes Fertin Pharma unique because there are a lot of other Pharmaceuticals CDMO businesses out there, what makes you guys unique on the market? 

Peter Halling: I think what is really special about Fertin Pharma is that there is a great culture at the company and I think that has a lot to do with the heritage of the company. It is interesting because we have more than 100 years of history actually in confectionery, it used to be a family owned company. They started it all up in confectionery, then for the past 2 decades we have been operating in the pharmaceutical industry and the confectionery business has been sold off. So you still have that legacy to keep on so we focus on bringing great solutions to our customers, both in the consumer health industry but also in the pharmaceutical industry.

I think that really brings something and on top of it, it has also created a very strong foundation in terms of innovation. If you work in confectionery you need to have speed and agility. It has given us some preparatory technologies that we can use with our customers. That gives them the opportunity to line up their businesses but also position themselves quite differently on the market. I think that has created what I call a very unique and fun little company compared to the big ones. But still a very present one and one that can make a difference to our customers. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing, innovation is absolutely crucial right now in terms of everything. We have seen companies that we have been working with, who have had huge plans for 2021, 2020 even and many weren’t able to adapt and have struggled. Even businesses outside of the pharmaceutical industry who I have spoken to or had conversations with and no doubt you are the same, have said oh it’s okay for you, because you work in that space that is booming but absolutely not. There are so many companies that haven’t been able to adapt and innovate at the right times so yes that’s brilliant and thank you. I guess a point on leadership as well, I am learning my way in it at the moment and it is hard but it’s fun. It has it’s challenges but it is everything. How have you adapted to being the CEO of Fertin Pharma from a mental and physical point, no doubt being in the house a lot more and everything. How have you adapted to that? 

Peter Halling: Coming in as a CEO, for me, it was pretty clear that I had a lot of plans before joining. I think a lot of us had hoped and expected that COVID, I wouldn’t call it history but would be a chapter in history by now. Nevertheless it is still around so that meant that I had to change plans. I was planning on doing a lot of travelling and visiting places locally so I had to increase my communication. We have in-house videos every second week. We do a lot of  communication with our employees and try to put a face on ourselves to ensure that they know where we are heading as a company.

I think as a leader you need to make sure that you are a lot more present, more present than ever because you need to make sure that there is guidance in the organisation. On top of it you need to also make sure that people really understand the crisp and short messages that you bring about where we are heading as a company. So it is really about information and the information flow, I think that is key. As you said, not being able to be in the office, I basically said that you need to do a lot of exercise, you need to walk and talk. Get outside, just get your head cleared and then you can be present and join the meetings. If you just sat 24/7 in front of the computer it is super difficult to get great results. 

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely, I guess that leads on nicely to the kind of characteristics that there are in top leaders. I think with everything going on right now, it is challenging everyone on planet earth but it is also challenging leaders in a different type of way. What characteristics do you think are most important when it comes to leadership as a whole during this time? 

Peter Halling: I really think it is the same but maybe you need to do a little bit more of it, for me personally. I have always believed in leaders that are transparent, bring openness and also setting clear and direct direction. As a leader, especially in these times you need to make sure that there is a lot of flexibility both in terms of how we do things but also in terms of what you expect.

Everything changes by the day these days, so you really need that dynamic and flexible approach to things to help make them happen. I think you do need to do that in any case, COVID-19 or not. But depending on the situation or depending on the time, you need to maybe bring a little bit more of one thing than the other. It never hurts to have a lot of communication or be as transparent as one can be. It never hurts trying to understand where people are coming from and try to understand the situation. I think if you bring that to the table then you are doing great. Then I look at my personal tasks and the biggest task I have is to move as many hurdles for the team as possible. To help create clarity and transparency. If I am successful at that then the company can operate in a much better way.

