S02 E06

Managing a Merger During Covid-19


Denis Hello

General Manager

AbbVie Canada

In the sixth episode of our second season, Peter Brenders, CEO of the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation, talks with Denis Hello, General Manager of AbbVie Canada, about the acquisition of Allergan during the pandemic and Canada's unique healthcare landscape from an outside perspective.



Thank you for downloading the NPC podcast from the National Pharmaceutical Congress for November 25 2020. This program is all about discussing and considering the purpose, process and people of the pharma industry during the Age of Covid. Today we're continuing the healthcare conversation by answering questions sent by listeners like you. 


This program is presented in cooperation with Impres, Impres best in class commercial solutions offer top line and bottom line growth with maximum sales force, flexibility, speed and efficiency. Learn more about their next generation commercial model at www.impres.com.


On today's podcast, our guest is Denis Hello, President of Abbvie Canada in Montreal. Coming to you today from historic Fredericton is your host for today's podcast, Peter Brenders, CEO of the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation. 


But first, here's Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies.




Thanks Liona. Nice to see you again. After our break. You're looking relaxed. What's happening?




Thanks. It's nice to see you too. Well, I'm just getting ready for all the Black Friday sales this week. I thought I'd buy my mom one of those tech devices that talks to you with a synthesized voice. Do you have one?




No, but maybe this is the year. 


Meanwhile, let's get back to our work answering questions we received about the life sciences business and how the second wave of Covid is shaking our foundations. 


If you'd like to send us a question, just call our NPC comment line anytime at 647-875-9011. 


A big story in the pharma world during the past year has been the acquisition of Allergan by Abbvie. The deal which closed this May is often described as transformational for Abbvie. 


It's never easy integrating two businesses, but imagine trying to do that during the pandemic and further imagine that you're a new CEO just brought into Canada while Covid was rewriting everyone's business plans. 


This week's guest Denis Hello came to Canadian HQ this spring. What did he find on his arrival? Here he is in conversation with Peter.




Welcome to the NPC podcast. I'm Peter Brenders, your host. In our continuing to look at the purposem process and people in pharma, this episode explores the views of a new Canadian resident and his experience of doing a merger during a pandemic. Joining me today is the new General Manager of Abbviey Canada: Monsieur Denis Hello. Bienvenue Denis!




Thank you.




So Denis, I understand you've recently taken on this country role coming from France. So what are your first impressions of Canada and the environment for our industry?




Okay, so may I start, because it's something very special. I entered Canada the 8th of March. So, went through the immigration office in 20 minutes and my first contact with Canada was very positive because the customs officifer was smiling and very welcoming. So, which is what you would not expect this in France. 


So very good first impression. So then the Covid and four days after being in Canada, I had to make a decision for the whole organization to work remotely. So to set back all my people to home, so this is a kind of first impression of Canada but beyond this, I knew this before I was coming, it's from a pharma and healthcare point of view, it's a sophisticated country with many complexities with federal and provincial state. 


So it's really very interesting as a country because I had some diverse experience in Europe going from Portugal to Turkey, Israel, France. And to some extent in Canada, you are mixing all models of healthcare systems, which is quite interesting as a newcomer.




I understand Abbvie employees, you have almost 1000 scientists, researchers, pharmaceutical marketing professionals in Canada, I mean, this is a huge, a very large operation of high skilled professionals. What is it about Canada that supports this level of investment for a global company?


First, the medical needs in Canada are quite significant. So what is driving our presence is firstly that many patients can benefit from our drugs. The second thing is that we we are very present because we've got a very rich portfolio of medicine. To develop this medicine, we are also making sure that we are doing many clinical trials in the countries where we are. So in Canada, for example, for that stage, we are running more than 100 clinical trials involving more than 3,000 Canadian patients. 




So it's sizeable but this is a way we do things basically. We are present where we've got patients who can benefit from our drugs. So and we've got a very strong pipeline of new products too. And by definition, we are interested to make sure that Canadian patients would get access to this medicine. So yes,




So, huge medical need. But we're also a very complex country, we've heard that time and again, from many a company. And when you think about those challenges that are in front, how difficult does that make your job talking to your global head office about sort of keeping Canada as a priority?


I believe the most difficult thing to keep Canada on top of the agenda is that it's quite long to get reimbursement for product. So Canada, compared to other countries, it takes nearly three years from the time the medicine is filed that from a regulatory point of view to the time that it's reimbursed in public. So this is quite challenging. And I would say that for a company like ours, well, if we do well, over the next few years, for example, in Canada, we should be launching more than 20 new product on new indications. Timing is important. 




