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The COVID-19 pandemic closed offices and factories around the world, forcing people to shelter in place and office staff to work remotely wherever possible. Jakarta-based pharmaceutical executive Sandeep Sur worked remotely when warranted, but he also travelled during the pandemic – attributing it to his style of being an executive “who prefers to go out in the field” rather than “sit in a room, look at emails and reply”.
As the Indonesian General Manager of pharmaceutical giant Hetero Drugs, Sandeep also gave his staff the guidelines – when others were afraid to travel – “If you feel comfortable, if you are OK working in the field, I will provide you all the necessary support.”
He recalls telling them, “If you want to meet the doctor or somebody in the hospital that you feel is necessary or very urgent, please find a way.” This meant that sometimes the team did house visits with customers and physicians to ensure everything was OK and that things ran smoothly with the important work they were doing.
Sandeep’s audacity during the pandemic paid off, he says, as pharmaceuticals produced by Hetero, such as Remdesivir, played an important role in treating COVID-19 patients.
“We launched some blockbuster products, which pushed our brand into greater public awareness,” he says. “I think COVID-19 really played a very important role in giving Hetero a good name,” along with helping push along the regulatory approval of some of its key products.
“We are a generic company, a branded generic company. So it is important to differentiate ourselves.”
Audacity has marked Sandeep’s time with Hetero in Indonesia, a country of more than 17,500 islands in South-East Asia and a population of over 270 million people. Hetero recruited him to lead a joint venture in Indonesia and oversee its entry into the country.
The Hyderabad, India-based company ranks among the world’s largest producers of active pharmaceutical ingredients and produces chemical and biological medicines across a broad range of therapeutic areas.
“We have multiple therapeutic areas, portfolios, products – including oncology and biosimilars – and more than 300 molecules. We provide a good-quality product to the market,” Sandeep says. “People get the benefit of a quality product at much more affordable price. So, I see a huge opportunity for us going forward in the country.”
But it would take an experienced pharmaceutical veteran like Sandeep to make it happen. He is no stranger to the Indonesian market and brings extensive expertise in the nuances of the pharmaceutical industry, having spent nearly 21 years with Novo Nordisk, a Danish company focused on diabetes care, exiting in 2016 as Vice President and General Manager in Indonesia.
As a graduate of the Manipal Academy of Higher Education with a master’s in pharmacy, he was drawn to Hetero by the opportunity to help it enter into the complex Indonesian market.
“It’s a very, very new greenfield project. I have never worked in these kinds of challenges,” he says. “I am now responsible for manufacturing. I have studied pharmacy, but I never worked in or utilised my knowledge of pharmacy, so this has been exciting but also a learning curve.”
Helping Hetero enter the Indonesian market has been no easy task, and it was made even more difficult by ingrained reputation issues for Indian makers of generic medicines.
“Indian companies do not have a very good reputation regarding the quality of the products,” Sandeep explains. “The perception was we always sell at lower price and try to grab the market. So, there were many misconceptions.”
Even colleagues expressed misgivings, “Why would you work for an Indian company?” he recalls them asking. But he went to work and stuck to several business principles, which would distinguish Hetero from other generic drug companies.
“I maintain very good relationships across not only the government side but also the professional side.”
“We are a generic company, a branded generic company. So it is important to differentiate ourselves, and one way to do that is to have a good product line,” he says. “Another is to provide a good service and support to the medical association or to the doctors.”
His persistence paid off – along with previous relationships made and maintained during his time at Novo Nordisk, which he says opened doors. “That has really helped me to recruit people,” he says. “They saw me and my profile or found out through word of mouth, then they felt reassured. ‘OK, this guy is there, we know him.’”
He stresses the importance of relationships in a country like Indonesia for building a business. “I place a strong focus on ensuring very good stakeholder relationship management. I maintain very good relationships across not only the government side but also the professional side.”
Despite Hetero’s recent success, there is still more that Sandeep aims to accomplish in Indonesia. The company is introducing products in oncology, biosimilars and antiretrovirals, and as a vertically integrated firm with its own manufacturing facilities, Sandeep says Hetero can participate in government tenders and provide quality products for the population at better prices.
He sums up his five years with Hetero proudly saying, “Going from one man showing up in 2017, to 200 people in 2022, I think that is a very good achievement.”