The Montreal Gazette, October 20, 2004

Novartis answers call of patients and community causes worldwide

By Warren Perley

PHOTO: IAN BARRETTNovartis’ Susan Price (left) and Milena Bembic (centre) with Beverley Ostronoff, executive director of the Omega Centre, share in Novartis’ Community Partnership Day.

When most people hear the name Novartis, they think of a multinational corporation with cutting-edge pharmaceutical and medical researchers who develop new health-care products to improve patients’ quality of life.

What the average person doesn’t hear about or see are the individuals within the company who strive to excel not only within the research and medical milieu, but within their local communities. Most Novartis head-office employees participate in Community Partnership Day, which encourages Novartis staffers to put aside their regular work for one day each April in order to perform manual labour at a local charity in the Montreal area.

Milena Bembic, a lawyer in the legal affairs department, and Susan Price, who co-ordinates new-product listings with government and private insurance officials, are two such employees. The women, who work at the Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada Inc. head office in Dorval, join about 10 other staffers in a Novartis team that annually paints various rooms at the Omega Centre, a local charitable foundation.

Other Novartis employees work in the Omega Centre kitchen, on the grounds or with patients at the psychiatric outpatient facility. Nobody has a title that day other than "volunteer."

"It’s a fun, relaxed atmosphere," Bembic said in a recent interview. "We laugh a lot. It feels great to be able to give something back to the community on a personal basis."

Working to improve the conditions of less fortunate community members such as those who frequent Omega Centre "makes us appreciate how much we have," Price said.

"Striking a balance between work and social/humanitarian needs is part of the corporate culture we have at Novartis," Bembic added. "They have innovative programs here to support both staff and the community. Our actions support our philosophy."

Beverly Ostronoff, executive director of Omega Centre, said that Community Partnership Day "is wonderful because it provides physical help for tasks which otherwise would not get done due to budget constraints, and it makes us feel like we’re not forgotten."

Novartis first started donating time to Omega Centre in 1998. There have also been two fundraisers on behalf of Omega among Novartis staffers in the last six years. Ostronoff describes the Novartis volunteers as a "wonderful group of people" who get things done while mingling with the clients who make use of the centre.

Among Novartis’ other local beneficiaries are a home for the elderly, cancer palliative care facilities, the Salvation Army and Meals on Wheels.

"In many ways, it’s easier for a corporation to sign a cheque than to donate time," Ostronoff said. "Most companies are busy running their businesses. They don’t think about the less fortunate members of the community. We really appreciate the time that Novartis staffers give to us. The Community Partnership Day is hectic, but fun - lots of dripping paint. We have a great time."

Volunteerism tied to leadership

Nobody appreciates the significance of Community Partnership Day more than Ludwig Hantson, president of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada Inc. He sees the one-day effort as part of Novartis’ year-round commitment to developing leadership qualities within the company, within the local community and around the globe. With 78,500 employees working in more than 140 countries, Novartis is in the rare position of being able to act both globally and locally.

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

Partnering with the community is one area where Novartis shows its values. Another is in its research and development of novel medications to treat a variety of conditions.

"Our Canadian researchers are developing innovative products to treat illnesses and diseases worldwide," Hantson said.

Of the 10 most innovative compounds developed by Novartis worldwide, the Canadian research and development team is a core contributor in all but one.

Furthermore, the number of clinical trials in Canada has increased a whopping 83 per cent since 2001. This year alone, more than 10,000 Canadian patients are involved in Novartis clinical trials, making Novartis Canada the fourth-largest contributor of new patients in company clinical trials after the U.S., Germany and France. Given the size of Canada’s population, this is an amazing feat.

The high number of Canadians in clinical trials is testament to the volume and quality of research conducted through Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada. Of the 63 drugs currently under development worldwide by Novartis, 38 are being worked on in Canada, said Jean-Marie Leclerc, vice-president of medical affairs for Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada.

Despite Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada being responsible for only two per cent of the company’s worldwide drug sales, the Canadian affiliate contributes five per cent of the patients to clinical trials worldwide.

The major Novartis research fields worldwide include:

  • Cardiovascular products, such as Diovan, for the treatment of hypertension and products for hyperlipidemia, angina pectoris and heart failure.
  • Disorders of the central nervous system, including products to treat patients with schizophrenia, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder and migraine headaches.
  • Gastroenterology (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
  • Dermatology products for the treatment of atopic eczema, fungal infections, psoriasis, wound healing and herpes infections.
  • Organ transplantation and Immunology.
  • Ophthalmology.
  • Respiratory products for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.
  • Type II diabetes.
  • 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.
  • Treatment for overactive bladder.

