This article was written by Bella Yoro, Schulich MBA Candidate 2018
Mr. Zamir Ahmed had a career in the pharmaceutical industry for over 50 years before his retirement. After his successful career at a British pharmaceutical company, he established a pharmaceutical company called PharmEvo in Pakistan. Bella Yoro, an MBA student from Schulich School of Business, had the opportunity of learning about Mr. Ahmed’s life experiences and his visions about the healthcare industry.
During this interview, he shared his insightful perspective in pharmaceutical industry, starting up a company, and career development and leadership.
Bella Yoro: Would you please share with me about your educational background?
Zamir Ahmed: I earned a Bachelor of Laws and Master of Arts in History in India in 1948, when I was 22 years old. I would also like to add that I enjoyed learning about Business Management after graduating; I was mainly reading up several textbooks. I found it interesting to learn a definition of marketing in the textbooks, and significant differences between marketing and selling. You will be amused by a simple expression to accurately state that difference, which is “selling is maximizing turnover, while marketing is maximizing profit”.
Bella: How did you enter the pharmaceutical industry?
Zamir: My family and I moved to Karachi, Pakistan after my graduation. First job post-graduation was a junior manager position at a shipping company. Due to the political instability and economic crisis at the time I was graduating, I had to settle down with what was available to feed my family. About 10 years later, finally I began my career in the pharmaceutical industry as a sales manager at a British pharmaceutical company. I remained the company for 20 years, advancing to the senior level. It was in this way that I launched my career in the pharmaceuticals and it has served me for the last 50 odd years!
Bella: How did you like the industry?
Zamir: I found the industry fascinating and very complex compared to other industries. In those days, and, as I say, to a great extent even now, the pharmaceutical industry is a brand oriented market, and leans heavily on the multinational companies. In addition, what makes the industry very unique compared to others is that our consumers are vulnerable patients and sale of our products are managed by medical professionals rather than sales representatives. Only products for treating minor illness, commonly called the over-the-counter drugs, are marketed and sold directly to consumers. As I mentioned earlier that marketing and selling are different activities, a pharmaceutical company is mainly managing your brand, and strategizing its position among the big multinational companies.
Bella: Memorable achievement in your career?
Zamir: I had a great opportunity working with a group from the fast-moving consumer goods industry to help design and build a manufacturing unit with the latest cGMP standard
 for its pharmaceutical division, and commission the factory. The factory was established for a company called PharmEvo. We designed PharmEvo’s manufacturing unit superior to all other establishments existing at that time, such as an air-conditioned building, an efficient water management system and waist management system.
Another innovation was the installation of a cutting-edge building management system. This system enabled key senior staffs, particularly engineers, to monitor the operation of vital systems such as air handling units (AHU), chillers, and generators. For instance, if the quantum of fresh air supply to a room dropped below the planned volume, the speed of the fan in the AHU will automatically increase to compensate the drop and concurrently send a signal to engineers to attend the fault. The AHU addressed a major system flow that was once handled manually.
Bella: In general, how the management for a start-up pharmaceutical establish their first manufacturing factory, and how was it like for PharmEvo?
Zamir: Generally, it is a corporate decision at the highest level, the management generally has a fair idea of what their core products should be to launch in the market. Five to ten years of marketing plan, estimated profit and loss plans, as well as capital cost estimates for factory building, plant and machinery, services, and so on are prepared. Briefly all these activities are an essential prelude to designing a facility.
Trend these days is that the structure of the building is designed last. The starting point are processes, flow of labours and materials, and services required in various areas of the factory. To achieve best results; the planning team must include engineers as well as pharmacists. For our case, the planning team consisted of engineers and pharmacists, and it took the engineers nearly six months to produce documentations, designs and lay-out of the factory satisfactory to the pharmacists. The team needed another four weeks to present cost estimates and obtain permission to invite tenders.
All in all, I can say that it took us nearly three years to commence production which resulted from rigorous planning, designing, commissioning, training, trial runs, inspection and licensing,
Bella: If you do the designing again, how would you improve?
Zamir: Given another opportunity to establish a pharmaceuticals manufacturing unit, the emphasis ought to be on advanced electronics, improved environmental controlling system, higher levels of quality assurance, as far as the facilities were concerned.
What I mean by the advanced electronic, is that in pharma manufacturing, after raw materials, the most costly item is energy. We have access to some energy sources, one is supplied by government, second is self-generation using natural gas and/or furnace oil. Although it increased capital spend, we installed gas-powered generators to meet our essential requirements in the event there was a power outage down or load shedding, both often quite frequent. In addition, automatic controls were installed in most rooms/areas where lights were dimmed when full LUX ratings were not required.
