Lessons from the past, optimism for the future

Paul Tunnah interviews Nigel Brooksby


One could be forgiven sometimes for thinking that there has never been a more challenging time to work in the pharma industry. The combined pressures of a decline in innovation, the ongoing patent cliff and the increasing limitations imposed by cost containment measures mean that companies need to be much more creative to prosper in today’s market. Change is everywhere as pharma looks to identify the right business model to survive.

So pharmaphorum thought it might be time to hear the wisdom of someone who has observed many changes in pharma during their career to see what advice they could offer. Nigel Brooksby has more than 35 years experience in the life sciences industry, culminating in him becoming Chairman and Managing Director for Sanofi-aventis in the UK and also successfully leading the UK’s Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) for two years.

During our discussion, we talked about the current challenges and opportunities in pharma, with Nigel presenting an optimistic view of an industry that can emerge stronger through adaption. However, he also shared some of the more personal aspects of what has been important in forging his career and what advice he can offer to those leaders of the future.

Interview summary

PT: You’ve been a familiar face in UK pharma for some time, but perhaps you could explain your current role and background, for the benefit of our global visitors.

NB: I started my career as a medical representative working in the UK and then progressively developing my career in Sales and Marketing and General Management, working for over 10 years in seven different countries and three different continents before returning to the UK with Pfizer as Pharmaceutical Director for Pfizer UK and then later with Sanofi-aventis as Chief Executive, before becoming Chairman and Managing Director of the UK Group of Companies. Now, Non-Executive Chairman of Sanofi-aventis and retiring later this year.

PT: Why initially a career in pharma?

NB: A good question. Originally I was born on a farm, so it was farming rather than pharma! My parents always advised me not to take up a career in farming. I went off to university, did a degree in Life Sciences and then started to apply to pharmaceutical companies. The Wellcome Foundation, now obviously GSK, offered me a job as a medical rep, and a career.

PT: Did you have a clear view of where you wanted your career to go, when you started out?

NB: I think I had a dream of developing a career and taking on various roles and working in different countries, but no, not a clear view. What was really clear to me at the time was I wanted to experience different cultures and also to work in different countries.


“To develop a career in life sciences and pharma today you’ve got to take an early responsibility for your own career…”


PT: How would you say the career pathway has changed in pharma?

NB: Essentially the key ingredients are pretty much the same. To develop a career in life sciences and pharma today you’ve got to take an early responsibility for your own career and look for the opportunities as they occur, be willing to be mobile, to move around, to look for an opportunity for early and successful leadership and, above and beyond that, be willing to go the extra mile and make a difference.

PT: Is there one piece of key advice that you would give to somebody who is just starting out now?

NB: I think choose a company with a future, choose a company with ambition and, in particular, always work for a great boss.

PT: You also went on to lead the UK’s industry body, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, for a number of years – just tell me how you came into that role?

NB: When I joined Sanofi, now Sanofi-aventis, almost 20 years ago, it was something I was encouraged to do, to get involved with the ABPI, so I worked on the Board, I led the Commercial Committee of the ABPI, I chaired the Governance Committee. When I became President that was really my time to give something back to the pharmaceutical industry.

PT: What are you most proud of from your time at the ABPI?

NB: When I was President actually chairing the Board of the ABPI, which was a mix of 17 or 18 senior people from various pharmaceutical companies and keeping us together, keeping our noses pointed in the same direction and also developing a common agenda with the UK government and other stakeholders in the life sciences. My manifesto to the industry was the right medicine for the right patient at the right time and I’m still proud that we started that journey.

PT: What influence would you say the UK pharma market has on the rest of the world?

NB: I think the UK is a very special place, there is a bias obviously in that! I’ve worked and lived in seven different countries, in three different continents, and in their own way they are very special, but the UK is very special. Why? I think we have a great history of innovation, in terms of research and development and in producing innovative new medicines. The UK industry has punched well above its weight.

PT: How do you see pharma changing the way it engages with its customers at the moment and do you think this is something cyclical or are we genuinely seeing a change in how the industry engages?

NB: It’s really back to patent cliffs and patent expiry, with a combination of lack of innovation, which means that if we don’t change we won’t have a future. I think in the future it’s all about building businesses that have got real growth and are not subject to cyclical variations. There will be winners, but there will also be losers.


“The UK industry has punched well above its weight.”


PT: Some people would say that the current R&amp,D model is broken – is that something that you would agree with?

