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Vivian Xie
14 Dec 2022

CPHI Frankfurt 2022: Innovator Interview – Bora Pharmaceuticals

In this series of interviews, we speak to the companies on the CPHI Frankfurt show floor who are driving innovation in pharma for a better healthcare future. We caught up with Bora Pharmaceuticals’ CEO Bobby Sheng and Neil Kelly, Managing Director and Founder of Vector Partners, to chat about talent acquisition in the pharmaceutical industry and what it takes to build sustainability in recruitment. 

How is the pharmaceutical industry facing a ‘talent crisis’ right now? 

Kelly: I think there’s three main challenges right now affecting the supply and demand of talent. One is technology – as new molecules are coming to market, there is an increase in demand for resources to service molecule development and manufacturing. That’s one major element driving it. The second area is partially linked to the pandemic. Following the release of countries in lockdown this triggered a pent-up demand to move and experience something different. This of course was being fuelled by the supply of roles and the aggressive compensation and rewards on offer. This has driven a lot of movement in the market, which means there are less people on the market. The third element is innovation – the innovation used to produce the product. For example, in manufacturing, you now often need programmers to service the production of a drug. Equally data has never played a more important role in areas such as Quality. Rewind the clock to not so long ago and we were trying to find mechanical engineering skills. Now we have roles such as mechatronics, which is a combination of programming and mechanical engineering.  

What strategies or processes has Bora Pharmaceuticals implemented to develop a focus on business growth and talent acquisition in the last few years? 

Sheng: I think for us, it’s really about doing more with less. If we break it up into two different levels, one of them is the executive and salesforce level, and then the manufacturing level. On an executive and salesforce level, we really want them to focus on being more efficient, so there is a lot of internal training on what their targets and goals are. There’s an understanding that roles are changing because we can’t just throw bodies at them anymore. So it’s really about adjusting their mentality and their attitude of how they view that job and what we expect from them in that role. But it’s also giving them the right toolsets and educating them to make them the best employees they can be. On the manufacturing level, it’s really about modifying the workforce a bit. We think that because there’s been such a large supply of labour in the last 10–15 years, automation and innovation sort of stopped. Everybody’s looking at a workforce that’s now disappearing and thinking: what are we going to do? Well, we’re going to innovate on the production lines and on the manufacturing lines. It’ll require a lot less human interaction and a lot more robotics. IT is going to really get to another level for all the controls in the manufacturing process. The market will balance itself out (it will take a little bit of time) but that is what we’re doing. 

Kelly: I think the other aspect is that Bora have tried to future-proof what direction they are taking – they are an early adopter in recognising that there is a challenge in the market right now. Some of the other organisations have not reacted at all but Bora have tried to make a full investment to ensure that they are in a good place in 3–4 years’ time. 

Sheng: Not to say those organisations are wrong but some just throw money at it. It makes them less competitive (we think) over time and creates a different dynamic that they have to deal with. We like to future-proof it, get ahead of it, and understand that it is a long-term rather than short-term lack of talent out there. 

Are there any trends you see or predict for the pharmaceutical labour market? 

Sheng: Work-from-home is definitely staying. I think everyone is trying to figure out what that means for their organisation because every culture is different. There’s a study that I read once that the more interaction you have with your colleagues, the higher the job satisfaction. So what does interaction mean now? Is online interaction really interaction? Or is it face-to-face interaction? I think once we see the productivity increase once we have the return of human interaction, it will revert back to ‘hey I think we really need more of this’. Events such as CPHI, you feel the energy, where people see each other, everything’s accelerating – from our trust with each other to doing business with each other – I think that’s really becoming so much more important. Overall, it will be a really interesting mix of technology and human interaction. What we have done at Bora is continue a work-from-home policy, but we’ve instigated at least a meeting off-site somewhere once a week. It doesn’t have to be work related – it could be for lunch, for drinks, but it’s that interaction we’re trying to make sure happens. The demand for a pharma workforce is increasing at such a rapid pace that there’s no way the current workforce will keep up with it. So we really need to redefine people’s roles and how much work they’ll need to do.  

Kelly: I think there’s one important point that Bobby’s addressed for Bora and that’s the health and wellbeing of the workforce. Stress levels are at an all-time high in the workforce right now. Some of the research has indicated that this is due to a lack of human contact. So creating this work culture, as Bobby mentions, may improve the health of the workforce.  

Sheng: Yes, so we’re seeing a change in how office space is used. Some may come in for a quick meeting but then have the flexibility to pick up their kids. Office spaces are being occupied again, just for different reasons.  

In particular to pharmaceutical manufacturing, how is this change in work culture playing out? 

Sheng: In our sites, especially for pharmaceuticals, it’s not as automated as other industries such as semiconductors. At every component of the manufacturing process, there’s a lot of human interaction, especially in quality control and validation. Every company has a different culture. Some companies have a culture where the managers don’t have to come in. However, at Bora, our culture is ‘lead by example’. As a manager, your team members will want to see you there, they reply on you and you reply on them. That is part of the family culture we have created. If your team members are on-site, we’ll be on-site. We promote that type of culture. As a CDMO, we operate in the services industry. We need our people there because that’s what our customers are paying us for. Our customers aren’t paying for a product, they’re paying us to manufacture their product to a high quality – so we’re the products. While some companies might have a different process, but we need to be on-site. 