So this is challenging, but we need to be good partners, we are willing to listen to our stakeholders. So, even if it is not easy, we are positive and we are trying to find a way to be collaborative. And as a consequence, okay, even if it takes longer than in some other countries. At the end of the day we get access and our patients are getting access so this is why we are still committed to be in Canada. Because at the end of the day, it matters to us too. And I would say that Abbvie in Canada is second, I forget, behind the US? So, we are committed to Canada.




Fantastic news to hear the story of Abbvie's investment in Canada. And so let's talk about that first piece of that we raised in terms of your first day and four days afterwards when Covid hits. 


So let's talk a little bit about sort of what that's done for your operations. And in particular, I mean, Abbvie, you guys went through a major acquisition during these uncertain times. So give the audience some insight in terms of what key learnings and insights you can offer us related to not just a merger, but in a merger like that, in Covid.


It's a very particular exercise. But the first thing I would like to say that our first week of Covid, a crisis, we are dedicated at making sure that our patients would keep access to our medicines, and we spent a lot of energy making sure this was happening in partnership with Health Canada, okay. 




And while we were doing this, we were also, yes, integrating Allergan as a new company. So there was a lot of transfer of information, transfer of knowledge, we made sure that Allergan people are the buddy in Abbvie so that they would be integrated faster. The good thing is that this measure is positive, because we've got two complimentary pipelines. We've got very similar culture and despite of the virtual environment, we were able to collaborate efficiently very quickly. Which was a great. 




The learning is that it was possible because our people are committed. So as you might know, we are one of the companies which is recognized as a great place to work. Our culture is very strong, very positive, our people have committed to do well for the patient, for the HCPs. And in this difficult time, it was really our North Star, which was "okay, how do we get things done to make sure that patients and HCPs and the healthcare system is not suffering from any deficiencies on our side?" So it has helped, in fact, to integrate faster, which is the products. But it has been quite helpful to to know what was essential for both companies.


So it's a great story to hear about sort of everyone focused on what the end goal is on how do you help to drive that patient care. But are there any examples you can give us in terms of some best practices like things you've learned through this integration that worked particularly well, or even some things you might have learned the integration that you tried and it was like "that didn't work", so you had to pivot and change?


So we were very good at going very fast to the virtual environment, providing support to the HCP so that they could prescribe our drug, which Covid-19 around in the best condition as possible. And our team has done a tremendous job in making sure that this was happening. And it is recognized too, so we've got some surveys, which are telling us Abbvie is considered as one of the best companies in this to reply to the crisis. So a lot of learning from this. A lot of learning from these new interactions with patients and HCPs too which are more virtual with more telemedicine, for example. So we've learned very quickly and very fast and this will last for the future too, which is quite interesting.




You're listening to the NPC Podcast. Our guest today, General Manager of Abbvie Canada, Monsieur Denis Hello.


Did you find yourself in a situation where you had to come up with new training programs? You talked about sort of helping the HCPs understand how to interact with your companies. But what about helping your people learning how to use these new tools?


Yea, perfectly right. The first few months of the Covid crisis, we had to develop many, many trainings to make sure that our employees would be able to deal adequately with all the new technologies which are available and making sure that our interactions were very impactful as it should be, and that the scientific communication was going on too. 




So yes, we spent many hours training our people. Many, many. And we are still, with wave two, we are still investing a lot in training our people, because it's going to be, even if we will be back to normal life at some stage, or is this digitalization and these virtual interactions will stay. Will stay. So we need to be good at it.




All right, well, let's talk about sort of that prediction in terms of will be normal at some stage in the future. So A), can you give us a sense on what you guys are thinking is sort of a more normal future? When's that gonna happen? And how do you see sort of some of these changes in place? How do you see them staying?


I don't have a crystal ball. And nobody can say exactly, but I will- so the better, the latest information we have got about vaccines and the way the virus is evolving, I would, our planning assumption, it's a planning assumption that is the second half of 2021, we should see, we should be back too, close to normal activities. 




With this being said, as we've learned a lot during this period. And so yes, virtual interactions, which were marginal before the Covid crisis are going to stay because you can have a lot of qualitative interaction with HCPs with patient using the virtualization. We still, we know that everybody needs the human interaction, for sure. But if it is complemented with the right tool, that can be very efficient. And that can help to save time to be more efficient in caring with the patient, making sure that they are getting the right care at the right time in the right way. So it's complementing and we are using this period to innovate and to reinvent ourselves too in the way we are doing things.




So that's an exciting change as you think about any company that's taking advantage of the horror that is Covid. But what's the plus on that one to reinvent yourself? Can you give us some examples on on aspects that you think you've you've seen a major change in your approach?