Alessandro Mantell: That’s great! I loved the part on flexibility and being dynamic, even more now than ever! It reminds me, I spoke to a gentleman who was the CEO of a biologics CDMO based in Switzerland. He is like a mentor to me and helps me a lot with stuff. I said to him, how on earth do you do it, you have a company of hundreds of people and I have a business. It would have been 5 but now it’s 18. He said the role of CEO is actually CIO, Chief Idiot Officer. He said everyday you have to be prepared, one day I am sitting in a meeting with a big pharmaceutical company and the next minute it feels like I am in a counselling session for somebody else and then I’m sorting out the printer. He said I have no clue what I’m doing next, now more than ever. It’s crazy!

Peter Halling: It is so true, you are doing everything right. If you work from home, nobody is going to help you out and when you are in the office people are working from home so you have to have that flexibility. I personally don’t think it hurts, it grounds you a little bit and it doesn’t hurt to do those practical things every once in a while. 

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely and I guess through everything and through all of the work that you and the team at Fertin Pharma are doing it is hugely exciting. Talk to me about the enjoyment and the positives or exciting things that you see coming out of the pharmaceutical industry and Fertin Pharma in the future as a whole?

Peter Halling: I think really being with Fertin Pharma and in the industry, our mission is supporting healthier living.We know that we are helping people around the world. We are in an industry that when the industry is successful there will be a lot of people who have healthy and better lives and that makes me excited and also makes me proud. I think it is something these days to really feel for and drive and that is the key thing.

If you think about the industry, there is no doubt that there have always been many opinions around it. But I think with the vaccines and agility and the speed of the industry in some of these companies I really applaud them for the capabilities, the innovation of what they have done. I also think it kind of boosts the picture of the pharmaceutical industry, not as being these evil guys that are just in it for profit. But really people who want to make a difference for the world and I think that is amazing. I’m actually very optimistic in terms of the future of the industry and also in terms of how people will view the pharmaceutical industry. I think there are a lot of good times ahead for everyone. 

Alessandro Mantell: That is a really really interesting point. There was a gentleman that I spoke to at a conference many years ago. He always said that the pharmaceutical industry, I don’t really know what he meant by it but the pharmaceutical industry is often 10 years behind a lot of industries. In terms of the way it is perceived and the work they are doing. I think he was talking more from a technology standpoint more than anything. It has put a good light on the pharmaceutical industry in terms of being a head and how quickly everyone has been able to move.
If you see the work that is going on in the UK, despite our government, the way we have done deals and brought on the vaccines has been absolutely phenomenal. It is starting to look really positive to everyone. I guess a really important point is sales and business development. This has changed, the old way of sales and business development is still there. I can’t wait for it to come back but how have you and Fertin Pharma found the business, found the market in terms of business development, of sales? How have you adapted with time and what is going on? 

Peter Halling: That is a very good question. So you used to be able to go to trade fairs, to conferences, customer meetings, innovation, all of that and I think the key here has really been the digital solutions. Even conferences and trade fairs are digital, so the way you interact with customers is different. The way you market yourself and the way you approach things is now completely different. I think it is actually for the better.

First of all, we travel less, meaning less CO2, a more sustainable world. But on top of it, you actually engage with customers as you have a limited time period. You really start engaging with more people online, people are more present, the accessibility with the customer is much greater, you have more efficient interactions. You have more to the point meetings and for us that has really meant that in some ways we are able to speak of direct things.

That said, I would say that the challenges obviously are what is the right time for launches these days. If you are in the business where you are relying on foot traffic, they have to watch that and are a little bit more concerned on those aspects.

On the other hand everybody knows the importance of innovation and being able to differentiate so there’s this hunger for innovation. This hunger for differentiating and being the one standing out in the market. On the other hand there is also this concern around where I spend my money, how do I really make sure I get bang for my buck. This is what you need to balance and this is where the sales marketing and business development teams really play a super core role in the way you engage with customers. If they don’t get it right, it gets so much more difficult and I think that is really where you need to have a super team. Luckily we have a very strong team who have done a really good job there. But we also see that customers are struggling with the same thing. They are trying to understand, how do I tackle the consumer, how do I make sure that my reach is enough with the pharmacies. That’s what you need to help them out on. 