Kelly: As an example, some biologics businesses are now highly automated, depending on the product you are manufacturing. It also depends on the type of balance you are trying to achieve in the workforce, and the stage of your business maturity. I think we need to be realistic here – we don’t want one extreme or the other. 

How are facilities and business structures developing to accommodate a changing workforce? 

Sheng: Obvious things include all the virtual platforms to coordinate and discuss with your team. We are growing so fast that we have to be at least semi-virtual. All the new talent we are bringing are already located in different areas of the world. Working with Neil, who is based in the UK. He services our talent acquisition needs across the Globe. We have hired people in Asia and right across North America. There’s a lot of great tools to have pockets of virtuality – you can have a meeting room with four people in different locations, but that technology is so much better these days. For manufacturing itself, it’s a little different. That infrastructure has more or less stayed the same. 

Kelly: Bora and I have developed plans on those roles so they can be made virtual, hybrid and onsite. Some organisations have struggled with that – they have approached it as an ‘all or nothing’ situation. Having a kind of hybrid agile approach is the right way to think about it, being pragmatic and open with your workforce. Recognising the requirements of a role early-on makes it a clear decision for both the employee and the business.  

What does sustainable talent acquisition and retention mean for Bora Pharmaceuticals? 

Kelly: Ultimately, every organisation needs a plan. They need a holistic talent plan to understand what skills and competence a business needs to run effectively, how they are going to manage their existing workforce. If an organisation does not know this or have a plan to address some of those elements, then it is very difficult to manage a workforce. A second point is around the health and wellbeing of a workforce, which is paramount. If 30% of your workforce is consistently vacant through hiring challenges or sickness, then this puts a tremendous strain on your existing workforce. If you are not addressing that, the health and wellbeing of your employees will suffer. If you build an accurate picture of what your workforce needs, get your talent acquisition approach right first time, your workforce can operate at an optimum level, positively impacting the health and wellbeing of your workforce.  

I give you an example on a simple talent approach. I often weave this into conversations when solutioning out the best way to replace a key role or a set of hiring needs, using a ‘buy or build’ model – are we going to ‘buy’ somebody from the market or are we going to build that talent? Our main interest always is to ensure the right solution is in place that creates the most value. If you don’t have talent approaches like this and the means to execute, then you’re just freefalling. 

Sheng: For us, culture is probably the top priority for Bora. We take care of our own. There’s a huge talent gap in middle management because nobody trains their employees anymore. What we try to do now, with a large talent gap out there, we will spend a lot more time on internal training. Neil has developed a great talent assessment and development plan for us to identify the people we feel can grow and give them the right tools and training. Rather than always going out and recruiting, why not grow those we already have? This is an example of the agile way that we work with Neil and his team. It also creates a really good environment and healthy mental attitude at Bora – we are honest and transparent with the gaps in talent and help our employees to grow and benefit. 

You were awarded the CPHI CEO Award of the Year last year. What do you see, as a CEO, for the future of talent acquisition? 

Sheng: I was really honoured to get the award you mentioned, but even internally I said it’s because I have great talent. I wish there was a company of the year or a talent pool of the year. As CEO, you are just trying to find talent that will build great teams. Your job is to cultivate them to become the best that they can be as a team. For me, it’s also emphasizing the ability to lead great teams when we’re promoting internally. To achieve what we have achieved, it’s being very diligent and strict with our talent acquisition and internal talent building. We’ve left positions open for 9 months because we realised that we need the right person for the right team. Working with great recruiters who have the persistence to find the right person is really important. We’ve been very fortunate to work with Neil and he’s been integral to our growth. He’s seen us grow four-fold in the last 2–3 years, identifying the gaps in our organisation and filling those gaps. 

Kelly: From a strategy perspective, Bobby is a good example of a CEO who has made a commitment to Bora’s talent. If you don’t make that commitment, you’ll fail. The aspect that Bora does really well is hiring for the future. You have to make sure that the talent is there for the future, and you are planful. You purposely hire what you need ahead of need to future-proof the next 5 years. Those elements are critical for a CEO to recognise those aspects and it is no surprise Bora is thriving. 

Any final comments? 

Sheng: Just going back to the CEO Award of the Year you mention, one of the reasons why I was able to get that award was the GSK acquisition which expanded our operations into North America. As a Taiwanese-based company at that time, we were able to acquire our first international site in Canada, which was probably triple the size of our other sites. We were able to do it virtually with the talent that we had and that we hired. We hired local talent virtually and communicated with them to use their local expertise in Canada to facilitate that acquisition and execute a $20 million I.T. transfer.  

Kelly: The reason why I reached out to Bobby was because he won CEO Award of the Year. If you hadn’t won, we probably wouldn’t have connected. 

Sheng: Thanks to CPHI for this! 

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