Helle Skov has a PhD in molecular biology and joined ALK Abellό, a world leader in allergy prevention, diagnosis and treatment, as a member of the management board two and a half years ago.

Originally published March 2017

ALK is a research-driven, global pharmaceutical company, not unlike Takeda and Novo Nordisk, where Skov spent her career until 2014. And after more than 25 years in the industry, Skov is pleased that her supply chain expertise has taken her to board level.

“I moved to ALK to take up interesting challenges where I could use my former experience and also come onto the management board of the company,” she says. “It is great to be involved in all aspects of the operations of the business. I’m responsible for the supply chain, but together we are running the company, so I also have much broader responsibility.”

She is helping to oversee a business with some 2,000 employees, headquartered in Denmark and listed on the Nasdaq in Copenhagen. ALK is the foremost innovator worldwide in allergy immunotherapy – a unique treatment that reduces allergic symptoms and treats the causes of allergies, improving the quality of life of millions of allergy sufferers and delivering long-lasting relief.

Skov certainly has the credibility to support such a role, with qualifications from the Royal Danish School of Pharmacy, and early roles as the head of a chemical laboratory, as a pharmacist focused on regulatory affairs, and as a chemist working in microbiological control.

In 1995, while working at Novo Nordisk, a pharma company driving the effort to defeat diabetes and other serious chronic conditions, Skov took on her first role in quality assurance and compliance, and four years later became head of license and contract manufacturing.

It was in 2003 that she committed to a career in the supply chain, she says, when she was promoted to vice president and head of local manufacturing and sourcing: “Working in the supply chain is a holistic job, which requires having lots of balls in the air at the same time. It’s a lot about cooperation and coordination, and you need a lot of professional skills, so I’ve always found it useful that I had that background in quality assurance, quality control and production.”

In 2006, she joined Nycomed, where she rose to head of regional site management operations for the Nordic region before being promoted to head of global supply chain in 2009. In 2011, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, the largest pharma company in Asia, acquired Nycomed, and Skov spent three years with the enlarged group as head of global supply chain before being attracted to the ALK job.

“I’ve had a good background for every job I’ve had,” she says, “because I’ve got the professional background to be able to talk to the R&D folks, as well as the supply chain knowledge to talk to the CFO and the commercial people. And working in the supply chain also requires a lot of personal skills, to get teams to work together, to be proactive, and to drive forward solutions.”

Now based in Denmark, after years in Switzerland, she says attracting talented supply chain professionals can be challenging. “It was certainly easier to attract talent in Zurich,” says Skov. “We have been able to attract talent from all over the world, but certainly the majority are males. There are females at lower levels, but there are not many at the top in supply chain at the moment. I think the time will come, because there are many talents around, and supply chain requires a holistic view and a combination of professional and personal skills that women are often very good at.”

She sees more and more females moving in to supply chain, not least because the role of the supply chain professional is changing: “Supply chain management is now an overall umbrella term covering product supply which is manufacturing, quality assurance, quality control, logistics, distribution and much more. It’s about making everything work together, and that’s much more attractive to women than the narrow focus on production that it used to be about.”

For her part, Skov says she has never felt like she’s been treated differently to the men during her lengthy career: “I’ve never felt any discrimination in all these years,” she says. “Ever since the start of my career I’ve worked with a lot of men, and been in leadership teams that were all male, but it’s never been an issue for me. It’s about having an open mind, being true to who you are, and realising that women sometimes have different skills.”

It is no longer necessary to be an engineer sitting at a machine, because there are now far more elements to modern supply chain management. As the roles become more broad, so more women will be attracted to sign up, she says.

“When I was at Takeda we had no problem recruiting talent, either to Zurich or Denmark,” says Skov. “I have experienced a little bit more difficult here, because we are a smaller company, even though we are the world leader in what we do. I have used my network to spread the word, as we need to get better known.”

Some of the laws in Denmark can help make the company attractive to women, with flexible working positively encouraged, and more and more young men taking up their rights to paternity leave, which helps level the playing field. ALK is firmly committed to hiring the best person for the job, and of Skov’s six direct reports, one is female. Skov is the only woman on the management board, and there is also one woman of the professional members of the board of directors.

She’s proud to have reached the boardroom via supply chain, and expects many more will follow in her footsteps. “Over the last five or 10 years, the role of supply chain has become far more important in lots of companies, because it’s seen as something that makes the whole thing work. It has moved up the agenda, not just across pharma, but also in other industries.”

She spends her days dealing with leadership and change management, focusing on organisational development, execution, and creating results. And she couldn’t be happier: “This is an extremely exciting job,” she says. “I’m involved in a lot of aspects of the company, and I can really use my professional skills and have lots of contact with people across the organisation and around the world. I like making things happen, and this is a great place to be doing that.”