Nicholas Piramal's World View

Oct. 4, 2006
Dr. Swati Piramal has put one of India’s leading drug companies, and a family business, on a global stage

In 18 years, Nicholas Piramal has become one of India’s four largest drug manufacturers. While the company moves ahead in developing its own new patented drugs, its recent acquisition of Pfizer’s manufacturing facilities in Morpeth, U.K. has also made it one of the world’s 10 largest contract drug manufacturing firms.

Chairman Ajay Piramal focuses on financial strategy, but it is his wife, the urbane and elegant Dr. Swati Piramal, who provides the pharma “domain expertise,” overseeing licensing, partnerships, communication, drug development and operations.

Dr. Piramal, who was recently knighted by the French government (Box), has studied pastry-making at the Cordon Bleu, and written books on subjects ranging from spirituality to cooking. "The Light Has Come to Me," a book that she wrote with her husband (with accompanying CD, two tracks of which are posted on our site) outlines the company’s history and management principles, unified by verses drawn from the 3000-year-old Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita. The company won the “International Spirit of Work” award this year, for the way it has integrated spiritual principles into its everyday work.

Dr. Piramal and her company provide a fascinating glimpse of the new India and its growing life sciences business. We caught up with her, literally, during stops on a typical week’s travels, which took her from Istanbul to Philadelphia to New York and back to Mumbai.

Ph.M. – What is Nicholas Piramal’s focus today?

S.P. – We sell over 200 products in the areas of cardiovascular, diabetes, respiratory, infectious diseases and nutrition. We also have strategic partnerships with companies including Biogen, Gilead, Pierre Fabre and Chiesi, to sell their products in India. But we are actively building our own drug pipeline, employing about 400 R&D scientists who work on oncology, diabetes, infectious diseases and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Ph.M. – How about your custom manufacturing group?

S.P. – Currently, we supply over 60 countries, and have partnerships with firms that include Allergan, AMO, Astra Zeneca, Pfizer, GSK and Merck, as well as a number of biotech companies.

Ph.M. – What impact has the Pfizer plant acquisition had on your plans?

S.P. – The Pfizer facility at Morpeth is like a jewel in all our assets. The 450 people who work there are very highly qualified in manufacturing, research or quality assurance. Morpeth has approvals from FDA, MHRA in the U.K., as well as Japanese regulatory bodies, and contract manufacturing will be about 45% of our company’s revenues this year.

Ph.M. – What techniques are you using to improve manufacturing at Morpeth and other facilities?

S.P. – We use various tools to ensure manufacturing excellence and quality. Our plant in Hyderabad has gone through two FDA audits without any 483s. The Morpeth site has also been approved by Japan, an extremely tough process. Ensuring world-class quality is essential to any global company. It’s like a “ticket to ride.”

Ph.M. – Are you using any innovative technologies or IT?

S.P. – As a company, Nicholas Piramal is extremely IT-conscious. We recently completed an unusually fast and robust SAP implementation, which has increased our working capital and dramatically improved the way that we manage our supply chain. We also use LIMS and some proprietary software in our laboratory network. Through strategic alliances with IT providers such as Tata Consultancy Services, we have rapidly improved our business processes.

Ph.M. – What is your company’s approach to staffing?

S.P. – We’ve acquired many companies, from Switzerland, Germany, France, the U.K. and Scandinavia, and have tried to absorb the best practices from each of them. Today we employ people from 22 countries. Our philosophy is based on mutual respect, trust, and employee empowerment.

Ph.M. – What did you do before you entered the pharmaceutical business?

S.P. – I am an M.D. with an M.S. in healthcare management from Harvard. My medical training was a huge asset, and helped immensely in understanding the needs of our physician customers.

Ph.M. – How did you and your husband establish the company?

