Dr Sylke Hassel has been a shop assistant, a tourist guide, a laboratory assistant and a maths tutor. Now, she is chief executive of PharmaZell, a Bridgepoint-backed maker of active ingredients for the pharmaceutical industry.
From the age of 16, I was interested in everything that makes you sick and everything that makes you well again
S ylke Hassel was just 15 years old when she realised that her dream of becoming a dancer would never turn into reality.
“I was performing in Swan Lake and I was a head taller than all the other swans. I was more like a duck,” she says. “But I still love dancing.”
Dynamic and spirited, Hassel decided to focus her energies elsewhere, soon developing a keen interest in health and wellbeing: “From the age of 16, I was interested in everything that makes you sick and everything that makes you well again,” she explains.
She began research into cancer and malaria while still an undergraduate, before taking a PhD at the University of Würzburg in Bavaria and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Uppsala, Sweden.
“I split my time between Sweden and Germany, conducting rare experiments into cancer research. But I worked a lot with radioactivity, so I spent most of my days in a basement covered from head to foot in protective clothing. People ran away when they saw me. It was rather lonely,” she explains.
For Hassel, the research also seemed far removed from her true passion. “I wanted to make the world a better place and I wanted to connect with real patients. But my research was quite disconnected from that. I wanted to become closer to the end product and I wanted to work more with people,” she says.
Focus on medicines
Nearly 30 by now, she began to apply for jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. Most companies were looking for qualifications in economics or business as well as a PhD, but management consultancy McKinsey was the exception.
From the age of 16, I was interested in everything that makes you sick and everything that makes you well again
“I wrote and asked if they were interested in taking on people who wanted to focus on the pharmaceutical industry. They said that they were. But my first project was not in pharmaceuticals. It was in trucks. At first, I thought, ‘That’s a strange name for a protein.’ Then I realised they really were talking about lorries,” she jokes.
The assignment taught Hassel the basic tools of consultancy, but she wanted to return to her area of expertise. A project in healthcare insurance followed and she then worked on multiple pharmaceutical projects, with clients ranging from small biotech firms to multinational drug giants and products ranging from treatments for rare diseases to over-the-counter medicines.
“I worked across the entire industry, from big pharma to biotech and across the product lifecycle – research and development, operations, strategy, commercial and market access. I loved my job, but I was travelling all the time, leaving home at 5am on Monday morning, returning at 10pm on Friday evening and spending a lot of the weekend catching up on work that I had missed during the week. Then I fell pregnant and I thought it wouldn’t be fair to spend so much time away with a little one,” she explains.
I love thinking and I love challenges. So yes, we made a big commercial effort, but we also changed the way people worked. We dared to think differently
While on maternity leave and musing about her future, Hassel was approached to become head of global strategy at Sandoz, the generic drugs arm of pharmaceutical group Novartis.
Sandoz was based near Munich, where Hassel lived, and she knew the team through her work at McKinsey. The new role seemed opportune, particularly as her responsibilities included interacting with Novartis and executing turnarounds of underperforming divisions, countries and regions within the Sandoz group. It was 2013 and Hassel’s son had just turned one when she joined the business.
“In some respects, it worked out very well. When I was at home with my son, Frederik, I would work for free for McKinsey because I really missed the intellectual exchange, so it was good to get back to work. But I probably started at Sandoz at the wrong time,” she says.
“Frederik had just begun to go to nursery, he was teething and he was ill a lot, as children are when they start at day care. We ended up employing three nannies so there was always someone to look after him when he was sick. It was tough, but we worked through it. Luckily, I had no problems travelling for work because Frederik was happy when I left and happy when I came back,” she says.
Even though Hassel enjoyed her time at Sandoz, she began to yearn for something slightly different. “Doing turnarounds was great, but it was frustrating to have to give the businesses back just as they were starting to flourish. I wanted to be the one with long-term responsibility for the profit and loss,” she explains. Protein shake-up In 2016, she was approached by Lonza, a Swiss contract development and manufacturing group. “I had come across them over the years and only heard good things about the business, so when they asked to meet me, I was super-excited. I wasn’t really planning to go there, I just wanted to meet them. But I went to have a chat and left with a job offer,” Hassel says.
In 2016, she became global heard of Lonza’s mammalian and microbials business, the largest division in the group, focused on the production of proteins for use in research, development and drug manufacture.
When Hassel joined, revenues were SFr 600 million. Within three years, sales had doubled.
“I love thinking and I love challenges,” she says. “So yes, we made a big commercial effort, but we also changed the way people worked. We dared to think differently.”
Time for change
By 2020, Hassel had improved working practices throughout her business and driven sales growth around the globe. She started to feel that it was time for a change and was introduced to PharmaZell, a contract manufacturer specialising in the production of active ingredients for generic medicines.
