My Japanology / Turning science into valuable new products

Kazuki Wakasugi/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. President Christophe Weber

The Japan NewsTakeda Pharmaceutical Co. (see below) President Christophe Weber joined the company in 2014, after working in a variety of countries in various roles. Amid increasingly fierce competition in the pharmaceutical industry worldwide, Takeda aims at executing a significant transformation to become a global leader under Weber’s direction. Weber spoke to The Japan News about his perspective.

The Japan News: What was the biggest difference between your image of Japan before coming here, and after that?

Christophe Weber: I joined a company called GlaxoSmithKline [in 1993], and through this company I lived in many different countries. I had a sort of international career in nine countries including Japan. My learning from that experience is that of course every country, every culture is very different. When you experience living like that, you develop your adaptation skill, which I think is very important for global leaders. The more you have experience living in different countries, it’s not that the easier it becomes but that you become more adaptable, energized to adapt. Japan is very different from any other country for sure. People tend to see Japan as a very homogenous country, when they don’t know Japan very well. [But] Japan is a very diverse country. That’s something I’ve learned over the years working in Japan. On the other end, Japanese society is very cohesive, and that’s perhaps what is creating this sense, this perception of homogeneity, but I think it’s two different dimensions.

I see the diversity in companies as well, in business. Actually, company culture is very strong in Japan. Because lifetime employment reinforces company culture, whereas in many countries many people are changing all the time so it’s sort of average culture, if you like. In Japan the company culture is always reinforced by the lifetime employment. That creates very different culture.

Q: Takeda has a long history. How do you keep the balance between tradition and drastic transformation?

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  • Kazuki Wakasugi/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. President Christophe Weber speak during an interview.

A: What we are very keen to keep is the values that have existed in Takeda for many years, and these are what we call “Takeda-ism” — integrity, perseverance, honesty, fairness. So that’s the core value. We went one step further to express this value and we express it in a very simple motto, which is “Patient, trust, reputation, business.” Do the right thing for the patient; reinforce trust with society, which is very linked to Takeda’s history but also in a way very Japanese; reinforcing the reputation of the company matters a lot for Takeda, and also in Japanese society; and then, do the right thing for the business. That’s the starting point of everything at Takeda — our values in patients, trust, reputation, business.

For example, when we recruit new managers everywhere in the world, they spend one week in Japan, as a global induction program, and I spend half a day with them, and we talk about that, the value and what type of company we want to be, and how we want to operate. So that’s the expression of the legacies, the history, and the fact that we are a special company. And then of course we are also very much focusing on our employees and their development. Takeda has always been taking good care of its employees, and that is something we want to pursue. That’s really the benefit of having been created in 1781.

But in other elements, we are much more progressive and modern and we want to move fast and be agile, so for example we know that we need to change the way we do research; we are making a big change in R&D. We know that the world has changed and science has evolved a lot. On one side we leverage legacy, and on the other side we change in many areas in order to be more competitive. It’s finding this balance.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in achieving Takeda’s goal?

A: I think we need to be persistent at executing the strategy. We have a very good strategy, which is a very good fit with Takeda and what we can do, and of course now all we need is to execute that strategy. So far we have been doing well, but it’s far from finished. We need perseverance in order to execute it. The other challenge is to leverage the fact that we are global. That’s something that we are also doing and learning. We have [more than] 30,000 employees and 70 percent are outside of Japan. And there is a lot of expertise in Takeda. We want to really leverage that expertise, so if we have a problem to solve in Japan we can get someone perhaps in the U.S. to help and perhaps if we have a problem in the U.S. we can find a solution in Japan. It’s really leveraging this global dimension.

Accelerate development of leaders

Q: You have introduced a variety of methods, including a so-called “accelerator program.” What is behind this?

A: We invest a lot in talent development at Takeda, and there are a couple of dimensions that we want to change. Diversity is one, and having more diversity, especially in Japan, but this is a global focus. In Japan we focus a lot on diversity, and having more women, for example. Gender diversity is very important. We are progressing well, but we start from a low base.

The other element is that we want people to progress in their careers based on their capability, competency and ambition, more than based on their age. Takeda used to have a promotion based on age and based on seniority. We want to change that and say experience matters, but experience is only one element among all the others, and why should careers progress at the same speed?

People are very different. Some people are more ambitious than others, some people have more capability. We want to change that and we want to allow some people to accelerate their careers, and we need that because in order to become a global leader you need to have a variety of experience in many countries. That takes time. We need to accelerate some careers for that. But it’s more — the accelerator program is about that. Identifying high potential and accelerating, helping them, developing their career, that’s what it is. But that’s really developing the mind-set that you know people progress based on their capability and not based on their age.

Q: In general, a company with a long history has a lot of internal customs. How do you deal with that?

