The right way to do business in a pandemic

Medical doctor turned pharma entrepreneur Misha Engineer MBA2012 reflects on lessons from the crisis

The right way to do business in a pandemic_974x296

Misha Engineer stared at her iPhone in disbelief. Initially she was pleased to see a message from a friend, a consultant cardiologist she’d known from her time as an NHS doctor. But what she saw on the screen shocked her.

The video showed something that, Engineer says, “just shouldn’t be happening”. The consultant – a man with decades of speciality experience, who is “incredible at what he does” – had had to make a DIY face shield out of a plastic bottle and filter paper to safeguard himself and his patients in the Covid-19 pandemic. “I laughed when I saw it,” Engineer admits. “Then I wanted to cry.”

She sent him a message: “You’re incredible for thinking so creatively about protecting yourself, but actually we live in a first-world country.”

Supply chain problems

“We should be better than this,” reiterates Engineer, 37, who left medicine in 2008 to study her MBA at London Business School and went on to launch her own pharmaceutical companies. “I feel so saddened that a man of his stature, and with his expertise and skills, has had to spend time doing that.”

Sourcing and supplying high-quality essential healthcare products has always been at the heart of what Engineer does. The pharmaceutical businesses she runs with her husband also work, among other things, on the generic repurposing of drugs, formulation development and analytical chemistry. With the advent of the coronavirus epidemic, one of their businesses formulated a high-quality hand sanitiser that is currently being sold to frontline organisations.

So, in recent months, it made sense for Engineer to focus her energy on supplying personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks, gloves and eye protection, to help safeguard doctors and nurses treating infected patients. But Covid-19, which to date has been responsible for more than 43,550 deaths in the UK, has exposed serious weaknesses in the supply chain, resulting in acute shortages of PPE that have forced healthcare professionals to come up with alternatives.

It is not a straightforward problem, as Engineer explains. “There is an adequate amount of certain PPE products on offer,” she says. The issue is the price that customers are willing (or otherwise) to pay. “The problem we’re finding is that PPE that was previously costing a certain amount has now surged in price and the cost to us as a sourcing partner has also surged. It has been very difficult to have conversations with customers about getting the right PPE to them – which is available, but not at the cost they’re used to.”

Make a profit – ethically

Engineer runs three companies, Surrey Pharma, Northumbria Pharma and Sundara Pharmaceuticals. Some 18 months ago she sold out of Fontus Health, which she set up with her husband after graduating from LBS in 2012. It had become very successful because, she says, “we had a good set of core values and a good offering, focused around positive societal benefit”.

Studying for her MBA helped her pivot in an effective way. “What was amazing about LBS was that it allowed me to think differently,” she says. “I’d been a medic, focused on the healthcare sector, and had no idea about how to actually run a business.”

“What was amazing about LBS was that it allowed me to think differently”

These days, Engineer’s ethos is to provide the maximum patient access and the highest possible quality at the lowest possible price. “We want to make sure our patients have the greatest access to healthcare products, and that cost and supply shouldn’t be an issue.”

The pandemic has “shaken up all of our businesses”, she says, forcing her and her colleagues to “go back to the drawing board and think: What are our core values?” What sets her apart, she believes, is that the things that are important now have always been a priority for her. “There is a way to make profit,” Engineer says firmly, “but to do so ethically.”

This model, of actively working to make a difference, is something Engineer has brought to the pharmaceuticals business from her background as a doctor. “I’ve worked in the NHS with patients where you see the direct implications of being denied a drug and the impact that can have. No patient should be denied a good-quality drug – one that works for them – on the basis of cost.”

It was perhaps inevitable that she’d end up in this field. As a child, she wanted to make her parents proud by doing something in healthcare. “It was a typical Asian upbringing. I had three choices: medicine, dentistry or accounting. Or, if I felt arty, law,” she laughs. “But I have no regrets.” The training and transferable skills she acquired set her in excellent stead for the work she does today.

Engineer is still in touch with many people she knew during her NHS days and feels very strongly for her friends working on the frontline. “It’s very frightening.

“I feel that, for a first-world country, there must be more that we can offer our healthcare workers, who are doing such an amazing, incredible job to keep people safe. We need to treat them with respect.”

Promise what you can deliver

As she sees it, the main problem now is quality, not quantity. There are lots of “new mask dealers – people who have never worked in the industry before, who’ve become mask dealers all of a sudden, with no regulatory expertise, saying, ‘I’ve got 10 million masks!’ But where have [those masks] come from? There are very few factories in China that are producing good-quality products to European specifications and standards and because of that, those prices are high. And we won’t, as a business, buy anything inferior.”

To do so would put both her customers, whose safety would be jeopardised, and her own company’s reputation at risk. “I want our business to have a legacy and to go on far beyond this crisis, so we’ve got to provide the best-quality products.”

It’s important not to make promises that you can’t keep, she stresses. “You’ve got to be focused and clear about what you can honestly offer and what will be beneficial for your customer. They may not like hearing that you don’t have as many masks as they’d like, but at least you’ve been honest. No single organisation can save the world and I can’t magic up 10 million masks tomorrow – I don’t have the warehousing space to do that.”

“You’ve got to be focused and clear about what you can honestly offer and what will be beneficial for your customer”

Engineer has turned to mindfulness in the pandemic and has a daily exercise routine. “Personally, I’ve been quite calm about the whole thing, following government advice. It’s not been terribly easy, but what I feel proud about in our household is that we’ve managed to find purpose and meaning in what we’re doing. That’s really crucial. You can do that with your business as well.”

Gaining new perspectives

The lockdown made Engineer and her husband reflect on what is important in life. “As much as we’re a couple and we run a business together, we’re also two independent individuals and we have to have that space. But this has strengthened us as a family.” Part of that strengthening comes from “reflective practice”. “It’s become a habit for us. We reflect a lot about what’s important for our businesses and what’s important for us as a family.”

So, what has been their biggest success during the crisis? Engineer says it’s their ability to see the world through new eyes and to be ready for change. “Being able to see your organisation through change is often quite difficult. You’ve got to take all your staff members with you and the messaging around change has to be right. Change isn’t a naturally easy thing for anyone to want to grab by the horns.

“I had a conversation with the dean of LBS recently and we spoke about providing the school with PPE in the return-to-office phase.” Perhaps it could be her PPE? “That would be quite something,” she laughs.



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