We've got a very sophisticated patient support program for example, well, we've got more than 50,000 Canadian patients which are supported by this. And what for sure, during this crisis, we have improved the way we interact with our paitnet, we were quite anxious to make sure that if our patients were losing coverage, because of they were losing their job, for example and moving from private to public scheme, we would be in a position to ensure the transition would not end up as a problem with our care, in fact. So we develop new tools, which are making us more efficient at identify issues and resolving them for the patient.




You're listening to the NPC Podcast. I'm Peter Brenders, your host.


I guess one other aspect in the in the environment, we talked about the complexity and environment. And you mentioned a little bit about in terms of interaction with government. Are you finding in these Covid times and you think about sort of the the footprint of Abbvie in Canada, how much you do, how many people you have. Are you finding your interactions with government stronger than they've been in the past? Or how have things changed in working with the complex Canadian system?


I must say that before the crisis our interaction with the government were good, as I told you, we try to be a good partner. And during this crisis, well, a lot of coordination was needed. I would take one example with Health Canada, we needed to be very well coordinated to make sure that our supplies of medicine would come in due time in Canada, there would be no shortages, it would be well managed. This has been done with a very good working relationship with reciprocity. 




So I think that Covid, it is creating some problems, which are absolutely legitimate. Some people in the healthcare authorities had to spend much more time dealing with Covid than dealing with pharma companies. And as a consequence, it was not, the access was not so easy. But good will is there. So our relationship is, I would say, good. 




So let me ask you one more question. So it sounds like you guys have done a lot of great things, had some great accomplishments over over these last number of months through the Covid time. But surely, everything couldn't have been perfect. And so if you were to go back, if you knew then what you know now, what would you have changed or tried to have been in front of earlier?


I must say, maybe I'm too pretentious, but I don't believe and it's not me, it's as a community of people, I don't believe we made many mistakes. In fact, we did some, we try things, a few things which didn't work, but nothing major. If I look at what again, what was essential for us and is still essential, which is making sure that patients have access to our medicine, making sure that the HCPs were in good shape, and they're well informed about our product and as Abbvie, we are also fully dedicated at changing the standard of care. So we've done this, even with a virtual environment. And I believe that what we see the outcome is overall is satisfactory with no, again, no big mistake, I think. It's just maybe I'm too pretentious but I don't think so. I think we've done well. 


Fantastic. So let me ask you one last question then. 


As you think about in terms of the leadership and success that Abbvie has had, think about it in terms of the industry we're at large. What have we done? Or more importantly, what more should we as an industry, of a pharma industry in Canada, what should we be doing to help the industry be a positive force for Canadian patient care?


If I may, I consider that we are positive for patients. By definition though, I don't know one pharma company which would be able to live and survive, if at the end of the day, it was not good for patients. 




The only thing I regret personally but is not specific to Canada is our reputation is bad as an industry. So, anything we can do to make sure that this reputation is better, it would be welcome, but it is quite a difficult subject. Because if you ask people, if they liked the pharma industry, they will tell you not really if you ask people if they like the medicine they are taking, they tell you they are very satisfied with the medicine they are taking. So, maybe we need to deal with this.




I think that's an interesting point is maybe the population needs to understand where those benefits come from and how do we showcase what you've just explained to us in terms of the strong advantages that companies like Abbvie are doing? 


Any last words or thoughts? Counsel you'd like to give the Canadian audience?




Back to one of your comments, I believe it says it is critical that as an industry, we are collaborative, we are working with a strong partnership with all stakeholders. And it is also critical we are staying focused on making sure that the solutions we are providing will help to have a system-level healthcare system. It'sa challenge for many countries and this is our duty and we need to stay committed to this.




You have been listening to the NPC podcast. I'm Peter Brenders your host. Our guest today was Monsier Denis Hello, General Manager of Abbvie Canada. 


Thank you for listening.




Thanks to Denis and Peter. 


It'll be interesting to keep an eye on the ophthalmic and esthetics products in the Allergen portfolio under the new management. 


You're invited to watch along with us by subscribing to the NPC Podcast at Google Podcasts, Apple iTunes, Stitcher and other sites. Catch up on episodes you've missed at www.pharmacongres.info and learn a few things. 


Right now we're organizing the NPC winter webinar, scheduled for Wednesday, February 10th. Circle the date and if you have suggestions about subjects and speakers, just send a message to health@chronicle.org


Or you can call our comment line. Leave your name, a callback number, and a comment or question. The best questions will get used on future NPC Podcasts call 647-875-9011. 


The NPC Podcast was presented in cooperation with Impres. Canada's next generation commercial partner. Learn more www.impres.com


In Toronto, I'm Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies. Jeremy Visser produced this episode. The announcer was Liona Boyd Visser. 


Have a great week and stay safe. We'll see you again on December 2.