My Working World: C Is For…
Last month My Working World took us to Brazil and Belgium, two places where I worked for quite a long time, and of where I have vivid memories. This month, we are also visiting countries near and far, but strangely, the memories are much lighter. Not sure why. Maybe it’s age; maybe it’s because I only visited most of these places only once.
I visited Czechia, as it wants to be known these days, on a number of occasions, both on business and for pleasure. Of all the Eastern European countries working towards membership of the European Union, it was the one with the most advanced pharmaceutical industry, and the strictest regulators. It became the ‘poster child’ for the emerging industries in that part of the world. I had links with an equipment supplier and worked on joint projects with them, both in the Czech Republic and in Russia. It was a pleasure to be able to take a certain level of understanding for granted at a time when many of my clients were still trying to learn the meaning of quality control and quality assurance.
This was also the first country (but not the last) where I was taken up the side of a mountain on a ski lift. It was in summer; the fields were green and there was no snow, even on the very top peaks – but it was still one of the scariest things I did during my thirty years of travelling.
But my most memorable evening comes from a holiday rather than a business trip: sitting in a box in the Opera House in Prague watching Don Giovanni being performed on the very stage where it was premiered by Mozart himself in 1787.
As we will see over the coming months, I worked in parts of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia on many occasions, but I only ever went once to Croatia. I was asked to accompany an engineer who was pitching for a new project, and who needed my expertise in manufacturing systems for the bid. All I remember was sitting in someone’s garden at the end of a long day’s travelling, watching my colleague and our hosts drink their way through innumerable bottles of beer and wine, while all I wanted to do was go to bed. We never did get the work. I wonder why?
Moving across the Atlantic, we are now going to call into North America before travelling south. Whereas I worked in the previous two countries as an independent consultant, my visit to Canada came during my days working for the Wellcome Foundation. I was the company’s champion for a new approach to manufacturing called Total Quality Management. My boss in the UK was very enthusiastic and sent me to our factories all over the world to spread the word. These days TQM is very old hat and has been succeeded by such programmes as Reliability Centred Maintenance, LEAN manufacturing and Business Excellence. But back in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was all very new and there was a healthy degree of skepticism around. I remember the management of our factory in Montreal being polite, but not over-optimistic about the whole thing. And with hindsight, they were right.
My clearest memory of Canada was sitting in my hotel room watching the news on TV as the Berlin Wall finally came down, heralding a new era for Eastern Europe and, just a year or so later, the end of the Soviet Union.
Chile and Colombia
Like most multinational companies in the pharmaceutical industry, Wellcome used contractors to make their products in countries where they did not possess their own factories. There were different reasons, some economic, some political and some legal, why certain countries were less advantageous for a company to build a plant. This was certainly the case in Latin America, where we didn’t own any plants at all. In general, the contractors were used to produce the low value, high weight products, particularly the cough syrups and other liquid products. Whereas the high value, low weight products like injections were made in just a few places and exported to the rest of the markets, it made no sense to spend huge amounts of money transporting bottles of what was little more than very clean water, all over the place.
And liquid products pose a much lower risk, in terms of manufacturing problems, than injections. So the control was exercised with a much lighter hand from the centre. As far as I remember, I only visited Chile once during my seven years in the International Production and Engineering Division; and similarly there was just one trip to Colombia.
The Colombian trip was most notable for the fact that we shared a plane back from Bogota with Princess Anne and her entourage. They took over a small area of the Departure Lounge, which was roped off but otherwise left open to public view. A couple of Americans waiting for the same flight were amazed by the lack of fuss, and compared it with what would have been the case had it been a senior US politician travelling. At one point during the overnight flight, I woke to see her standing in the galley, chatting away to the stewardesses. And yet, when she stepped off the plane the next morning, well-dressed and with her hair neatly done, you would have sworn she had had a full night’s sleep in her own bed and hours to get ready. Impressive.