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PROFILE: UCB's Tellier on the CEO life and pharma reputation

This article was originally published in Scrip

Executive Summary

Jean-Christophe Tellier joined UCB back in 2011, leading the firm's BioBrands and Solutions division, before becoming CEO-elect in March 2014. One year later, UCB's official new chief talks to Scrip about the changes he has faced and what has surprised him most in his new role as head of the company.

Jean-Christophe Tellier

An artist at heart, Mr Tellier has built up a 25-year+ career in the pharmaceutical industry in various positions, including time at Ipsen, Macrogenics and Novartis, in different parts of the world.

He is the main architect of the new Patient Value organization UCB has recently implemented and continues to push patient-centricity at his company – which became the first sizable pharmaceutical company to employ a "chief patient officer."

In this latest addition to Scrip's Executive Profile series Mr Tellier describes how being a CEO changes what you can and can't say, considers the future for pharma's "bad reputation," and observes that feedback is the best gift one can receive.

Scrip: You have risen to a leadership position in your field. What are the key factors that got you here?

Jean-Christophe Tellier: An open mind. You have to take challenges and not think too much about them. That way you get exposed to new situations and can see what you like and what you don't like. You can see where you can create value and, based on that, move forward.

Scrip: What are your own long term aspirations?

JCT: The question has always been "What impact can you have?" but when you engage yourself in the biopharma industry, in an innovation-based company like UCB, the question becomes "How can you achieve impact on the life of patients?"

There are still many areas of high unmet medical need despite all the progress that has been made in the past years. Making sure patients get the benefit of the science, that gives us our sense of purpose and I very much like that. It's something very inspiring.

Scrip: You were CEO-elect of UCB for almost one year and are now CEO. What has been the most difficult part of your new job?

JCT: I don't know about the most difficult, but there are two things that have really surprised me. One is that there is nothing I can say anymore that isn't recorded. In this kind of position everything you say is perceived as a message. The second is the speed at which my agenda becomes fully booked. Even a year in advance: it's pretty amazing.

Scrip: What are your predictions for the company in 2015 and the wider pharma industry?

JCT: The industry is at a turning point. Expectations for health have increased significantly and a big part of that change is driven by the innovation achieved by the industry. However, the reputation of the industry is somewhat behind. It's not yet aligned with the value we have created. In the future though, more so than in the past, people will start to recognize true innovations.

Also, we are becoming more able to understand which treatment is best suited to a specific type of patient and this has a very important role in the development of new, differentiated products. Making solutions for each type of patient, all with different expressions of a disease, is an interesting moment for us and the whole industry. Meanwhile, partnerships between industry, regulators and providers are becoming stronger, because we are all working with the same goal in mind – creating value for the patients.

Scrip: Tell us about one change you effected in your organization that you believe was invaluable.

JCT: This is a difficult question. At the end of the day the working culture you create is the best recipe for success. To instill value in this world is complex; it requires trust and collaboration. You need to put different expertise together. You need people from separate teams working together and this is not an easy thing to do in a big corporation. It's the culture that allows those teams to work really well as one and to be generous with each other. It's difficult to measure the success of this, but everything I can do to stimulate this unique culture will allow best performance to be sustainable at the business.

Scrip: What are the key things that shaped you when growing up?

JCT: I grow each time I am exposed to a new situation. Moving from school, to med school, to industry…each time I tried to do something different to see how I could face the challenges.

Scrip: What was the first step in your pharma career?

JCT: My first pharma job was in the marketing department of Synthélabo, a company which merged with Sanofi in 1999. I started there back in 1988. I was in charge of a little bit of everything, training of the reps, marketing, clinical trials, support of the key opinion leaders. So it was really great because it was very diverse and a completely new area that I didn't know about.

Scrip: And what about your first ever job?

JCT: My first job is much less interesting. I was 16 and I worked in a cardboard factory. I'm from the champagne region; I was packing champagne into cardboard boxes. I worked there in the summer.

Scrip: If you weren't a pharma executive, what would you be?

JCT: If I had the talent I would love to be an artist – a painter. It’s a hobby of mine.

Scrip: Who was your biggest influence, and why?

JCT: I don't have just one main influence. But in med school there was somebody who inspired me. Most teachers would lecture in front of a lot of students and you had to do most of the work by yourself. But suddenly I was exposed to a teacher who was really passionate and I realized what a difference it made versus the other teachers. He was a cardiologist and he was able to explain things, difficult parts of medicine, to 800 students and after 30 seconds everybody was listening. That was a huge influence on me because it made me understand that when you are passionate about something you can learn, you can teach, you can share and then you can create.

Scrip: What is the best advice you've ever had?

JCT: The best advice I was given is that feedback is a gift. There are sometimes things you don't want to hear, but you need to have the approach that when someone comes to tell you a response it's for the good, it's for you to get better. Whatever the information is, it is a gift.

Scrip: Tell us something surprising about you.

JCT: I don't know what I can share that would really be a surprise but I mentioned I would love to be an artist. So I suppose people that didn't know that before might be surprised that when I get five minutes to spare I like to go to art exhibitions. For example when I was last in San Francisco, I spent time at the San Francisco Art Institute on some evenings.

Scrip: You were at Novartis before UCB, what did you learn there?

JCT: I learnt almost everything at Novartis. My time there exposed me to a lot of situations. In particular, I was there at the time of the merger of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz Laboratories. It was a fantastic experience because I was still relatively young and it was a merger between equals, it was not one the winner, the other the loser. We wrote from scratch a new operating model from A-Z in 1996.

Also during my eight years at Novartis I moved through different positions, in different countries. I was very privileged to be exposed to many, many situations that I learnt a lot from.

Scrip: What is your favorite book, and why?

JTC: It's by a French author I discovered years ago, but who recently won the Nobel Prize in literature, Patrick Modiano. I love his books because he has unique way of writing. You read the first sentence of each of his books and you recognize his style. It's really marvelous. There is nothing complex, his books are simple works, but he has a way of putting words together to create a unique music. He is very famous for that. I first discovered Modiano when I read La Place de l'étoile [a wartime novel about a Jewish collaborator, published in 1968]. I have read many books by him since.

Scrip: Tell us one myth about the industry that you'd like to set straight.

JTC: I hate that people think we are only here to make money from disease. I hate that pharma still has this bad reputation. In reality we are here to give physicians the tools they need to treat their patients. We are here to make sure those patients get better or can live a more normal life. We are not recognized for that and it's our own fault. But we do have the opportunity to change this. Without pharma there would be no medications, which are highly responsible for the increase in life expectancy we see today.

At the end of the day we are all in the same team – pharma, payers, regulators and providers – we all want to help patients. By building trusted relationships towards these partners pharma can change its reputation.

The final customer is the patient. We need to better understand the role of the patient, especially as they become more and more active in the way they want to treat their own disease. Creating a new drug is difficult and then understanding which patients will benefit from that drug is complex. We are moving away from technical solutions to holistic solutions to make sure that all the patients that need a drug get access and are able to understand their treatment. Compliance is a big challenge and to meet it we need to understand and listen to patients.

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