The Novartis oncology unit is the fastest growing of the world’s top five oncology companies. Among its most widely distributed pharmaceutical products are:

  • Gleevec, which treats chronic myeloid leukemia and a specific type of life-threatening gastrointestinal cancer known as GIST;
  • Femara, a first-line hormonal treatment for menopausal women with advanced or metastatic breast cancer;
  • Zometa, for patients with bone lesions (metastases) from multiple myeloma or solid tumours, like breast cancer and prostate cancer; 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 recognition of its development of Gleevec, Novartis last year was awarded the Prix Galien, the most prestigious award for innovation in the pharmaceutical industry.

Femara, also developed by Novartis researchers in Canada, was studied last fall in MA17, an independent trial co-ordinated by the National Cancer Institute of Canada, as a biweekly oral treatment effective in reducing breast cancer mortality.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, on June 29, granted priority review to Novartis’ supplementary new drug application for Femara (letrozole) for extended, post-surgical treatment of early breast cancer in postmenopausal women who have completed standard tamoxifen therapy.

Helping the Third World

"This is a fast-paced company, where achievement is recognized and achievers are promoted," Hantson said. Underlying the recognition of achievement at Novartis is a moral commitment to the fair and ethical treatment of Third World countries which look to the West for help in developing their health infrastructure.

On July 5, for example, Novartis announced the official opening of the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases in Singapore’s new Biopolis research facility. The institute focuses on advanced biomedical research for neglected diseases, initially dengue fever and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

The mission statement of the Singapore-based institute specifies that its objective is "to make treatments readily available and without profit in those developing countries where these diseases are endemic."

Novartis is also committed to delivering free drugs to all leprosy patients in the world through the World Health Organization.

The Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development (NFSD) is another nonprofit foundation that collaborates with non-governmental organizations at the local level in Third World countries to improve economic, social and environmental conditions. There are 2.8 billion people worldwide who live on less than $2 U.S. per day.

The NFSD deals not only with the medical aspects of disease through donations of medicines, but also with its social aspects. In the African country Tanzania, for example, the foundation has established a program in conjunction with Terre des Hommes Switzerland to provide social and psychological counselling to some of the more than one million orphans whose parents died of AIDS.

Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada plays an active part in Novartis’ international humanitarian efforts, Hantson said. Health Partners International, for example, is a Montreal-based organization that facilitates the provision of medical products to underdeveloped countries. In 2003, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada donated about $750,000 worth of such medicines to the Third World through this organization.

Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada also donates hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to Canadian charities such as those dealing with oncology treatments, women’s health and children’s issues.

Hantson’s enthusiasm for responsible corporate citizenship permeates the entire organization at the company’s Canadian headquarters. Stuart Kruger, vice-president of legal and corporate affairs, has established a team to develop a Canadian Corporate Citizenship program aimed at expanding and strengthening the good corporate citizenship ethos in Canada.

Advocates fair labour practices

Kruger proudly points to the fact that in the year 2000, Novartis was the first pharmaceutical company to sign the United Nation’s Global Compact which, among other things, seeks to eliminate unfair labour practices.

PHOTO: IAN BARRETTStuart Kruger, Vice-president of legal and corporate affairs at Novartis.

In some parts of the world that entails putting an end to child labour and establishing reasonable minimum wages. In a country such as Canada, it might mean that Novartis would refuse to use suppliers who do not promote equality in the workplace or who do not respect principles of environmental conservation, Kruger said.

When Novartis built its new $15-million head office on Bouchard Blvd. in Dorval last year, the company reconfigured the building via satellite to save 40 trees, Kruger said. Some trees which did have to be cut down were cut into firewood and, with the help of the city, were donated to needy residents in the local community.

Novartis does not get involved with suppliers who do not meet its policy requirements, and will terminate relationships if they are in breach of these policies.

"We want to go beyond just giving money to charities," Kruger said. "We want to ensure that business decisions are based on strong ethics."

The high ethical and educational standards in Canada have established this country as a major talent pool to supply Novartis with senior managers worldwide, the company’s president said. Hantson proudly points to a new training initiative for "high-potential individuals" begun by Novartis Canada last year and known as the Accelerated Leadership Development Program (ALDP).

Benoît Lemelin, director of organizational development for Canada, said the program is intended to fill the gap between training for new employees and the courses set up for those at the highest levels of the company.

