The Montreal Gazette, September 7, 2003

Novartis Canada fulfills its mandate to improve quality of patients’ lives

By Warren Perley

PHOTO: JOHN MAHONEY-THE GAZETTELouis Nault, shown here with his wife, Sandra, and son, Matthew, has a new lease on life since learning that his leukemia is in remission. He has been using Novartis’ Gleevec, considered a "breakthrough" medication since April 2001.

It takes both statistics and anecdotes to fully appreciate the Novartis commitment to Canadians in the research and development of innovative treatments for disease.

Operating in Canada under the name Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada Inc., the company invests more than $30 million annually in research and development for the treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, women's illnesses, dermatology, infectious diseases, and disorders of the central nervous system - to name just a few.

As part of its activity in 140 countries, Novartis conducts clinical trials worldwide. Of the thousands of people involved in those trials, nine per cent come from Canada. To put that figure in perspective, the United States - with 10 times the population of Canada - provides only 14 per cent of such patients.

The high number of Canadians in clinical trials is testament to the volume and quality of research conducted through Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada. Of the 70 drugs currently under development worldwide by Novartis, 40 are being worked on in Canada, says Jean-Marie Leclerc, vice-president of medical affairs for Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada.

Gleevec is one of the recent "breakthrough" medications brought to market by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada for treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia, which is carried through the bloodstream, and for the treatment of gastrointestinal stromal tumours.

Approved for sale in the U.S. and Europe in the spring of 2001 and in Canada in September 2001, it represented one of the "speediest" approvals ever by government regulatory bodies in Europe and North America, Leclerc said in a recent interview.

Normally, a new medication can take up to 12 years and three phases of clinical trials before being approved for sale by regulatory authorities. The cost of research and development of a new medication can reach $1 billion U.S., he added.

Gleevec was given the green light after five years and two phases of trials because of its overwhelmingly positive results on patients.

Cancer patient reaches out

One of those patients, Louis Nault, is a 42-year-old Lachine warehouse manager who had just about given up hope of beating his leukemia when he first heard about the clinical trials involving Gleevec.

Nault, who describes himself as a "fairly active" individual who tends to be a workaholic, thought he was in good health until he started losing weight in the winter of 1999, about one year after he had transferred to Toronto with his employer, wire and cable distributor Anixter Canada Inc.

At about the same time, he noticed a bump below his rib cage. Subsequent tests at Credit Valley Hospital in Toronto showed he had leukemia and that the bump below his rib cage was his spleen, enlarged due to an excess of white blood cells.

He and his wife, Sandra, who worked in operations management at Anixter, were in "absolute shock," Nault recalled in a recent interview. "The doctors told me that I had between four and seven years to live. They said that my best chance of survival was a bone-marrow transplant and that I should check my family members to see if anyone was compatible."

Unfortunately for Nault, he could not find a compatible donor. Instead, in May 1999, he started on daily injections of interferon. He recalls that the after effects of the treatments were terrible.

"It was a really bad time for me. I was lethargic and had no appetite. The injections affected my memory and left me with a dry mouth," Nault said.

By October 1999, with his platelet count crashing, doctors recommended that his spleen be removed to stop the plummeting of his platelet count. The low platelet count meant that he couldn't continue his interferon treatment, which was needed to try to beat the disease into remission.

In the fall of 1999, Nault had his spleen removed at St. Joseph Hospital in Toronto and went back on the daily injections of interferon until May 2000, when doctors concluded that he wasn't responding to treatment.

One month later, they resumed interferon injections in combination with cytarabine. In September that year, he transferred back to Montreal where Chaim Shustik, a doctor at Royal Victoria Hospital, took over his care.

Working with Novartis, Shustik was involved in the clinical testing of Gleevec in Canada. Nault had read that 10 people in the first clinical test of the drug in the U.S. had all gone into remission from their leukemia. He applied to enter Shustik's clinical study and was accepted in April 2001.

PHOTO: PHIL CARPENTER Jean-Marie Leclerc, vice-president of medical affairs for Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada, says Canadian scientists play a major role in the research of new products.

"I was ecstatic when they accepted me for the Gleevec trial," Nault said. Within two weeks of starting his regimen of four Gleevec pills daily, his white blood cell count was under control. "It was an amazing feeling - I was energetic and my appetite came back."

