On February 11, 2021, by two different Press Releases, two global pharma majors – GSK and Novartis simultaneously made interesting announcements. Both were related to three generic cephalosporin antibiotics.
GSK revealed, ‘it has reached an agreement with Sandoz – a division of Novartis, to sell its Cephalosporin antibiotics business. Sandoz will pay GSK USD 350 million at closing, plus additional milestone payments up to USD 150 million, subject to the terms of the transaction.’
While articulating the purpose of hiving of its generic cephalosporin brands, the company reasoned: GSK is now dividing itself into two companies – one with core competencies focused on OTC products, and the other – prescription drugs and vaccines. The company emphasized: ‘The transaction aligns with GSK’s strategy to prioritize and simplify its portfolio and invest in the company’s innovative R&D pipeline and new product launches.’ Other brands in GSK’s antibiotics portfolio, are not impacted by this divestment. In other words, this would possibly mean that the generic drug business doesn’t fall within the core competencies of GSK, any longer.
Whereas, Novartis disclosed, the company’s Sandoz division, ‘has signed an agreement to acquire GSK’s cephalosporin antibiotics business, reinforcing its leading global position in antibiotics.’ Its noteworthy that Sandoz’s core competencies lie in the generic drug business.
While explaining the purpose of this acquisition, Novartis explained, cephalosporins being the largest antibiotic segment by global sales, acquiring these 3 leading brands - Zinnat, Zinacef and Fortum,“will further position Sandoz as a global leader in antibiotics – truly essential medicines that are the backbone of modern healthcare systems.”
The above transactions bring to the fore the criticality of focusing on core competencies for business excellence, regardless of innovative drug business and in multiple situations, such as:
- Bringing organizational focus back on core competencies when these tend to get diluted.
- Increasing the focus on core competencies as opportunities arise.
In this article, I shall revisit this critical management concept in the current perspective.
A brief recap:
The concept of core competencies of a business organization was introduced by two global pioneers in business management – C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel with the article – ‘The Core Competence of the Corporation.’ This was published in the May-June 1990 edition of the Harvard Business Review.
The relevance of focusing on ‘core competencies’:
The quality and quantum of commercial dividend in consistently focusing on ‘core competencies’ in any space, spanning across individual professionals to business organizations, have been profound. This calls for defining these in detail and collectively, at the top rungs of organizational leadership. Then, cultivate, and leverage the core competencies to differentiate an organization from its competition, creating a company’s long-term competitive and sustainable advantage in the marketplace – for business excellence.
What constitutes core competencies to gain strategic strength?
Core competencies – whether for individuals or for businesses, comprise primarily of resources, such as, special skills, capabilities and rewarding experience in those activities as strategic advantages of a business. Garnering financial resources would usually follow, thereafter. Thus, core competencies are always considered as a strategic strength, everywhere. That said, core competencies require continuous monitoring to always be in-sync with changing market dynamics. Otherwise, the strategies are likely to fail.
Broad examples – from pharma perspective:
Broadly speaking, discovering, developing and successfully marketing new drugs, identifying repurposed drugs for new clinical trials, and churning out novel vaccines quickly, may be considered as core competencies for innovative drug makers. They have demonstrated this skill even during Covid-19 pandemic. Similarly, immaculate skills in reverse engineering of existing drug molecules and high efficiency in process research to gain price-competitiveness, may be construed as core competencies of generic drug companies.
Examples of shifting focus on core competencies:
Although, it is desirable that pharma players stick on core competencies for sustainable long-term performance excellence, regardless of being in primarily innovative or generic drug business, we have witnessed this focus shifting on several occasions for both. However, expected success did not generally follow those companies with such tweaking in the strategic business models.
Nevertheless, some drug companies did get tempted to deviate from their core competencies. For example, innovative drug players tried to expand into low-risk generic medicines, which, in the long run, did not deliver expected results for many companies. However, this deviation wasn’t without any compelling reasons.