Alessandro Mantell: Very true and the point you mentioned about the cost side, of course people, business developers, sales are not travelling as much. So they are spending more time on making calls and then of course meetings they won’t be going all the way to another country for one meeting anymore. Instead they might be staying at home and doing 10 meetings. Which means from a business point of view you are cutting costs and getting more meetings done, speaking to more people, networking. This is definitely here to stay and I love how positive you are about everything and how you explain it. Something which is probably going to be hard to explain is, everyone defines success in different ways and what would you say, I guess this can be linked to you personally or one for Fertin Pharma as well if you wish. What is your biggest achievement to date and how would you define success for you personally or for the business. 

Peter Halling: Let me start with the business, first of all I think the biggest success is actually 2020. First and foremost the whole team and all the colleagues and that’s including the CEO before me. They really managed to get a great solid start in 2020 even when COVID-19 hit they had the wheels rolling and the business running in a super way. It has been amazing to come in and just feel comfortable around that immediately. On top of it we had the record result in 2020 so it has been a fantastic year for the company in that sense.

On a personal note, my biggest achievement would be having a fun career, achieving goals that I have set on a personal level but also having a great family life on the side and being able to combine those two. So for me that is my biggest personal achievement. If you look at success in terms of defining it, it is always about setting goals and achieving them and once you achieve them moving onto the next one. I also think if you don’t recognise it, if you meet a goal and immediately move onto the next one it is lost, you need to strike a balance where you also give yourself some opportunity to enjoy. So for me success is about not only achieving the goal and moving on to something bigger and better but also once in a while stopping and being able to balance it, realise and think through what did I gain from this and how do I use it while I move onto the next thing. So this ability to enjoy and balance while always having something new to work towards for me is kind of how you constantly achieve success. 

Alessandro Mantell: Brilliant, a really good answer. There is this podcast that I listened to a couple of months ago, I can’t remember what it is called, high intensity something like that. It is about talking to sports athletes, Jake Humphrey is the host of it and brings on Rio Ferdinand, the old centre back for Manchester United, a hugely successful guy. He talks about his time under Alex  Fergason at Man United. He said, I look back on my career now and I see that I didn’t really get to enjoy it. He won the FA Cup and it was straight after that he would have to go to the champions league. He said actually I got to the end of my career, my wife passed away from Cancer unexpectedly and here I am, this person who everyone thinks is hugely successful but I feel beaten in myself, I haven’t been present at the moment. I listened to that and I guess your advice is identical really to that in the sense, in this world we move 100MPH, enjoy the ride and enjoy the little wins as well. Which is massive so thank you very much. What bit of advice would you give to other business leaders right now, I guess that last bit was a lot of advice in itself. What else would you say to other business leaders of any kind, right now? 

Peter Halling: For me what has worked, people can take it or leave it but I think I have gotten some good feedback in terms of communication. It is so important whether you are a leader or a CEO or manager, whatever you are. Be present and really take time to listen and talk to employees because people are doing whatever they can to really support the company, on top of it we are all struggling with a pandemic, balancing kids, work, crazy hours. Being present, listening, communicating a lot is one and as I said earlier on it is about avoiding the internal trap and having too much focus on the business. Reach out and get engaged with customers as they are struggling with some of the same things. So really working with them is what I think is needed. Things will not be the same when we get to the other side of this, there will be a new normal. That normal will still require that we are super flexible, super agile, super dynamic and that we really reach out. Advice or not, that is at least observations on my side and what I believe and whether people can use them or not! But it works well for us. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing and it is clearly working, considering you had a record year in 2020 so, a huge success for the business. I have long heard of Fertin Pharma and the great work that the business is doing on the market, it is absolutely brilliant. Peter, thank you so much for coming on, it has been an absolute pleasure and we will be in touch very very soon. Thank you!

If you missed Peter Halling’s original podcast and would like to listen, please click here!

Mantell Associates is a specialist Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Recruitment organisation founded by CEO Alessandro Mantell in January 2019. If you would like to find out more about how we support finding you the right talent or the right opportunity, reach out to Alessandro on alessandro@mantellassociates.com or give us a call on +44 (0)20 3778 0990.