As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Pablo Alvarez who was appointed President & GM of Almirall US in November 2020. Pablo previously served as Commercial Operations Director, overseeing several markets such as the UK, Netherlands, Nordics, Belgium and France, as well as heading a number of global functions during which he gained extensive experience in medical dermatology.
Before joining Almirall, Pablo worked for McKinsey, GSK, BMS and AstraZeneca including key positions in Europe, LatAm and China and, importantly, nine years in the US. He has deep experience in launching products, implementing new business models, expanding to new geographies and strategy development. Pablo has a PhD in Pharmacy, with a focus on Microbiology from the Complutense University (Madrid, Spain), carried out postdoctoral research at MIT (Boston, United States) and studied business and management at IESE Business School (Barcelona, Spain).
Thanks so much for your time, I know you’re a very busy person. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your back story and how you got started?
I was pursuing my academic and scientific career, and I was working in the U.S. when I decided that I wanted to do something different. I wanted to move into the business world, and specifically, into the pharmaceutical industry, as a matter of fact. To do that, I first took a job with a management consulting company, in an effort to reinvent myself and acquire the right skills to transition into the management track, within science.
Throughout my career, my scientific background has been very helpful, something that I have always enjoyed and liked to do. Actually, it’s funny how life goes in circles, because my post-doctoral research was in the field of microtubule enfolding, which is the mechanism of action of Klisyri, the drug we recently launched in the U.S. after it was approved by the FDA to treat actinic keratosis (AK) on the face and scalp.
It’s funny how basically 20 years later, your research becomes a reality in front of you because you are making a drug available with that particular mechanism of action. It is very close to the basic research that I was conducting.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting, and can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from that?
Pablo: A mistake I made from a business point of view? I remember my first meeting in China. I made two mistakes in a row. The first one, I didn’t sit at the front of the table. Five minutes into the meeting, there was so much rumbling in the room I had to stop, and a colleague explained, “It’s just that they’re wondering why you’re not sitting at the front if you are the boss.” Okay, I moved to the front of the table.
More important was a discussion around market access in China. I was getting a little bit impatient with the presenter because he kept going on and on and on about this particular region in China, how important it was, etc. At some point, I wanted to move on. I said, “Okay, could you tell me how big the population of this area we are discussing is?” In an effort to get an answer that will allow me to move on and close the topic and the answer I got is, “Yes, as you know, it is the Guangdong area. This is more than 100 million people.” [laughs]
There’s no way I could move on from this conversation. That’s larger than any European country, and it’s one of the areas with the biggest purchasing power in China. It wasn’t necessarily a mistake, but it totally instilled in me that my awareness about some topics in China was pretty low, because I’m talking about the first week, literally.
What did you learn from that?
Pablo: The lesson for me was to be more patient and more diligent before jumping to a conclusion and to make sure that you don’t rush through questions with the intent of just moving on, but to try to truly ask a question and then engage in active listening so the information will be useful.
Is there a particular book that you read or podcast that you listened to that really helped you in your career? Please explain.
Pablo: The book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” which I read and re-read occasionally. It’s not only about work or your career, it’s largely about the personal side of your life, and how do you keep the right balance between the personal and professional?
I don’t know how popular they are but there are a couple of podcasts around servant leadership, how do you use leadership as an act of service, that I follow.
Extensive research suggests that purpose-driven businesses are more successful in many areas. When you started at your company, what was your vision or your purpose?
Pablo: Our purpose and our mission is two-fold. We want to become a global player as a company, to have a global footprint and global reach by achieving leadership in medical dermatology. Obviously, we can only reach that goal by delivering treatments that work, that improve the lives of the people we touch with our medicines. That’s what instills purpose for our business.
AK is an area of sun-damaged skin that affects 40 million Americans each year and can lead to squamous cell carcinoma, an invasive and sometimes deadly form of skin cancer.
My father passed away recently at 90 years old. His face was completely damaged by AK, which can now be treated by our new drug, Klisyri.
The thing is, I like the sun as much as my father, so if genetics work, I’m going to get some of that as well, probably, at some point. I really think my father’s quality of life was highly impacted at the end because he couldn’t step out of the house for weeks because he was being treated for all those AK lesions.
When you’re 85 and you cannot step out of your house, do your morning walk on the beach, and all that, it’s a big issue.
Don’t think that your story is unique. By us providing an innovative drug to dermatologists, communicating properly how to use that drug, putting it at an affordable price point for patients and negotiating with payers and all of the other stakeholders, you may give happy endings to many like my father, and you can be very sure that what you’re doing is making a positive impact.
Do you have a number one principle that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Pablo: Integrity. It’s not only what you achieve, but how you achieve it. Integrity, which comes along with trust, is an absolute baseline like a hard floor you will never break whether times are good or bad. For me, it’s very important that you do not “die of success.” The same way, it’s important you don’t overreact in a crisis or in a tough situation.
Keeping calm and staying focused with your feet on the ground, with integrity as a paramount value is how I drive myself every day.
Thank you for that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. For the benefit of our readers, can you share with us a few of the personal and family-related challenges you have faced during the crisis and talk to us about how you address those challenges?
Pablo: In the last five years, we’ve never been together as a family for so long, because my older daughters are in college, one of them already in year four. In recent years, I’ve had multiple assignments in different locations, but COVID has brought the family together under one roof for a very long period of time, which has been a nice, unexpected upside.
When you’re together as a group or a family for so many days, you also experience some friction here and there.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Pablo: On the professional side, it has been extremely difficult to manage from a distance. Not only for me in my previous role as the line manager of multiple teams in multiple countries in Europe, but also for the people we manage.
