Think Local, Act Global

Alex Flint, Eisai’s director of growth markets, shows how a global organization’s structure can be adapted to align with rapidly evolving local needs without the need of full-time employees

Photo by Anders C. Chan

Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai Co., Ltd., has a deep commitment to its “human healthcare” mission and to helping increase the benefits healthcare provides. Its division in Mississauga, Ontario, Eisai Limited, is steadfast in its efforts to live up to these ideals.

Alex Flint, director of growth markets for Eisai, is responsible for the company’s regulatory affairs, quality assurance, product safety, and compliance activities in Canada.


Eisai currently markets five medicines in Canada, each treating a wide range of illnesses: from preventing nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients, to treating specific forms of advanced breast and thyroid cancer, to epilepsy and a particularly debilitating form of the illness called Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome.

“I am very proud of these five medicines and of the many more that we continue to develop,” Flint says. “While our medicines do not treat large groups of patients, they are really important to some, and that makes them important to us, as well.”

In December 2015, Eisai received Health Canada’s approval for a new medicine that treats a subset of patients with thyroid cancer in need of a different treatment option. Recent data of the drug suggests that it can also improve outcomes for patients with other forms of cancer.

The medicine’s approval means that a typical day for Flint involves doing all he can to get the product into Canada as quickly as possible so the appropriate patients can start the treatment. He’s also working with teams to seek approval for new treatments as quickly as possible and actively developing new ways to enable sales and medical colleagues to work more effectively in the field with physicians and other healthcare providers.

“What that means is that I’m responsible for obtaining authorizations to commercialize our medicines in Canada, along with ensuring the products we supply to Canadian patients are safe, and that our organization continuously operates in a compliant and ethical manner,” he says. “I see myself as a strategic partner for the Eisai commercial organization.”

Balancing these areas of responsibility in a growing organization is a challenge, but Flint believes he is able to do so by maintaining a flexible resource model, which enables him to continuously focus on the highest priorities and adapt quickly when needed.

Eisai is considered a small- to mid-size global pharmaceutical company. Canada is a leading growth market within Eisai’s global reach, and currently employs about thirty professionals.

What makes my team unique is that we are a diverse team of external experts, and we partner with stakeholders from many areas within the organization to address rapidly evolving needs,” Flint says. “I don’t have any full-time employees and instead work with a team of ten highly experienced consultants on a part-time basis, and leverage the maximum global capabilities possible. For example, one member of my team is a former industry vice president who works with me one day per week. The value this team member provides in one day exceeds the value I could receive in one week from a less-experienced individual.”*

This part-time employee structure, in addition to leveraging these high-performing individuals’ expertise, has financial benefits as well. The cost of employing that one-day-per-week individual roughly equates to the cost of employing a full-time associate for a year—but the output is significantly higher and aligned with the organization’s current needs.

“It allows us to operate strategically and more like a Big Pharma company,” Flint says. “It’s surprisingly very efficient. For example, most of my colleagues in other organizations spend a significant percentage of their time on HR-related employee training, performance management, and development. I have similar requirements; however, I can accomplish these activities in a fraction of the time.”

Typically, expansions into growth markets are resourced from a central global hub—or within the country of operation—with a small team of full-time employees. Canada, however, is such a uniquely complex market that Flint needed multiple senior Canadian experts, and Eisai’s external organizational structure was the best method to do so for this phase of growth. Another benefit, he notes, is that the expansion is an engaging experience for all, making it easier to customize strategies and quickly develop a much-needed structure for the rapidly growing organization.

Although collaboration between external and internal team members can be a bit of a challenge, Flint reduces that chance by working on projects with established teams whenever possible. “The consultants I work with also work with other companies, and so their perspectives and insights are significant,” he says. “They see the big picture more clearly than people working internally because of the diverse cross-section of clients that they work with.”

And because the organization’s head office is headquartered in Tokyo, Japan, Eisai has a unique corporate philosophy and culture that translates well to the Canadian market.

As Flint explains, when a well-established pharmaceutical company develops a drug, it can often make the drug available to Canadians at an attractive rate quicker than major markets, such as the United States. That way, patients won’t have to leave the country to seek treatment, provided that travel is even an option. With smaller companies, however, this is not always possible, resulting in gaps in care for Canadians. Eisai’s philosophy and culture play a big part in tackling this challenge.

“The company is founded on a philosophy called ‘human healthcare’ in which the company gives first thought to patients and their families,” Flint says. “The greatest honour you can receive in Eisai is to exemplify this line of thinking. Several years ago, a team of Eisai employees in Canada won the highest global award after establishing a private infusion clinic in a remote area of Ontario so that patients with breast cancer who needed chemotherapy didn’t have to travel to a major city to get treated.”

The corporate culture, he says, plays an enormous role in promoting that type of thinking and rewarding the associated sense of urgency that follows.

“That true commitment to patients and their families is what makes this company unique,” Flint says. “Canada is not by any means the largest growth market, but that doesn’t matter. A patient is a patient, and we routinely do everything we can to reach appropriate patients in all markets as quickly as possible.”

*Continuing the conversation with . . .

Brian Pynn, ATB Financial:
At first blush, I was excited about the increased productivity, but I would have some engagement concerns in being able to provide appropriate leadership and vision in dealing exclusively with ‘unrestricted free agents.’

With no full-time team members, do you ever have concerns with issues such as maintaining a shared vision for projects or knowing where one expert’s accountability ends and begins?

Flint: Clarifying accountabilities and ensuring that the various pieces of the puzzle fit together seamlessly is challenging, but I wouldn’t consider it to be any more complex with our team versus one exclusively comprised of internal employees. In terms of productivity, it is important to evaluate talent similarly to how one would internally, so that you select and work with highly motivated and contributing team members who are able and willing to prioritize our team’s activities.

Anita Huberman, Surrey Board of Trade:
Some businesses can easily adapt to this model while others can’t. It depends on the nature of their product or service. We are still in a work economy where this approach is brand new. In my role, I need staff here every day, serving clients face to face.

How do you build a workplace culture and have your external experts get to know one another to collaborate?

Flint: I’m fortunate that the majority of the work I am responsible for can be completed remotely or by collaborating virtually. My areas of responsibility are essentially branches off of an organization that works together daily, in person. With this background in mind, it’s quite easy for me to integrate one of my consultants into the cross-functional team by them simply coming into the office to meet with the team. Integrating Canada-based employees or consultants into global teams and building a virtual workplace culture is challenging, no matter how you look at it!”