Celina Chew explains why Southeast Asia is now key to Bayer’s future
By Philippe Beco Photography by Guillaume Megevand
While Celina Chew may be the first female Asian executive to hold a top management position at Bayer Thai, she doesn’t have much time to think about it.
From her office in Bangkok, Chew heads a region-wide, multi-faceted business that generated €373m in 2011 ($525m at the January 2012 exchange rate), and employs 1,850 people in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
While the German giant’s business tentacles spread far and wide in the region, its pharmaceutical arm is probably its most prominent. From fighting diabetes to providing therapies for erectile dysfunction, Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals distributes a wide range of products within Asean. Yet it is keen to expand its portfolio.
“We [will submit] several new products for marketing authorisations during the next three to four years,” says 44-year-old Chew, referring to a string of treatments including a drug to combat eye diseases such as wet age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in Asia.
The company’s strategy clearly reflects Asia’s rising importance as a major market for Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals. In the last five years, Bayer’s research and development (R&D) department has quadrupled the number of Asian patients involved in its global clinical trial programme to 16%.
“Our aim is to systematically include more Asian patients in earlier stages of global drug development, to ensure earlier access to innovative medicines for them,” says Chew. In Thailand, Bayer has conducted 50 clinical studies since 2005, involving more than 1,000 patients.
Although Bayer has no major R&D unit in Southeast Asia, Chew says that Beijing, one of the firm’s three global pharma R&D centres, develops remedies for the whole continent. A little closer to home, the University of Singapore partnered with Bayer in 2008 to evaluate the potential of drug candidates in the field of oncology.
“The excellent infrastructure combined with the broad expertise in Asian-prevalent cancer types offers excellent opportunities for us to develop new options for the treatment of patients,” she says.
Home to around 90% of the world’s small-holding farms, Asia provides a major opportunity for another of Bayer’s businesses, the Cropscience unit, which develops seeds and crop-protection products such as insecticides and fertilisers.
With an already large presence in Thailand, Chew sees growth potential in Vietnamese cocoa, tea and coffee, where output and quality improvements can be made. While Cambodia also ranks on her list for markets to tap into, she says that “the country with the highest unfulfilled market potential in the region is definitely Myanmar,” where Bayer already operates a branch office focused on rice research.
“We are monitoring the political transition process and, even more importantly, how the gaps in the economic and business framework will effectively be dealt with, as this is crucial for future business development,” she says, adding she is keeping a keen eye on advances in banking, access to foreign currencies, infrastructure, logistics and water management.
With the West weighed down by crumbling economies, the Asean Economic Community will blossom into an even more attractive inward investment destination, though specific Asean trade barriers do not impact Bayer, says Chew.
While Bayer’s MaterialScience business (a unit specialising in polymers used in cars, construction and appliances that represents 45% of Bayer’s north Asean sales) operates at an Asean level, the HealthCare and CropScience arms have a local country focus.
However, with the pharmaceutical industry in the region growing to unprecedented levels, Bayer would benefit if Asean adopted a European-style comprehensive harmonised regulatory framework for medicines, she says.
In the meantime, Chew seems unfazed by concerns that a lack of skills in countries such as Thailand will hamper efforts to develop a high-tech industry.
“Some specialist technical positions may take more time to fill but, in general, we have had no major issues in identifying suitable pools of talent [in Thailand],” she says, adding that Bayer aims to equip its Southeast Asia executives with a global mindset through language courses and overseas assignments. “The Asean bloc will continue to be amongst the world’s fastest-growing economies and it is important that we prepare our employees for the challenges ahead.”