The course focuses on the various passages leaders face as they move up the ranks and have to learn to delegate in order to manage increasingly larger company units comprising more people. Each passage represents a major change in job requirements that translates to new skill requirements, new time horizons and applications, as well as new work values.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF NOVARTIS)Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada Inc. opened its new corporate headquarters in Dorval last year.

"Canada is seen as one of the top Novartis pharmaceutical centres in terms of its human-resources practices," Lemelin said. "We’re a great training centre for international leaders because of the mix of European and American cultural influences in Canada."

The ALDP, an eight-month program, operates in partnership with McGill University’s International Executive Management Institute, which conducts four days of intensive training for those in the program.

Before heading off to McGill, the Novartis staffers are asked to answer a series of self-assessment questionnaires that analyze their leadership qualities and their learning styles. They establish the baseline of their strengths and weaknesses as potential leaders. They are encouraged to take advantage of the ALDP to strengthen any weaknesses identified in their self-assessment questionnaires.

The McGill course themes are:

  • Reflections on becoming a leader;
  • Leading in groups;
  • Mastering the art of continuous innovation through group work; and
  • Leading in times of disruptive change.

Participants are asked to analyze business problems, first as individuals and then on a team basis.

"We got consistently higher results in solving the problems when we acted as a team," Lemelin said.

More than half of the dozen employees who took part in the first ALDP session last year have been promoted, Lemelin said. The program has already been cited as a "best practices" initiative by the company’s international headquarters and is in the process of being emulated in other countries where Novartis is established.

PHOTO: courtesy of Jacques DessureaultJacques Dessureault, his wife Élise, son Carl and daughter Chloé, enjoy the Swiss Alps prior to their return to Canada.

Among those promoted were Jacques Dessureault who, in August 2003, was transferred to Basel, Switzerland, where he headed global respiratory marketing for Novartis for 14 months until a more recent promotion brought him back to Canada as vice-president of Novartis’ cardiovascular business franchise.

Dessureault, 40, who started with Novartis as a sales director for eastern Canada in 1994, calls the ALDP "one of the best programs of my professional career because it focused on cross-functional teamwork based on performance-driven goals."

The program showed him how leadership rotates through a team, he said in a recent telephone interview.

"Strong leaders need to accept empowering others on their team. I applied this lesson in global marketing, and will apply it in my new position within the Canadian operations. It allows me to take the long-term view, which is a key requirement in my new function."

Dessureault enjoyed his stint overseas with his wife Élise, their son, Carl, 12, and daughter, Chloé, 9.

"The international rotation was a fantastic experience because it allowed us a different perspective," he said. "It has given my children wings to see the world and to expand their horizons. They had the chance to learn English and start learning German in school."

Jean-Charles Hébert was promoted to vice-president of health policy and reimbursement, after taking the ALDP course with Dessureault last year.

"The quality of the people and the exchanges were great in the three learning projects we did as part of the program last year," Hébert said. The learning projects are based on "real-life" projects which Novartis has identified as priorities, he added.

One of the learning projects from last year’s program was to develop a plan on how to make the most of the products from one of the company’s departments.

"The value of the project was so clear to me that, in my current role as vice-president of health policy and reimbursement, I requested this year’s group of employees take on a learning project that will be of direct benefit to the business - looking at the future partnerships between Novartis and various levels of government.

"It’s important to have real projects where we use our expertise, but at the same time are forced to go outside our comfort zone," Hébert, 45, said.

"The biggest difference between Novartis and other large pharmaceutical companies is about growth. Here, we’re open to new ideas and ways of doing things differently. ALDP is rotating individuals into new positions and creating a lot of fresh ideas within the company."

PHOTO: IAN BARRETTShelley Brown, vice-president of human resources, and Benoit Lemelin, director of organizational development, help oversee the Accelerated Leadership Development Program.

Shelley Brown, vice-president of human resources who helped establish the ALDP, focuses on recruiting high-quality candidates and stimulating them to reach new levels in knowledge and responsibilities.

There is an Organizational Talent Review of up-and-coming employees four times a year - twice at the local level and twice at the international level.

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 aura of openness and empowerment helps explain why Novartis has a voluntary turnover rate among employees of only 3.54 per cent in Canada, compared with an industry average of 10 per cent.

In addition to enlightened management, Novartis employees can 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.

There are 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.

To encourage high achievers, Novartis has instituted what it calls Into The Spotlight awards with various levels of compensation.

"We put a lot of emphasis in developing our people," Hantson said. "Leadership is about setting standards of excellence - within our company, within our local communities and on the world stage."

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