A: Some customs are good, some are not so good. I think it [calls for] a lot of discretion on engagement with employees and changing the mind-set. For example, on diversity and inclusion, you don’t change customs and habits easily. We spend a lot of time debating: “Why are we behaving like that? What is the problem?” And so I think by this interaction, people change. I am optimistic, naturally. I spend a lot of time dialoguing with our employees, I do a lot of town halls, I do an employee advisory board in Japan. I think it’s really by having this type of discussion that things are moving progressively. But some customs change rapidly, some don’t change very rapidly.

Q: It’s quite important for the company to develop diversity.

A: Yes, when people get used to interacting with other nationalities, they will be more relaxed. Sometimes there is — it exists in Japan too — sometimes people are a bit unconfident. They feel, “Oh I’m in a meeting with 15 nationalities; how will I manage?” So, the more you expose people to that, the more comfortable they will be.

But to help people improve you expose them to the situation; that’s a principle of cognitive behavior. So, in a way, that’s what we do in training like that, people just develop their network and they get more confident about what they can do, interacting with different people.

Q: In the business field, Takeda has focused on three areas including oncology. What do you think are the most important aspects for survival amid fierce global competition?

A: The most important aspect is innovation. So is having the ability to discover new medicine in a timely manner. You want to be at the forefront of innovation. That’s really the biggest challenge, being able to be the one who brings the new medicine. And this new medicine should be very innovative, because many health care systems are financially struggling, including in Japan. Payers [in the] health care system will only reimburse [the cost of] very innovative medicine; otherwise they would prefer to use general medicine. That’s really the challenge. For a research-based company like Takeda, that’s really the biggest challenge.

Q: Many companies are struggling to survive.

A: Yes, everybody [is]. It’s a big challenge, because in our business we know that eventually all our products will disappear because the patents will expire and that’s it, so you need to replace them, and that’s the biggest challenge. But that’s what brings innovation; it’s because we have this need to deliver new medicine. If there was not this patent expiry everybody would be relaxed, but we have to replace [our products]. But it’s very difficult and challenging. And for that you also need a critical mass because there is not a direct correlation between your R&D budget size and the number of molecules you discover, but you need a minimum size to be able to discover and develop any.

Q: Do you have any opportunity to use your accumulated experience in Japan?

A: There is a very good base of know-how and knowledge in Japan. And scientific education and research is very good. There are many Nobel Prize [winners] in Japan. What we are working on is to translate this research into products. So the Japanese are much stronger in academia than in translation [of academic discoveries into] applications in the field of life sciences. So we are doing a lot of collaboration in order to help this process. We have one collaboration with, for example, [Kyoto University] Prof. [Shinya] Yamanaka. We want to generate products from his discovery of [induced pluripotent] stem cells. But there is a lot of know-how, very strong know-how in Japan.

Respect for local culture

Q: About life in Japan, how do you like to spend your time off?

A: I have a very simple life outside of work. I spend time with my family, do some sports, discover Tokyo. I bicycle in Tokyo. I also like to travel outside of Tokyo and discover Japan when I have time. I like mountains; I go to the mountains for a little bit of hiking when I have time in summer. I like it if I can find a weekend for skiing as well. I like to discover different places.

Q: What is Japan for you?

A: It’s a fascinating country, that’s how I would say it. Because on the one side what is happening in Japan in a way is happening in Takeda. On one side it’s a society which is very attached to its traditions. But on the other hand it knows that it has to change. My feeling is that there is more change happening now perhaps — we are in a period of change in Japan. Not only in Takeda but in society, and the government is also aiming to change many things. That’s very fascinating to see. It’s a country with a very strong character as well, because of its culture, it has developed unique customs and culture that exist nowhere else in the world.

There has been slightly less influence from outside of Japan, which actually I quite like. I’m not a big fan of global harmonization. I prefer to go to a unique Japanese shop. In that sense I like local characteristics. And actually, one of the things we try to do at Takeda is that we want to be a global company but we have huge respect for the local, and we think that every country is different so we can have a global product but the strategy is very local, that’s how I think. I have huge respect for local culture.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Takeshi Nagata.

■Takeda Pharmaceutical Co.

In 1781, 32-year-old Chobei Takeda launched a business selling traditional Japanese and Chinese medicines in Osaka. This was the origin of the company. Takeda, which was incorporated in 1925, has grown into a global, R&D-driven pharmaceutical company, recently focusing its research efforts on the areas of oncology, gastroenterology and central nervous system therapies. It has more than 30,000 employees on a cosolidated basis and works with partners in healthcare in more than 70 countries.

Born in France. Before joining Takeda, he held positions of increasing responsibility at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) including the post of president and general manager at GSK Vaccine and the post of chief executive officer of GSK Biologicals SA in Belgium. Weber joined Takeda in Apiril 2014 as chief operating officer, was named president and representative director in June 2014 and was appointed chief executive officer in April 2015. He holds a doctorate in pharmacy and pharmacokinetics from the University of Lyon in France.

(From March 20, 2017, issue)

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