- 10 months ago
20 February 2023
Purpose is everything for Boehringer Ingelheim’s ANZ General Manager Dirk Otto, who arrived in Australia with his family last year to succeed long-time local leader Wes Cook when Cook stepped down after a decade in the job.
The change at the company’s Sydney office is palpable as Otto brings fresh energy and ideas to the local affiliate combined with a strong background in the pharmaceutical industry that has seen him do everything from sales and marketing to warehouse logistics. This company leader not only wants to talk about business strategy, he also wants to know where his boxes are.
Yet whether it is speaking to employees, dealing with stakeholders or pondering business issues, Otto always returns to the same concept – purpose.
“It all relates to your purpose and why you do things,” he tells MedNews when we sit down in the company’s revamped Macquarie Park offices after Otto has treated his staff to an office tour, a pizza lunch, and a pep talk.
“I want to understand with my people why are we doing things and what we want to get out of it. If you are clear about your purpose, then that helps guide you.
“Our purpose statement at Boehringer Ingelheim is transforming lives for generations, and I’m really happy about this. I really believe we can credibly own it because our two businesses [human and animal health] transform lives, and it is also what we are able to do within our company. Many people stay with us for years so we also see how career paths transform lives.”
A desire to travel inspires a career
A family-owned German company that has passed through the hands of four generations, BI’s shareholders make it clear they consider themselves custodians of the business, telling leaders like Otto to ensure it is sustainable for future generations.
Otto says it is this purpose and his personal connection to it that prompted him to join BI seven years ago after 14 years at Bayer, but life sciences wasn’t Otto’s first career choice – he started out in communications, working in the political arena before completing his Masters in International Marketing.
He chose a career in the sector because, he says, “life science is the most international industry you can imagine” and therefore likely to give him the most opportunities to travel – and travel he has. From working as a medical rep, in marketing and market access in South Africa to being loaned to a wholesaler in Japan then head of country in Chile and Spain, Otto epitomises the modern pharma leader with a kaleidoscope of career experiences.
“Life science careers are better when they are cross-functional,” he explains. “I don’t believe in siloed careers. We become better when we see different aspects of the business and we become better at cross-functional collaboration.
“In my career, I’ve seen market access, distribution and global strategic work around assets before they hit the market. It’s good to see that all come together now as I lead an important organisation like BI Australia and New Zealand.”
Everyone has a job to do
Otto is very clear that he has a job to do here in Australia that includes launching future products in areas like mental health while maintaining the company’s dominance in traditional areas like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“We see a different set of assets coming out of the pipeline that will require a different go-to market model and a different way of relating to different customers, while other stakeholders are becoming more important,” he says.
“The organisation needs to flex towards and respond to that. That’s my job as I see it. We have a big clinical trial footprint in Australia and New Zealand and it’s our job to commercialise products [that demonstrate safety and efficacy in trials]. Our job is to take what’s coming out of the innovation pipeline, analyse what the local healthcare system is like, and then make that work.
“My job as a country leader is to figure out what moving parts we need to adjust.”
Now in his third country leadership role, Otto says while some things are done the same way in every markets, others need to adapt to the local environment. In Australia, he says BI has a stronger primary care footprint and he’s keen to see what role the company can play in resolving the GP shortage, particularly in rural and remote areas.
At the same time, the company has specialist products in-market such as lung disease drug OFEV (nintedanib) which require it to partner with a subspecialty of respiratory physicians while a novel glycine transporter-1 inhibitor in late-stage development for schizophrenia is expected to launch in the next few years.
Whether it’s primary or speciality care, Otto says industry needs to talk to doctors as this leads to better patient outcomes.
“We hear a lot of scepticism towards pharma and I want to know how can we open up dialogue a bit better,” he says. “My experience is that when we as an industry are not talking to doctors about how to treat their patients, we don’t get the best outcomes.
“It’s not only about education, it’s about behaviour change. When you come with innovation or a new solution or treatment algorithm or guidelines, they don’t get adopted overnight. Doctors have been treating a certain disease a certain way for years and we know that educational information alone does not change behaviour. It needs nudging.
“We at BI are good at providing that information and reminding doctors that there are better ways to treat their patients, and through that, we also drive commercial outcomes.”
While some leaders may avoid talking about the commercial reality of running a business, Otto comfortably looks it square in the face. He says industry’s job is to bring innovation to address unsolved medical problems, while his job is to ensure products get to people that need them.
“How you approach the market in one therapeutic area is different to how you approach the market in another therapeutic area,” he says. “You need to allow for flexibility within the company. The challenge for the leader is to give each area the space to approach the market in a way the stakeholders you need to play with expect.”
A life outside of pharma
When it comes to purpose, Otto does not restrict this to his career. He has been a member of Rotary since 2009 when he co-founded the Berlin International chapter and has already been appointed treasurer of his new Sydney chapter. A father of two, he is also navigating the treacherous waters of parenting teenagers while trying to get his people, now accustomed to working from home, back into the office.
Otto wants BI employees to come together enough to work creatively and allow for what he calls “serendipity, the spontaneous ideas that happen over a coffee or over lunch”, but not to sit at a desk and write emails. You can do that from home, he tells his team.
“This newly decorated office for me is a gathering place,” he says. “Ideally, I’d like to open it up more to the outside world, to our partners, our customers, to invite people over and not make it just a place where we go to work but a gathering place.”
While he has only been in Australia a little over six months, Otto’s relaxed, jovial manner is evident in all his interactions, and comes to the fore when asked what legacy he would like to leave when he does depart this wide brown land.
“I’m not here to build a legacy!” he laughs. “What we need is to really understand the changing environment of the healthcare system and what that means in our approach in primary care, because primary care is important for the patients that get many of our products and will be important for much that comes out of our pipeline.
“We also need to take a good look at the pipeline, to help enrol clinical trials then, as we get closer to launch, design a tailor-made approach for each area. It sounds very generic, but this is our job in an operating unit. If it means a diversity of approaches, then that’s fine. That’s my job.”