S.P. – My husband, Ajay, was the scion of an old textile group, which, for over 135 years, ran one of the oldest mills in the country.We felt that it was time to invest in the knowledge economy, so we bought a small pharmaceutical company, Nicholas La boratories, in 1988. We were very young, but we had a passion for work and a trust in ethics. We built the business on values. I worked in many areas of the company, including the marketing of biotechnology, IT, R&D, communication and strategic alliances.

Ph.M. – Who was your greatest influence when you were growing up?

S.P. – My father encouraged me to study science and mathematics and inculcated a love for reading as well as intellectual curiosity.

Ph.M. – What did you do before dedicating your time fully to the company?

S.P. – I started the Gopikrishna Piramal Memorial hospital, named after my father-in-law, when I was just out of medical school. My college was in Parel, one of the seven islands of Mumbai. The area was endemic for polio and local children were severely affected by the virus.

One day I was saddened to see a little girl who was totally paralyzed by the disease, and resolved to establish a “no polio zone” around a new medical center. We began to educate the community, using skits and music. I also started an orthoses center.

Ten years later, we closed down the polio treatment center because the program has been so successful; there have been no new cases of polio in the area. Our focus is now on prevention. I ran this hospital for 10 years, and then went on to study healthcare management.

Ph.M. – Are either of your two children interested in “the family business”?

S.P. – My daughter, who graduated from Oxford and has a MBA from Stanford, has joined the business as General Manager in our contract manufacturing group.

Ph.M. – Are there any advantages to running a family business on this scale?

S.P. – The great advantage of a family-owned company is that we take a long-term view of the future of the company, embuing our work with a sense of ethics and respect for employees.

We treat people who work with us more like family, involving them in our joyous celebrations of success. There were also times when the company was looking at failure, and it was this sense of “being in it together” that helped us face our difficulties and emerge all the stronger.

Ph.M. – Is the “glass ceiling” still a reality for women in this industry?

S.P. – I think women do have to work harder and better to achieve success. But women have an instinctive feel for caring, nurturing and working in teams. In the new networked economy, these skills will be invalauble. It is very important to find your own “swadharma” or “center of excellence.”

Ph.M. – What is your vision for your company and for India’s life sciences?

S.P. – In 10 years, we hope that we can realize our dream of launching a new drug discovered in India to the global market. We want Nicholas Piramal to become one of the leading global contract pharmaceutical manufacturing firms, as well as a research-based global pharmaceutical company.

This is a brief excerpt from Dr. Piramal’s "Order of Merit" acceptance speech:

…“This award has a long and ancient symbolic history. The badge has the symbol Marianne, a national emblem of France, a personification of Liberty and Reason...who will remain a symbol of hope in the struggle for health, education, justice and equality.

Swati Piramal (r) receives the Order of Merit.

… The word chivalry was first recorded ... around the beginning of the 14th century. In war, the chivalrous knight was idealized as brave in battle, loyal and willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Towards his fellow countrymen, the knight was to be merciful, humble and courteous. The knight was a defender, champion, zealous upholder of a principle. For those of us in the field of medicine and science, this is an inspiration.

… Last month, I was speaking at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, an institution started by Abraham Lincoln, in Washington. A speaker before me went on about the problems of India: disease and poverty, corruption and inefficiency, high maternal and infant mortality and so on. For a few minutes I cringed in my seat. When it was my turn to speak, I said, "How wonderful. Each day when we get up in the morning, we have so much to do – to see if we can make a difference." The Talmud tells us that ‘by saving a single being we can save the world,’ and that is our mission.

...We have to wake up to make a difference... Yesterday, President Kalam was in Mumbai. He reminded us that 200 million of our countrymen are living below the poverty line, but he also mentioned that science and technology in the life sciences, if harnessed, could change the face of the nation.

In a sense, science is the story of Truth.

The wandering Sufi poet Kabir said, ‘The flute of the Infinite is played without ceasing and its sound is love. When love renounces all limits, it reaches truth. How widely the fragrance spreads! It has no end, nothing stands in our way...’ ”

About the Author

Agnes Shanley | Editor in Chief