NB: R&amp,D has delivered in the past, there have been some great contributions, not least from the UK. But over the last few years we have seen some major consolidation, mergers, acquisition, and whilst this may have helped commercial reach and presence, it has certainly hampered research and development. What we’ve learnt is that big companies are not always good at innovation and what we need from the new model is research and development that delivers real innovation. Also, we will always need great people, great talent, so attracting and retaining great talent will as always be vital to success.

PT: Drug pricing can be a very emotive area. There always has been, and probably always will be, those that suggest the industry charges too much for new medicines and in doing so focuses too much on profits rather than treating patients. What would your response be to that?

NB: We just really need to be seen as part of solution rather than being seen as the cause of the problem. So what does that involve? I think it means as an industry we need to be more transparent, we need to form more effective partnerships with government, more effective partnerships with patients and all of the different stakeholders.

PT: One area which often causes controversy is the Health Technology Appraisal process, which is conducted by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence. Do you think that the HTA process we have now is the right approach and do you see it changing at all?

NB: Each country thinks they have the best system, but of course there is not a perfect system yet. I always describe NICE as one of the first and, possibly even today, one of the most effective, but it’s still in its infancy and when I talk to Sir Michael Rawlins, I always describe NICE (I’m not sure he agrees but he always acknowledges the comment!) as “the tallest kid in the playground”. NICE will continue to evolve in the future.

PT: One of the new buzz words I see a lot is “joint working”, which is all about collaboration between different parties to improve delivery of disease management. This is still a fairly new area, but how do you see it developing?

NB: I agree, we very often use the term, but it’s still got a long way to develop. I think it’s still in the early stages, there is a degree of suspicion and a lack of transparency. We need to build trust. Partnerships and joined up working are essential and critical to the future.

PT: Do you see enough dialogue going on between this new government and the pharma industry, before decisions are being made?

NB: Yes. We talked about the UK being a special place a little bit earlier and I think one of the special parts of the UK life sciences industry is that we have an almost unique relationship with government. We’ve got bodies like the ABPI, we’ve got other ways of communicating and having an open dialogue with government, so I think we are in a good place. But, of course, like any partnership, we can’t become complacent.

PT: If you do look ahead over the next five to ten years, how would you really like to see the UK pharma and healthcare environment adapt?

NB: I’m very optimistic about the future. I think over the next ten years we can get better at delivering healthcare and we can get even more efficient than we are today.


“Partnerships and joined up working are essential and critical to the future.”


PT: What would you say have been the key highlights of your career?

NB: Hopefully the highlights are still to come! When I look back it involves people, it always involves people. It’s people that make the big difference. I’ve worked with some very special and talented people and hopefully I’ve inspired them to achieve even more than they had originally planned.

PT: Is there anything you would have done differently?

NB: Oh for sure. But unless you continue to push forward, unless you continue to try and innovate, you are not going to make a real difference. So yes, some of the things, if I could go back, we would have done differently, but we wouldn’t have moved overall further if we’d have been more cautious.

PT: I guess it’s not all pharma, it’s not all work, what keeps you busy in your spare time?

NB: I’ve got three lovely daughters and now three grandchildren, so one of the key ingredients to being happy and being successful is to have a happy family life. With my family I share a passion for the countryside and horses in particular, so in retirement I’ll try and ride even more often. Hopefully there will be more time for family, more time for the grandkids and rugby is also a passion, so hopefully more time to spend watching Leicester Tigers.

PT: If you had to pick one quote to live by, what would it be?

NB: It’s back to the earlier part of the conversation, choosing a company or an association to work for that has great ambition and working with great people, because it is people that really make the difference.

About the interviewee:

Nigel graduated in Biological Sciences before joining The Wellcome Foundation as a medical representative. After gaining overseas experience working in several countries he returned to the UK working with Pfizer, before joining Sanofi in 1992. After progressing through the company, he oversaw the merger with Aventis in 2004 and was appointed Chairman and Managing Director of the new Sanofi-aventis. During his career, Nigel has been a strong advocate for UK pharma, culminating in him becoming President of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) in 2006, holding the position for two years. Now Non-executive Chairman of Sanofi-aventis, he continues to play an extremely active role in promoting UK pharma, engaging across the industry and government to help improve the delivery of healthcare. In May he was appointed as a member of the UKs BIS (Business, Innovation and Skills) Industrial Development Advisory Board. Recently he was invited to join the Advisory Board of the Clinical Trial Research Unit at Imperial College, London. Nigel has also been elected as Chairman of the Primary Care Cardiology Society (PCCS) Charity.

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