“Our values are entirely family values: respect, trust, empathy and passion.”

Centred on people

A conversation with Thorsten Pöhl, president of Boehringer Ingelheim Japan

Text by Gavin Blair  /  Photos by Michael Holmes

Founded in 1885 in Ingelheim, a small town on the Rhine River where it remains headquartered, family-owned pharma company Boehringer Ingelheim now has more than 47,000 employees at 145 affiliates around the globe. The fourth generation of the founding family is now at the helm of the firm.

The human-centric corporate culture instilled by the founder — who used to make sure staff took proper vacations by getting them to send postcards from their destinations — remains in place today, according to Thorsten Pöhl, the recently-arrived president of Boehringer Ingelheim Japan.

Pöhl has been with Boehringer Ingelheim for 24 years, starting at headquarters in Germany, and with postings to South America, Norway, the US, and most recently, Spain. “It is one of the traits of our company — people like it and stay,” he states.

Although he arrived in Tokyo this spring, Pöhl first acquired a taste for Japanese culture in São Paolo 22 years ago, even taking language lessons from a member of the large Japanese-Brazilian community there.

“I suggested to the company that my next step should be Japan, but my request was denied,” says Pöhl. “Now an old wish has come true.”

Despite having to wait more than two decades for his wish to be granted, Pöhl remains an unapologetic evangelist for the company and the work it does.

“Our values are entirely family values: respect, trust, empathy and passion. You don’t find sales, profits or things like that,” Pöhl explains. “That makes it very different to other companies. I think this would be different if we were stock market-driven.”

If this wasn’t enough, Pöhl believes that his work is extremely rewarding. “I feel that I do something with meaning — helping patients to improve their health and quality of life,” he says.

Eschewing the multibillion-dollar M&A deals that have characterised the industry in recent decades, Boehringer Ingelheim has relied almost entirely on organic growth to remain one of the top 20 global pharma firms.

Boehringer Ingelheim’s strengths lie in pharmaceuticals, biopharmaceuticals and animal health. In June last year it struck an asset-swap deal with Sanofi, under which the French pharma giant acquired Boehringer Ingelheim’s consumer health division, while Boehringer Ingelheim took over Sanofi’s Merial animal health operations.

Pöhl describes the deal as, “a nice strategic fit,” which created two market leaders out of four mid-sized companies.

Research and innovation are crucial in the pharma sector. Boehringer Ingelheim’s long-term approach — facilitated by the absence of shareholders demanding quarterly bottom line improvements — is to invest 20% of its turnover in R&D, significantly above the industry average of 12%.

“We invest heavily in Japan. We are the only multinational pharma company that is doing research in Japan,” states Pöhl. “We have a research centre in Kobe.”

Japan is a key research centre for the company, along with Germany, Austria and the US.

“Our research is done globally through cooperation between different laboratories,” explains Pöhl. “In Japan, we focus on formulations, the best way to deliver a medicine — tablets, injections, powders, etc. — as we are strong in that area here.”

With a presence in Japan since 1961, Boehringer Ingelheim has a total of 3,000 staff members, along with production plants in Narita City and Yamagata Prefecture, mainly for the domestic market.

The issue of generic medicines has become a hot topic in the industry and the world of politics in recent years. Pharma companies insist they need the pay-off from extended patent protection to fund future research (and pay for the R&D carried out on current medicines), while campaigners accuse the industry of keeping potentially life-saving drugs out of the reach of people without the means to pay top dollar.

“We support the idea that generics take over at the end of the life cycle of innovative drugs,” says Pöhl. “We appreciate the fact that governments honour innovation, and we know they have to pay for medical care.

“We understand that innovation has its price and needs to be paid for, but we are willing, at the end of the patent period, to give up on these products and understand they should be delivered by generic companies,” he continues. “It’s part of our business model and we accept it.”

An example of Boehringer Ingelheim’s innovation is the anticoagulant Prazaxa and its complementary Prizbind, for use in rare emergency situations such as surgery and when bleeding is life-threatening.

Prazaxa, already approved in Japan, was “the first new, innovative anticoagulation therapy in 50 years to help prevent strokes,” according to Pöhl. The treatment thins the blood, which can be problematic if a patient suddenly needs surgery, as it makes bleeding harder to stop. In response, Boehringer Ingelheim developed Prizbind — an agent that reverses the effects of the anticoagulant — which Pöhl says, “is effective in seconds, allowing people to have emergency surgery if necessary.”

Prizbind has just gone through approval procedures in Japan and will be brought to the market soon. Boehringer Ingelheim also received Japanese approval for Jardiance, an oral anti-diabetic drug that significantly reduces cardiovascular risk, last year.

“The situation for approval has improved significantly for pharmaceuticals,” Pöhl observes. “Innovation is honoured and approval times have been reduced dramatically. In many cases, we are getting approved here at the same time as the rest of the world. Once approval is given, patients in Japan are getting access very quickly.”

Pöhl believes Japan’s demographics have been a major driver in speeding up the approval process, long a complaint of international pharma operating in the country.

“The super-ageing society needs innovation, though it’s a challenge for the government to pay for all that,” says Pöhl. “I’m impressed how well the planning for the ageing society is being done in Japan.”