Health Canada approved Gleevec for sale to the public in September 2001. The insurance plan provided by Nault's employer covers the cost of the eight Gleevec pills he takes daily.

Nault has officially been in remission since January 2003, when bone-marrow tests showed no trace of leukemia. "Before Gleevec, everything looked dismal," he recalled. "Now, I can live again. I have something to look forward to."

Among the events he looks forward to is watching his nine-month-old son, Matthew, grow up. Nault and his wife had been trying to have a child for 10 years; Sandra gave birth on Dec. 28, 2002, while her husband was well into his Gleevec regimen.

Product pipeline is full

It's stories like Nault's that motivated Jean-Marie Leclerc, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Ste. Justine Hospital for the last 20 years, to join Novartis Canada one year ago as vice-president of medical affairs.

"I wanted to be with this company because of all the wonderful products they are working on for patients with different types of diseases," he said in an interview at the company office in Dorval. "Novartis has the best portfolio in the industry."

His department at Novartis has eight medical teams, each of them working on between two and six medications in conjunction with more than 150 doctors and researchers at various Canadian universities and medical centres.

The major Novartis research fields worldwide include:

  • Cardiovascular products for the treatment of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, angina pectoris, heart failure and Type II diabetes.
  • Disorders of the central nervous system, including products to treat patients with schizophrenia, epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and migraine headaches.
  • Gastroenterology (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
  • Dermatology products for the treatment of atopic eczema, fungal infections, psoriasis, wound healing and genital herpes.
  • Respiratory products for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.
  • Rheumatology/bone/hormone-replacement therapy products intended to treat arthritis, osteoporosis and early menopausal symptoms, as well as to prevent the long-term complications of these conditions.

The Novartis oncology unit now ranks as the fastest growing of the world's top five oncology companies. In addition to Gleevec, which treats chronic myeloid leukemia and a specific type of life-threatening gastrointestinal cancer known as GIST, it has also produced: Femara, a first-line hormonal treatment for menopausal women with advanced or metastatic breast cancer; Zometa, for multiple myeloma and for patients with documented bone metastases from solid tumours; and Sandostatin LAR, for patients with acromegaly and with functional GEP tumours.

"Novartis scientists in Canada played a major role in developing these new medications," Leclerc said. "Canadian researchers are recognized worldwide. Novartis is a science-based company that invests heavily in research and development. Our emphasis is on the excellence of our products and the people in our research programs."

In support of research programs, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada donates large sums for fellowships, scholarships and research grants to Canadian medical and educational institutions. It currently supports chairs in seven Canadian universities in the fields of cardiovascular medicine, transplantation, schizophrenia, xenotransplantation, hepatology, neuroscience and pediatric genetics.

Major expansion under way

The high success rate in developing medical treatments at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada has led to additional hiring of staff and the opening of a new $15-million, six-storey head office on Bouchard Ave. in Dorval. Of the 780 employees in Canada, about 350 work at the new head office, which opened just after Labour Day. It's anticipated that close to 100 new jobs will have been created at the new headquarters by the end of this year.

PHOTO: PHIL CARPENTERNovartis Pharmaceuticals Canada opened a new $15-million head office in Dorval this month to accommodate its rapid expansion.

The expansion is a logical extension to its Canadian roots, which run deep. With a heritage stretching back more than two centuries in Europe, the company in 1996 was renamed Novartis after Swiss-based pharmaceutical companies Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz merged. Ciba opened an office in Montreal in 1922 and J.R. Geigy set up office in Canada in 1945. The two companies merged in 1971. Sandoz set up its Canadian operations in the 1920s.

Novartis is a diverse company with divisions ranging from pharmacology to animal health, consumer health and eye care under the name of CIBA Vision. There is excellent communication through the company divisions, with promotion opportunities open to all employees.

Behind the scenes, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada executives such as Shelley Brown, vice-president of human resources, make sure that one of the primary focuses of the company is to recruit high-quality candidates and to stimulate staff to continue their personal development, reaching for new levels in knowledge and responsibilities.

Novartis operates in much the same fashion as a successful sports franchise that emphasizes scouting and player development. The big difference is that when you "play" for Novartis Pharma-ceuticals Canada, you have a window on the world - a chance to keep getting promoted and, if you have the desire, to transfer to any one of the 140 countries where Novartis operates.

