Skin in the game: Leo Pharma
Geraldine Murphy tells Gavin McLoughlin why Leo Pharma is building global dermatology partnerships
Imagine what a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant looks like and you probably don't place it in the middle of a vast sprawling housing estate in Crumlin.
But that's where Leo Pharma, one of Ireland's longest established multinationals, has its Irish headquarters.
Geraldine Murphy (51) used to manage the Irish manufacturing operation but now runs commercial operations for Leo's dermatology products across eight markets.
Once upon a time the company had a broad portfolio of products including analgesics, diuretics, penicillin, and more.
But now instead of trying to be all things to all comers it has narrowed its focus to blood clotting, and, primarily, dermatology.
Leo is smaller than the big pharma giants (revenue last year was €1.83bn at mid-week exchange rates, and earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda) was €180m) and so it perhaps needs to pick its battles more carefully.
That brings a cleaner strategic direction but the dermatology area can be challenging - it tends to rank below others when it comes to patients and medical professionals' priorities.
That's where Murphy comes in.
"We worked very closely with general practice and with dermatologists in Ireland for many years, bringing educational programmes to support both healthcare practitioners and also patients to increase understanding and education and awareness and so on," she says.
"About a third of all presentations in general practice are for a skin condition, which is interesting. So it is an area that obviously we would feel deserves a lot of focus."
A report commissioned by the UK Patient's Association recently found that 73,000 Irish people have psoriasis," Murphy says.
"For those 73,000 people, 9,000 have severe psoriasis and it has a severe impact on their everyday life," she adds.
"Now they won't die of psoriasis but from a getting care perspective it can be challenging. Conditions like cardiac, obviously oncology, diabetes, they all get much higher priority but from working with patients closely for the last 17 years, we have learned what an impact having a chronic skin condition can have on someone's life, because it's so visible.
"Our society now is so much about looking for perfection, and there's such pressure - particularly on younger people - to look perfect. Having a chronic skin condition like psoriasis can be very challenging for somebody living with it."
Leo employs just over 500 people in Dublin and a further 40 in Cork, where there's a manufacturing operation for the blood-clot side of the business.
Most of its topical products (applied directly to the skin) are manufactured in Dublin and the facility serves markets all around the world.
As well as manufacturing, the company works hard on providing support services, education, and training to help people deal with skin conditions. This holistic approach is designed to make Leo the "preferred dermatology partner" for doctors and patients around the world, according to Murphy.
Last year was a milestone year for the company. It strengthened its position in topical dermatology via the €675m acquisition of Astellas Pharma's products.
As well as that, it entered into a major strategic partnership with AstraZeneca, which saw it acquire rights for certain so-called biologic products, with potential use in dermatology if they get approved by regulators.
The move marked an extension of the portfolio beyond topical products and is designed to enable Leo to provide treatments for people with severe psoriasis or severe atopic dermatitis - which are chronic skin conditions.
"That was a major move for us because the topical products, those products would support the majority of people who have skin conditions. But for the very chronic we're now able to offer a solution ... a small number of patients but a very specialised medicine," Murphy says.
"It's going to require a huge investment from our perspective in terms of research and development. Bringing those products to market will be a very important milestone."
The company also made the decision to switch a psoriasis ointment from being a prescription product to an over-the-counter product, after a trial in Ireland.
Murphy explains: "If you did suffer from a skin condition probably the first place you would go would be into your pharmacy, and stand in front of the skincare shelf and think, what am I going to get here?
"For many people, the first port of call is their local pharmacist ... so we really felt strongly that if we were to be true to our vision of being the preferred dermatology care partner, we needed to be in the pharmacy space as well."
Biologics and the over-the-counter sector are the key areas for development over the next three to five years, Murphy says.
Her career has turned out to be different than what she expected when leaving college.
In an industry dominated by men, Murphy has risen to become one of the most senior Irish women in pharmaceuticals alongside the likes of Julie O'Neill and Grainne McAleese at Alexion and Leisha Daly, country director at Janssen, to name but a few.
"I always wanted to study science," she says. "When I went into first year in secondary school and science was one of our subjects, I was just completely fascinated by it. The interesting thing is that when I went down to UCC to study science, I just thought I would become a science teacher because I didn't know what else you could do.
"Really it's something I do feel quite strongly about because I do think there's so many opportunities out of Stem...I've certainly had wonderful opportunities because of doing science."
Graduating from college in Ireland in the 1980s meant that there weren't many opportunities for research and development in Ireland, but Murphy was fortunate enough to get a position in the commercial side of the industry before working her way through to its upper echelons.
"I went into business development, I went into sales. I was a hospital and GP representative for three years which was a really fantastic opportunity to blend science and business if you like," she says.
"Then I came into Leo in 1994. And really I've just had a fantastic career here, opportunities came up the whole way along."
Murphy cites Paddy O'Sullivan, managing director of Leo's Irish operations, as an important mentor throughout her career.
"He gave me a lot of advice along the way. I suppose coming into senior management as I did at the time, it was a very male-dominated world ... and it was great to have a mentor, someone to encourage me going along the way.
"One of the books that I've read and that probably said what I've been thinking for many years is Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. [Succeeding in your career] is about leaning in and putting yourself forward and not being afraid to go for it."
When someone tells you they work for a multinational the automatic assumption for most is that it's an American company. Not so for Murphy, with her Danish bosses.
Before Norway stole the crown in March, the Danes were ranked as the happiest people in the world by the UN's World Happiness Report.
Does that mean they're good bosses?
"They have a very driven, very focused culture, but it's a culture which respects work-life balance, a very family-orientated culture which certainly helps when you're rearing a family and growing your career as well," says Murphy.
"Danish people and Irish people get on wonderfully well. There's a lot of mutual respect, and we're two relatively small countries in Europe so there's a lot of similarities in that regard," she adds.
That mutual respect will be important moving forward as the global pharmaceutical industry faces a period of intense turmoil.
With US President Donald Trump making noise about bringing American companies (and their profits) "back home" through proposed tax reforms, including a reduction in corporate tax rates, the Danish presence in Ireland takes on an increased significance.
Murphy thinks it's too early to say what the result of Trump's rhetoric will be for this country. What she does know, however, is that the current high standards have to be maintained.
"I think there's a lot of rhetoric and hype at the moment but the pharmaceutical industry has been a very strong and solid part of Ireland for many, many years. We have the infrastructure built around the pharmaceutical industry which I believe will serve Ireland well," Murphy says.
"I think the HPRA (Health Products Regulatory Authority) has done a very good job in ensuring very high levels of quality and compliance, so I think Ireland is a very respected country in which to manufacture."
Murphy is also confident that pharma, big and small, will choose to remain in Ireland if it keeps its competitive edge.
"Pharmaceutical manufacturing is not something that you can shift and move very easily. It's not that it can't be moved, so we shouldn't be complacent, but it takes a while to move a big operation.
"It's a concern when you hear Donald Trump wanting to repatriate a lot of the companies back into the US but Ireland should keep calm and focus on doing what we do best: delivering and keeping the quality up."
Vice-president of Europe North, Australia & New Zealand, Leo Pharma
MBS, International Marketing, UCD
MSc, Biochemistry, UCC,
BSc, Biochemistry, UCC
Managing director, Leo Pharma UK and Ireland
Regional vice-president, North Atlantic region, Leo Pharma
Managing director, Leo Pharma Ireland
Sales and marketing director, Leo Pharma Ireland
Married, three children
Sunday Indo Business