In the face of daily challenges, it can be difficult to keep people focused on the long run and optimistic that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Now, these days, everything seems a little bit easier because vaccines are becoming available, but if you rewind four or five months ago, it was really challenging to keep the business moving.
Another challenge was to come across as credible. Through these digital remote connections, do people really believe what you’re saying? So, when you’re talking about the future of the company, people know that we count on everyone and that they need to hang in there and understand management is doing the best we can while pushing them to do the best they can.
Then I had a realization that it was not only about that, but it was also about engaging the people on some well-being initiatives, because at some point, you realize a message isn’t really resonating anymore, and you have to do more to keep people engaged.
Were there any steps that you took as a company to meet the challenges of working this way?
Pablo: Yes. We realized that, like with everything, it has to be with the right dose. We were a face-to-face company in the way we interacted with our customers. We managed to train and develop some new skills with our customer-facing teams, to show them how to interact remotely and how to create programs that can keep the physicians engaged during these remote interactions.
In France, we did submit for reimbursement during COVID. It was reviewed, and we had several remote engagements with the payer authorities in France, very formal interactions. We got their approval and a positive recommendation under the lockdown situation back in June.
We now have the satisfaction of having achieved it, but at the time, we thought, can we really do this? Are we going to get our message across in this two-hour discussion with the authorities when we’re not in the same room?
We also managed to recruit a full new team to launch that product, a biologic drug, in Europe under lockdown. A year ago, we didn’t know how to do those things and today we do. Moving forward, we will interact more digitally.
I will be the first one to embrace the return to face-to-face interactions, but we have learned that it can be sufficient and more efficient to do some things remotely. It’s just striking the right balance, both in industry and society as well.
Many people have become anxious because of the news and fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones when they were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Pablo: In Europe, we really couldn’t move around, which is something that in the U.S., I know it’s very alien, but I was not allowed to just get in my car and drive. It was illegal do so. The lockdown was very serious.
But as practicing Catholics, our family never stopped going to Sunday mass. Since we couldn’t go in person, we would stop whatever we were doing for an hour and listen to the mass online.
We would also spend time praying together, not for anything in particular, but just sit down with everyone and say a prayer. We also made it a point to take breaks from talking about COVID to discuss more uplifting topics. For example, what’s going on with your exams in university? How is the little one doing? Did she learn something new in school today?
COVID made us change our routine by having dinner earlier, at roughly eight o’clock, which is against the Spaniard way. But after dinner we would have our family gathering and family prayer before midnight. That’s basically how we coped with the pandemic. I know many other people go for mindfulness or meditation, all those other options. In our case, we used prayer as our mindfulness technique because that’s how my wife and I were raised.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like, but we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-COVID economy?
Pablo: COVID has shown the parallel between the personal and the professional aspects of our lives. During the pandemic, we have learned that we can do many personal things without stepping out of the house, which has given us back tons of time. We can apply this lesson to the professional part of our lives, by shifting our mentality and remembering we can maintain a customer-facing organization without always being physically present. I think people need to take a more multi-channel approach because that can multiply their reach. But depending on your mindset, that can be a stretch. Change is always difficult. As leaders, we spend our lives changing and leading change management.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act, or live?
Pablo: We will be more protective of our time now that we know we can do many things without being physically present. At the same time, I am looking forward to having my life back, including visiting friends in-person and traveling.
For example, I’ve been in the U.S. the past few weeks. I would have enjoyed traveling around and seeing people instead of having to be at the office. I want that part of my life back, but I also want the efficiency of remote work and digital interaction. I truly believe it is possible to have both. Relationships matter, and I want to be able to keep growing and building those relationships. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that applies for everyone in our company.
We need a couple of years to see how things settle down, but I think, overall, despite the pandemic’s terrible toll, we will have learned some useful lessons.
Considering the challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID economy?
Pablo: Bringing an innovative drug to market is one of the things we’re doing right now. Apart from rethinking the way we interact with our customers and always being very respectful of them, I think it’s a good moment for us, along with payers, to revisit how we can work to make drugs more affordable for patients.
Everyone needs to play a role there. It’s not only the pharmaceutical industry as there are so many other players in the payer system in the U.S. Regarding chronic therapies, the industry should work as a whole to make innovation truly affordable, while still rewarding innovation and allowing for the continual creation and development of new cutting-edge medications.
The pharmaceutical industry needs other partners in the value chain to be aligned with that goal for drug affordability to become a reality.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Pablo: We need to remember the importance of providing access to crucial medications at an affordable price, especially in a post-COVID world, where people will experience a significant economic impact. Between the stimulus packages and other efforts to revamp the U.S. economy, you can see the heavy lifting that leaders will have to do for Americans to experience prosperity again.
Health care is an important part of people’s lives. People want health care to be affordable. When it comes to drugs, I want our company to act responsibly and in the patient’s best interest. I expect the other parties to be responsible as well. Beyond health care, in the post-COVID world, every company needs to make an effort to be sensitive to the demands of society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Pablo: My favorite “life lesson quote” is “”Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”.
I regularly remind myself of that quote. I’ve asked our U.S. team, “If we want different results from certain brands, what are we going to do differently?” If you want something new, try something new. If you want different results, try something new. It is good food for thought.
My two other favorite quotes are company slogans. The first is Nike’s slogan, “Just do it.” The second slogan, from The North Face, is “Never stop exploring.” These three sayings tell others a little bit about me. During my career, I have worked at many different places and held a variety of roles. I consistently try new things.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Pablo: I am committed to being very transparent with the company’s results and objectives.
Please visit Almirall at https://www.almirall.com/
Follow Almirall on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/almirall/
You can also follow me on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/pablo-alvarez-phd-81078a/