The company had been acquired by Bridgepoint in February 2020 and the incumbent CEO was looking to retire, leaving the role open for someone new. Based in Raubling, a small town near Munich, the group supplies pharmaceutical firms with active ingredients for conditions ranging from colds to eczema to inflammatory bowel disease.
Known for the quality of its compounds, PharmaZell also helps clients to formulate drugs in different ways and provides regulatory advice around the sale of goods in different jurisdictions.
It’s less about how many stars and stripes I have compared to you and more about what can be done with the business, how it can be developed and the freedom to deliver change
“I liked the agility of the business. I liked the entrepreneurial culture and I liked their technological expertise,” Hassel explains.
“Manufacturing for the generic drugs industry in Europe is not easy because you face intense competition from India and China, so the only way to stay ahead is by constantly challenging how you work and making it better. That’s PharmaZell – it’s faster, more efficient, greener and cleaner than the competition,” she adds.
Hassel joined the company in May 2021, shadowed the outgoing CEO for three months and took the helm in August. With 1,000 employees, the company was significantly smaller than the Lonza business that she had come from, but this did not bother her unduly.
Freedom to deliver
“I think women have a slightly different approach. It’s less about how many stars and stripes I have compared to you and more about what can be done with the business, how it can be developed and the freedom to deliver change. I had a clear mandate from Bridgepoint to develop the business and fundamentally, I am more attracted by challenges and people than absolute sales volumes,” she says.
Hassel has already begun to deliver against her mandate. In September 2021, PharmaZell entered into exclusive negotiations to acquire Novasep, a contract drug manufacturer based in Lyon, France.
Name: Sylke Hassel
Born: Würzburg, Germany
Educated: Julius-Maximilians University, Würzburg, and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, Uppsala
Family: Married with a nine-year-old son. “My husband teaches maths and natural sciences to nurses and childcare professionals. He is an inspiration because he knows how to talk to different audiences.”
Hobbies: Yoga, running, walking, dancing, crime novels and travel. “I love to visit different places and I try to go at least once a year to Rome, where I studied Italian between school and university. I also love cooking, drinking cocktails and dancing with friends. I live through my senses.”
First job: Selling trinkets in a tourist shop in Dinkelsbühl, Bavaria. “I had lots of part-time jobs. When I was a teenager, my parents decided they would no longer finance my ugly taste in fashion, so whatever I wanted, I had to work for! I was a tourist guide, sold tickets in museums, made brushes for painters, milled soil in a lab and tutored kids in maths and Latin.”
Car: An Audi and a BMW. “My passion is for vintage cars. I have the steering wheel of a 1950s Mercedes and perhaps one day I will get the whole car or maybe an Aston Martin DB6 or a very old Porsche. My son is mad about cars, too, so we spend a lot of weekends at car shows and I’m good friends with several local car dealers!”
I would like our customers to think of our combined business as their go-to partner when it comes to technological challenges around manufacturing and production
Broad product suite
The combined business, headed by Hassel, generates revenues of almost €500 million and has close to 2,000 employees operating across Europe, India and the US. The two companies are also highly complementary.
“Like us, Novasep is technologically sound and based in Europe, but it focuses on patented drugs, whereas we are more involved with off-patent drugs. From our clients’ perspective, therefore, our product suite is now much broader and there are many opportunities for cross-selling,” Hassel explains.
Looking ahead, she is both ambitious and excited about the future.
“I would like our customers to think of our combined business as their go-to partner when it comes to technological challenges around manufacturing and production. We are also extremely well placed as specialists in highly potent molecules that go into drugs for cancer and autoimmune disorders,” she says.
Of course, there are challenges, from the merging of Novasep’s culture with that of PharmaZell to coping with fresh outbreaks of Covid-19.
“It’s all doable, but we will need to navigate carefully through the next few months. That said, I am extremely optimistic about the future. There will always be a need for pharmaceutical products, but beyond that, my principal motivation is patient welfare. We can always make life easier for patients and that is what we should strive to do, through excellent quality, innovation and a constant drive to do better,” Hassel explains.
I am a very strong believer in diversity. I don’t want to sit in a boardroom with seven clones!
PharmaZell’s operational expertise is well known, but Hassel believes that she can generate change in terms of culture and awareness of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.
“I am a very strong believer in diversity. I don’t want to sit in a boardroom with seven clones! I’ve seen that sort of leadership team and I’ve also seen how fruitful diverse teams can be, not just in terms of gender but also in terms of background, education and experience. I like to bring in people from different industries and professions. Our CFO comes from a consumer goods background, for instance, and I love to work with lawyers, because they are super-sharp and they have a different mindset,” she says.
Striving for improvement An ESG team has been appointed, a mapping project has been undertaken to gauge where the business is today and create targets for the future, and work is ongoing with customers.
Hassel says: “Our customers expect us to look at sustainability and so do I. Making pharmaceuticals is no excuse for not striving always to improve our processes. For me, awareness of ESG is just the beginning. It gives you the right to play at the table.” n