Improving environmental system was important, and this installation was for educational purpose also to teach the industry a good practice. Within the factory premises, we took care of dust and waste control, while using of an incinerator. Instead of blowing dust and ash in the air, we carefully collected and transported with covered trucks the disposal to government designated dumps.
For the pharma industry quality is most essential as compared to any other industry for obvious reasons. Documents are prepared when raw materials entered the factory, release to production, and when converted to different form, such as from bulk powder to granules. At each subsequent process, all activities are carefully documented until final stage when the product leaves the factory as a finished dosage form. In the event of any complaints and/or government inquiry such as severe adverse reactions or substandard quality allegations, records are relied upon for further investigation. The quality and safety of the products come first, always.
I believe that design of manufacturing units including the flow of workers and materials must to be meticulously planned. I would advocate for a dedicated in-house unit to achieve simple and innovative manufacturing and processing formulae, which would allow for an effective manufacturing operating cost without sacrificing product integrity.
Bella: How do you feel about the industry?
Zamir: The industry is fascinating. Regarding the products, my preferences are immunology, preventative medication and nutrition. From the third world perspective, where economic conditions of suffering humanity are on one hand, and the lack of resources of the respective governments combined to result in great tragedies on the other hand. Immunology and preventative medication can help reduce illnesses, while nutrition will assist in improving the health of the population.
In regard to business perspective, I always find promoting and selling products challenging as well as exciting. The marketing activities that the companies can do for drugs is highly restrained and regulated, but my passion for introducing a right medication to the market, the inherent instinct of exuberance, went overboard when I was describing the virtues of products. The sanctity of drugs, which save lives and elevate sufferings, remains paramount.
Bella: What aspect of yours would you think contributes the most to build such a successful career?
Zamir: Looking back on my career path for the past 50 years, from a sales manager to a senior management position, and then moving to a project manager role, these changes happened so naturally that I do not recall ever making or planning a conscious effort to move from one function to another. The only aspect I can identify that created such opportunities was perhaps the diversity of my hands-on-experience in many of the important business aspects of the pharmaceutical industry, in relation to marketing, manufacturing, planning, and budgeting.
Bella: Do Canadian companies have a chance in launching their healthcare business in Pakistan?
Zamir: In Pakistan, with a population of two hundred million, annual drug sales averages US$175million per annum. The demand for drugs is adequately fulfilled by nearly 500 drug manufacturers. These companies heavily rely on importing essential components to produce their products. Leading international companies, such as GSK, Pfizer, Abbot, Bayer, Aventis and Novartis, run their own manufacturing plants in Pakistan. On the other hand, other multinationals such as Roche, Allergan, and Takeda have licensed their products to local manufactures. The Pakistani government’s desire is to control the import of products by limiting the import of the essential products only as the local manufactures cannot produce their own drugs without them.
Thus, the role of foreign companies is to provide the essential products to manufactures in Pakistan. Considering medical products, the selection criteria used for foreign companies is essentiality, novelty, efficacy safety and reliability of their essential products. I believe, Canadian based product, reliability would not be an issue.
Almost every local manufacturer, nearly 450 companies, and all the multinational pharmaceutical companies produce generic drugs. I believe that the generic drug industry is very saturated, therefore not being a viable prospect for most companies, even Canadian companies that venture in Pakistan with generic, as Me-Too product, and OTC.
However, there are some aspects that may interest Canadian companies. There is a window of opportunity for non-medical products, such as a pain relief balm, and dandruff relief shampoo. These products will not be classified as “Drugs and Medicines”, and therefore social media campaigns and advertisements are legally allowed. Canadian companies; however, should be aware that non-drug products fall under a different territory and needs a totally different business approach and strategy.
Bella Yoro: What messages would you like to send to future leaders in the healthcare industry?
Zamir Ahmed: There appears to be a growing criticism on the industry in matter of prices, generally and quite rightly, at the atrocious increase by some U S firms. While admittedly, the pharma industry must strive to just as much as other industries, but at the same time, management of companies must realize they have chosen this industry of their own volition. As I mentioned earlier, the industry possesses rare opportunities that other industries do not necessary have: preventing illnesses, providing better nutrients, and improving the health of the population. One must never forget that their ultimate customers in this industry are the suffering humanity, and we are given fascinating opportunities to work together to provide better heath for all.
CGMP is a short form for the Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations, enforced by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). CGMPs gives a guidance to assure proper design, monitoring, and control of manufacturing processes and facilities.