Sitthichai Olankun sees AstraZeneca on top in 4 years

When Mr. Sitthichai Olankun started working for the Swedish pharmaceutical company Astra 17 years ago, the company ranking among research-based pharmaceutical companies in Thailand was somewhere between number 12 and 13. Today, the company is number 5.
     “And we’re going to be number one within four years,” states Mr. Sitthichai, today the company’s President in Thailand.
     His confidence seems to come from a combination of his own experience in the past 33 years in the pharmaceutical industry, which was met with early and sustained success, as well as his love for the company that is now AstraZeneca.
     AstraZeneca is one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, publicly traded on the London, New York and Stockholm stock exchanges, with sales operations in over 100 countries, 32 manufacturing sites in 20 and major research centers in 5. Globally the company has over 58,000 employees.
     In Thailand, AstraZeneca is a leading supplier prescription medicine to Government and private hospitals, drug stores, and clinics, with 50 years of operations and close to 200 staff. The company focuses on the introduction of new and innovative medicine including high potential products for treating cancer, gastrointestinal disease, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, hypertension, migraines, and schizophrenia, among other illnesses.
     Astra, originally based in Sodertalje, Sweden (where the company’s R&D headquarters remain), merged with the British Zeneca in 1999. The company’s Swedish roots, however, are still apparent to Mr. Sitthichai. He believes that the company strategy in focusing on innovation and quality of its products, people, and services are the company’s main strengths.
     “Working with a Swedish company, I have learned that quality comes first,” says Mr. Sitthichai.
     Quality versus cost has been a major challenge working in the Thai market, he says, where there are a lot of competitors selling generic medicines at far below standard production costs. How these competitors can stay afloat is a mystery to him.
     “I don’t know how they do it. Some of the products I see on the market are sold below what it would cost us to produce them. Ultimately, you’re sacrificing quality assurance producing medicines for such small amounts.”
     “At the end of the day, it’s not worth the price. Not when it comes to your health or the health of the people you love. You want to have 100-percent confidence in the medicine that you bought to be effective and safe.”
     It is that belief which has made AstraZeneca the leader in many categories despite fierce competition. All major products that the company has introduced into the Thai market are the leading brands within their therapeutic classes. The company currently has over 35 products in the Thai market, 10 of them major products for the company, with projected sales for this year at US$ 40 million.
     Mr. Sitthichai says that having the best product in terms of quality makes him a bit apprehensive sometimes, as much of the task is getting the product into the market lead, a task he says usually takes five years or more.
     “Everyone knows that a first-class salesman with a second-best product always outsold a second-class salesman with the best product. Since we have the best products we must ensure that we have the best sales staff in our team and we must invest heavily in providing proper, effective, and regular trainings for our people.”
     He has elaborated the company’s main strategy in promoting pharmaceuticals in Thailand.
     “Firstly by introducing a flow of innovative and high quality prescription medicines that meet the needs of patients and healthcare professionals. Secondly by disseminating correct medical information to healthcare professionals by means of educational support for them to attend either local or overseas symposia and congresses as well as by a face-to-face discussions with customers. And last but not least, by providing our highly qualified sales staff with proper training to ensure that they are able to discuss products and diseases management with healthcare professionals on equal terms as well as to ensure that the high ethical standards are strictly adhered to.”
     Ethical integrity, he says, is another hallmark of Swedish corporate culture, including transparent governance. He says that the company’s rigorous internal practices mean the company can account for and justify every expense from top to bottom. And in an age where giants like Enron are in the public eye for inappropriate management practices, Mr. Sitthichai is glad to work in a company with such high ethical standards.
     “At the end of the day I’m happy. I feel clean and happy.”
     When asked where his interest in Swedish culture comes from, he says it’s mainly from the corporate culture that he has worked for so many years.
     “The thing I believe makes a company Swedish is the combination of trust and autonomy. If you present yourself well, a Swedish manager will say ‘ok’ and then let you prove yourself. That manager will also give you the support you need to help you succeed. I believe this is an excellent corporate culture to work in. It allows people to develop.”
     For those familiar with Sweden, the prevalence of an advanced IT infrastructure is well known. AstraZeneca in Thailand as well utilizes technology to make operations more efficient and to control costs. Even as president of the company, he rarely is flying somewhere when the meeting can be held via videoconference. He suggests the image of top executives burning up company profit in first class tickets and luxurious hotels is not how the company operates. Modern communication allows for people to connect and business decisions to be made without having to fly people all over the world. This is how the company operates around the world while keeping its costs down.