A typical international assignment lasts between two and three years; there are programs to help the spouses of those transferred to find employment in their new setting.

The Organizational Talent Review (OTR) is what makes Novartis unique, says Brown.

"Our talent review program is the best of any pharmaceutical company in the world," Brown said in a recent interview at head office. Up-and-coming employees are reviewed four times a year for career advancement - twice at the local level and twice at the international level.

But first, all employees complete development plan questionnaires at the beginning of each year. The training department in human resources then designs an individual training curriculum based on the career goals and objectives expressed by each employee.

The most recent international review occurred on June 13 when Brown flew to Boston with Ludwig Hantson, president of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada, and Brian Flanagan, director of organizational development for Canada. In a hotel conference room overlooking Harvard Square, they met with Thomas Ebeling, CEO of Novartis Pharma Global, to review the job performances of some of their key personnel from Canada.

"We presented 32 profiles of what we call Early Promise Employees - those who could be groomed to replace current vice-presidents when they are promoted," Brown said. "We have binders with the biographies, photos and background information on each of the employees we review.

Mechanism of opportunity

"What's really cool about this is that employees in Canada have an opportunity to be individually showcased to the global CEO. This is a unique feature of our organization. This is a mechanism of opportunity for those with global aspirations, and this is a company that makes peoples' aspirations come true."

PHOTO: PHIL CARPENTERShelley Brown (right), vice-president of human resources, chats with Megan Pickering, who started with Novartis in market research before transferring to sales.

Even the name Novartis reflects the company's commitment to learning and growth - it is derived from the Latin, novae artes, meaning "new skills."

Of the 32 employees profiled at the two-hour meeting in June, there were four or five who were interested in being transferred internationally, Brown said. "Thomas (Ebeling) has a good feel for what our various locations worldwide need in terms of human resources."

It was just such a vetting process that led to the promotion and transfer last spring of Quebec City-born Francis Bouchard, who moved from vice-president of primary care and sales for Canada to vice-president of sales and marketing for France, the third-largest market in the world for Novartis. His wife, Claudie, and three young children, ages 3, 7 and 9, joined him in July.

"The only limit to growth in Novartis is your own performance," Bouchard said in a telephone interview from Paris. "You set your own limits and you go as far as you want.

"OTR is about developing yourself."

Bouchard joined Novartis in Montreal in February 1992 as a market research analyst after getting his MBA from Université de Laval in 1991. What he liked right from the beginning was the fact that employees meet with their managers on a semi-annual basis to discuss their career aspirations.

"It starts with individual self-assessment - how the employee sees himself and what he wants to do," Bouchard said. "The company performance appraisals are then based on objectives, as well as values and behaviours which the manager and employee have agreed upon. All the files are open - the employee knows what the manager thinks of his or her job performance."

Empowering employees

It is that aura of openness and empowerment that motivates employees to want to do their best, Brown said. A recent survey showed that 88 per cent of Novartis employees in Canada feel "favourable" when asked about job satisfaction. When asked about their future at Novartis, 91 per cent had a "favourable" opinion. The consulting firm that conducted the survey called the results "extraordinarily positive."

PHOTO: PHIL CARPENTERLudwig Hantson, president of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada, is dedicated to promoting the best among his staff.

This helps explain why Novartis has an employee voluntary turnover rate of only 3.54 per cent in Canada, compared with an industry average of 10 per cent. Like many of the key personnel in the company, including the president, Ludwig Hantson, Brown worked at a rival pharmaceutical company before joining Novartis 31/2 years ago.

"Many people already in the pharmaceutical industry are looking to join a dynamic company which is willing to invest in its people to stimulate growth," Brown said. "For those people, Novartis is the place to be. We're in growth mode. We've added between 100 and 200 people every year that I've been here."

It might also help explain why, earlier this year, Novartis was chosen by a prominent Canadian business publication as being among the top 20 employers in Canada. Another business magazine survey concluded that Novartis was the No. 1 employer in Quebec in terms of job satisfaction.

Potential managers are vetted and trained extensively in-house before they are entrusted with helping to forge the careers of company employees.

"We send a strong message to our managers that they have a big responsibility to the people who report to them," Brown said. Among other things, managers are expected to give their staff useful feedback, to help them fully utilize their skills and to help them fulfill their career aspirations. To reinforce that message, Novartis has linked 20 per cent of every manager's bonus to how well they manage their people.