There were some valid reasons, though:
As is much known, traditionally, global R&D companies prefer to focus only on the business of innovative prescription medicines. Low margin generic business wasn’t their cup of tea. Subsequently, this trend shifted. Especially in those cases, where the pipeline of high potential new drug molecules did not meet the concerned company’s expectations. To stick to the knitting, some companies with deep pockets, explored another model of Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) of innovative patented products and companies with rich new drug pipelines. Interestingly, in this M&A business model, low risk, low cost and high-volume turnover of generic business also started attracting several R&D based companies, alongside.
Which is why, an increasing number of R&D based companies started planning to expand their business in less risky generic drug business. This appeared to be a quick fix to tide over the crisis, as the generic drug business model won’t require going through lengthy R&D processes. Besides, compliance with ever increasing stringent regulatory approval protocols, particularly in the developed markets of the world.
Examples of why focus on core competencies matter, even in new normal:
There are several examples of large companies to illustrate this point – both from the old and the new normal. Just to give a flavor of the relevance of focusing on core competencies of organizations, I shall draw upon three interesting examples. Each of these, highlight different organizational visions and perspectives at different times, particularly the relevance of focus on core-competencies for a corporation. These are as follows:
- The first one is Daiichi Sankyo of Japan’s acquisition of India’s generic drug major of that time – Ranbaxy, in June 2008. The parent company claims: “We provide innovative products and services in more than 20 countries around the world. With more than 100 years of scientific expertise, our company draws upon a rich legacy of innovation and a robust pipeline of promising new medicines to help patients.” It is much known today, what happened to this acquisition, thereafter, for various reasons, including faulty pre-acquisition due diligence. However, later on, the domestic pharma leader – Sun Pharma, acquired Ranbaxy. Nonetheless, at least from Daiichi Sankyo’s narrative, its areas of core competencies, appear closer to any R&D-based drug company.
- The second example is US-based Abbott Laboratories acquisition of domestic formulations business of Primal Heath care in India in May 2010. Like Daiichi Sankyo, this acquisition was also a part of Abbott’s strategy to enter into ‘generic drug business’ -dominated emerging markets. Abbott, at that time, apparently decided to expand its strategic focus beyond its core competencies in business, primarily of patented products. However, by the end of 2012, the company separated into two leading healthcare companies. Abbott became a diversified medical products company. The other one – a totally separate company was formed, with the name – AbbVie, as a new researched-based global biopharmaceutical organization. AbbVie now operates in India, as well – with erstwhile Abbott’s innovative brands. In this case, by an innovative restructuring of the parent organization, Abbott brought back its sharp focus on core competencies of both the companies with both doing well in India.
- The third example is a recent move of reverting to the original focus of core competencies, when moving beyond these did not yield results. In that sense, this example is different from the second one. On November 16, 2020, Pfizer also announced the creation of ‘the new Pfizer’, as it reverted to its original core competencies of “developing breakthrough treatments and delivering innovative, life-changing medicines to patients around the world.” On that day, Pfizer completed transaction to spin off its Upjohn generic drug business and combined it with Mylan to create a new entity – Viatris Inc. Earlier, the company had sold its veterinary business, a baby formula unit and its consumer products division as part of a deal with GSK – for similar reasons. Earlier, the company’s moving beyond its core competencies to pluck low hanging fruits of generic drug business, did not yield dividend, as Pfizer’s profit in the generic drug sector, reportedly, had gone South.
According to Pharma Intelligence, several large players, such as, Novartis, Sanofi, AstraZeneca are now focusing on core competencies, as they start recovering from their unsettling patent cliff and other headwinds. Meanwhile, one may expect to witness more of Spin-offs, Carving-out, Splitting-off or further strengthening of core-competencies of organizations – for a sustainable long-term business excellence in the years ahead.
Spin-off and acquisition of Cephalosporin generic business by GSK and Sandoz Division of Novartis, respectively, is a part of the same ball game. Thus, maintaining or reverting focus on core competencies – regardless of generic or innovative drug business, I reckon, are the new imperatives of commercial success, even in the new normal.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.