     And as they don’t pamper their executives, they do not overspend when promoting their medicines to doctors.
     “We focus on selling our products on the merits of their high standards and quality.” He says this is partly because of the specific culture of their company and partly because they are rigorous in their efforts to keep operations as transparent as possible.
     “At the end of the day, we have to be transparent to our shareholders. And we are transparent in everything that we do, from top to bottom.”
     Mr. Sitthichai, now 56 years old, married with one daughter, attended Mahidol University to study pharmacy. After finishing his bachelor’s, he worked for the pharmaceutical giant Bayer in Thailand. After two and a half years with Bayer, he decided to further his education and moved to New York to attend Long Island University for his master’s in pharmacy administration (an MBA focusing in pharma business).
     While studying his master’s, he also worked for the US Public Health Service Hospital, something he says made his early career.
     “After I finished working in the US, I came back to Thailand to work for May & Baker, the British pharmaceutical company. At the time, it was rare for a Thai executive in the industry here to have studied and worked abroad, so I brought back with me both my degree and my experience with the US government. That really gave me a broad perspective and an edge in the industry.”
     “With May & Baker we had several breakthrough products at the time I came into the company. One was a vaccine that was very effective, unfortunately, it was also quite expensive compared to other vaccines that were available at the time.”
     He says that this is the period in his career when he learned that sales are paramount. The vaccine he was bringing to the market was significantly more expensive than its competitors, but it had the strength of being 100% effective without causing any adverse event. Convincing doctors and the general public that the cost was worth the benefits to people’s health was a battle, but one that he was able to win many times throughout his career in Thailand.
     He says it’s a slow process, usually taking five or more years, but eventually talking to doctors about the benefits, coupled with patient educational programme, builds awareness that there is a quality choice available that wasn’t before. Eventually, he suggests, quality wins.
     After working with May & Baker for 13 years as a division manager, he went to work for Astra. He says he was proud to go to work with Astra because of the company’s reputation for high standards.
     The main areas that AstraZeneca operates in Thailand are cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, anti-infective, oncology, and respiratory. These reflect the nature of the AstraZeneca’s business as they are medicines of high value, where R&D and quality control play a crucial role.
     Roughly 50% of the company’s products sold in Thailand are imported complete and packaged. Another 50% are locally manufactured by OLIC, a company established to produce medicines for multinational pharmaceutical companies.
     “With OLIC, we have complete control over the entire process. We use our own raw materials, our own formulas and the medicines are produced according to our standards, which we monitor very closely.” This allows the company to lower costs, but still not to the point where they can compete with local generic producers.
     Despite not being able to compete with some producers in terms of cost, Mr. Sitthichai remains confident that quality wins.
     “By 2007, AstraZeneca is going to be number one. To help us get there, we have two exciting new medicines slated for launch. One is Crestor, a lipid (cholesterol) reducing agent that has shown to be the most effective in its class. The other is IRESSA, a new approach for the treatment of advanced non small-cell lung cancer which helps improve the quality of life of patients and does not have the harmful side-effects associated with chemotherapy.”
     To develop these innovative, leading-edge medicines, the company reinvests much of its revenue in R&D. Globally, the company spends more than 10 million US dollars every working day on researching new medicines and improving the ones it already has on the market. The company invests nearly 20% of its sales revenue back into R&D.
     Apart from his work with AstraZeneca, Mr. Sitthichai is also treasurer of the Thai-Swedish Chamber of Commerce. He joined back in the last ‘80s, when it was still the Thai-Swedish Trade Association. The company’s ties to the Swedish community in Thailand made taking this role a logical step.
     “The Swedish community in Thailand is a relatively small, close-knit group. I decided that I wanted to support it in any way that I could.”
     Through the Chamber, AstraZeneca was a major supporter of last February’s State Visit by His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf and Her Majesty Queen Silvia to Thailand, sponsoring two major events of their stay.
     Mr. Sitthichai is elusive about what he does with the rest of his time, but it is safe to say that whatever his interests are, his mixture of Thai and Scandinavian sensibility would take the fore. But it seems that family, AstraZeneca and the people it employs, and ultimately the people that are provided high-quality medicines are his main interest.
     “I’m very proud to work for AstraZeneca. I like the way they work, the way they empower their employees. I like the company’s high ethical standards and transparent governance. I like our high standards of quality. I’m proud to contribute to the company’s success and also to the good health of Thai people.”

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