In addition to enlightened management, Novartis employees can also expect one of the best rewards packages in the industry made up of competitive base pay, profit-sharing incentives, health-care insurance benefits, stock options, continuing-education programs and pension savings plans in which the company matches employee contributions.

And there are the on-site associate services such as dry cleaning, subsidized meals in the company cafeteria, a concierge service to get tickets for various shows or to plan private parties, a prescription-drug pickup and drop-off, steam cleaning of interior car carpets, and a gym class.

And let's not forget the fresh fruit - including pineapples, strawberries, grapes and melons - available free of charge every morning in the cafeteria. It's one of the favourite perks of Megan Pickering, who joined the company two years ago as a market research analyst after obtaining a bachelor of science degree from Queen's University and an MBA from Concordia.

Pickering, 30, who loves travelling and outdoor sports such as skiing, says she was looking for a career opportunity that would also offer good vacation packages and flexible work hours. She got both with Novartis, starting with three weeks of paid vacation annually and flex hours, which means an employee can choose his or her work hours as long as they are in the office for the core hours of either 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.

Pickering spent 11/2 years in market research, working with three other young staffers in their late 20s or early 30s on a team that would do the research needed before a new medication could be brought to market. Her team worked on Starlix (which is used to treat diabetes), Neoral (an immune suppressor for transplants), and Diovan (for high blood pressure).

"We were a really tight group," Pickering recalls of her three male colleagues on the team. "The synergies were wonderful. We complement one another. Some were strong in analytical skills, while others were strong in making presentations. It was really fabulous."

All four members of the team were promoted within six months of one another to sales, which, together with market research, is part of the training that all young staffers receive, regardless of their ultimate position in the company.

Pickering, who lives downtown, is on the road most days, visiting doctors in their offices and in hospitals, discussing which medications in the Novartis portfolio might match the needs of their patients. Her territory ranges from the West Island to the Ontario border.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF NOVARTISQuebecer Francis Bouchard has been promoted to vice-president of sales and marketing for Novartis in France.

"My role is to offer doctors information on our products which could help their patients," she said. "We also invite them to attend our conferences on continuing education."

The flextime and freedom of the job makes for enthusiastic "associates." For example, Pickering spends an average of eight to nine hours daily on the job and puts in a few hours on weekends, planning ahead. Pickering, who is single and planning a trip to Egypt in the coming weeks, loves the lifestyle and the challenge.

To encourage such high achievers as Pickering, Novartis has instituted what it calls Into The Spotlight awards with various levels of compensation. For example, Tier 1 of the program gives each employee 12 coupons annually, worth about $10 each, which the employee can give to any co-worker as a sign of appreciation. The coupons are good for a meal in the cafeteria. Ten of them can be exchanged for a $100 gift certificate.

Tier 2 awards call for a $250 cash amount in recognition of extra effort expended on a project. Anyone can be nominated by a co-worker. The payout requires a manager's approval. In a similar manner, Tier 3 awards call for a cash prize of up to $750 for extraordinary effort above and beyond what is expected of staff.

President's Awards

Tier 4 awards, known as the President's Awards, are given out at a Christmas ceremony in recognition of outstanding achievements by three individuals. There is the gold prize of $5,000, a silver prize of $3,000 and a bronze prize of $2,000. Employees must be nominated in November by a vice-president. A selection committee of company executives picks the winner one month later, with the recipients being awarded their prizes by company president Ludwig Hantson at a public ceremony. The Belgian-born Hantson appreciates the significance of these awards as symbols of the human excellence that is driving Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada forward in terms of product development and sales.

"We're dedicated to maximizing the development of our employees," Hantson said in an interview. "This is a fast-paced company, where achievement is recognized and achievers are promoted. Due to the excellence of our people, Novartis has launched 10 new products globally through Canada over the last three years, which is much higher than the competition."

Canada is known throughout the world for its world-class researchers and the high standards of its academic institutions, Hantson said. He makes it a point to expedite the career development of "high potential individuals" working at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada.

"We have to develop future leaders because we need more senior managers to keep up with our rapid growth here in Canada," he said.

"It's these leaders who help develop the medicines which can make such a difference in patients' lives."

Warren Perley, a former career journalist, is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a marketing and graphic design studio (