Janssen’s revolutionary new leader

By Megan Brodie 3 years ago | In Companies, People
  • 3 years ago
Janssen MD Biljana Naumovic

16 June 2021

Biljana Naumovic is a revolutionary. Not just in her past, although it is an important part of her history, but in her DNA. She is a woman determined to change the world – and she’s not one to take no for an answer.

In truth, the recently arrived managing director of Janssen in Australia and New Zealand is a little intimidating when you first meet her. From the husky tone in her voice to the way she occasionally just stops, searching for the right words to annunciate exactly what she means, to the depth of her convictions, Naumovic has a sharp intelligence and a magnetism that makes it almost impossible to look away.

Her life story perhaps gives an insight into why she stands out as being unlike other company leaders who have landed on our shores. While all share a passion for serving patients, Naumovic goes further. She sees access to medicines as a justice issue and is not prepared to sit by and keep the company seat warm while waiting for the wheels of Australian bureaucracy to slowly turn.

The daughter of a pharmacist and an economist, Naumovic had a charmed childhood travelling the globe. Yugoslavia was like a mini-European Union to her, a melting pot of cultures in which the young Biljana delighted being a part of, recalling having friends everywhere.

“I was brought up to be a citizen of the world thinking that every person deserves a chance, that all cultures are equally important, that all religions are equally important. Then in the nineties, the war started.”

Just 14 at the time, she endured three years of hostilities in her homeland before deciding something had to change. As a teenager, all she could change was her location, so she orchestrated a move to the United States.

“I was 17 and as scared as you can imagine,” she says. “I had nobody in the US, not a single person. But it was unbearable to be in a country that was falling apart and be helpless to do anything about it.”

News of Serbian war crimes spread to her mid-west home and, while Naumovic worked multiple jobs to financially support herself through high school, she was taunted by people assuming they understood what was happening in her homeland.

“Transitioning to the US was far from smooth at the time. People spoke about the war, and I had to justify being Serbian – something of which I am proud on so many levels – while building a place for myself in a new society.

“It was character building. Your experiences build you. How you are raised builds you. It has given me a strong sense of belief that there is nothing that can’t be done. I don’t like accepting the status quo; there is always better. I am a grounded optimist and I like to progress things for the longer term.”

Joining the Serbian revolution

One of the huge benefits of her American education was that Naumovic was awarded a full scholarship to study medicine, which she commenced at an American university. Back home in Serbia, one war was over but a new war was beginning – a people’s fight to overthrow the dictatorship that was ruling the country.

“There was violence on the streets in Serbia and I said to myself, you have to go back, so in 1997 I did. I went to fight the revolution in Serbia.”

Putting herself through medicine in Belgrade, Naumovic spent what free time she had protesting on the streets, dodging police, fighting back the horrifying impact of tear gas bombs.

“You’re on the streets evading the police chasing you one day, and then you go back the next day and protest again,” she recalls. “You spread the word as much as you can, going to embassies to talk about getting support from the West, all while studying medicine.”

After five years, Naumovic graduated and set out on a path to neuroscience. An area she still loves, at the time the work made her increasingly depressed.

“It was post-war Serbia. You had no drugs, no innovation, no research. The infrastructure was completely destroyed. Most of the time all you could do is provide psychological support, and I was sinking into this abyss and asking myself, am I adding anything? When I’m 100 and I look back, what will I have achieved? I knew it wasn’t that.”

So when an opening for a medical manager in oncology came up at Roche, Naumovic took extended leave so she could take on the role without burning her bridges. It was 2002 and Roche was launching Herceptin – the first targeted therapy for breast cancer.

For Naumovic, Herceptin was a revolution of a different kind – a product that would change the world for millions of breast cancer patients globally.

A new medicines revolution

Her job at Roche was to establish the testing facilities necessary to identify patients across Eastern Europe and, all of a sudden, she knew she had found her path.

“I fell in love with shaping the future of healthcare for a broad population, and I fell in love with the ability of a pharma company to influence the behaviour of physicians for the better. As a physician, I know we are creatures of habit and reluctant to change but here was innovation that offered so much. That’s how I came into pharma.”

Recognising her potential, AstraZeneca soon wooed her over to its team, and she worked with the company in Serbia until being offered a position as Country President of Switzerland. By this time married with three children, the move meant her husband – a transplant surgeon and nephrologist – commuted back to Serbia for work, returning to Switzerland for the weekends.

“I felt out of my depth,” she says of the move. “I was scared to be that person who takes their family abroad, puts their kids into a new school and a new life, and for a full seven years has a weekend marriage. But that also felt like something I needed to do.

“I started with AZ a few years before Pascal Soriot came to revolutionise how the company was thinking about its portfolio. I flourished there. I had a lot of fantastic leaders who supported my development, including Pascal. It was a marvellous experience.”

After a decade with AZ, Naumovic had risen to be Vice President Commercial for Europe when Janssen took the opportunity of securing her for its leadership team with a VP Oncology role. Late last year, she was offered the position of Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand.

“They told me not to fall in love with Australia but I am already in love with Australia,” she says. “It is a dream island. It is so beautiful. People are so frank and open and intelligent – the world is here.”

Naumovic describes Australia fondly as “the bellybutton of the world, a melting pot of cultures” but says underneath this lies a hidden underbelly of issues that this revolutionary is not going to back away from.

“I’ve worked in dozens of countries, even hundreds, and the comparison is striking on how much technological and research advancement I see here from the medical standpoint,” she says.

“Your research centres are absolutely amazing. You have state-of-the-art things that are not done anywhere else in the world. Your investment in healthcare in terms of percentage of GDP is as good as any other developed country. And then, on the back end of that, you have an access system for drugs that is close to last in the world when it comes to innovation.

“The future of healthcare is going to be curative intent for a lot of diseases. Gene, cell, and various other new modalities of therapies that were unheard of when the current assessment technology assessment system was created. You have to revisit that.

“We are not allowing Australian patients to get the best possible therapy, and that’s painful for me.

“We are going to see a cure for cancer and I want to see it brought to Australia. Even in chronic diseases, there is so much more that can be done, like for patients in the inflammatory bowel disease space so we don’t listen to young patients say: ‘Can you please give me something so I don’t have to have a colostomy bag’. It breaks my heart.

Naumovic’s new fight

“So what do I want? I want us to work together with every government agency, every health society, every patient organisation to build a long-term strategy to achieve what Australia wants to achieve in healthcare and determine how we get there together.”

The revolutionary Naumovic that protested on the streets of Serbia is clearly still well and truly alive. This woman is passionate about change and determined to fight for injustice. She’s not the type of leader who is content to sit and wait to see what happens. She’s here to make a change, and she’s not even settling just on healthcare.

“I go through my life saying this is not right,” she says. “It’s not right that we don’t have education in the indigenous population in a way that suits them, it’s not right that we don’t have access to the best medicines.

“It’s not right to have unequal distribution of men and women in power, nor to be called charismatic if you are a man and bossy if you’re a woman. These things should be relics of the past, and they’re going to continuously bug me until they truly are.”

Naumovic believes Australia needs not just a revolution but has the opportunity to be revolutionary in its approach not just to healthcare but to a whole range of issues, and this one-woman army is here to be a part of that. Vive la revolution!


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