Five years ago, Jennifer Wang joined Watson Pharmaceuticals as an executive director of global supply planning, with little idea of the rollercoaster journey she was signing up to.
Originally published March 2017
Based in New Jersey, in the US, she oversaw global supply planning for the American generics drug maker, but within a year the company had bought Switzerland-based Actavis, valued at about $5.9 billion, and taken on the Actavis name.
Since then, “it’s been quite a ride”, says Wang, who is now vice president of global planning at Allergan, the pharma firm created from a flurry of mergers and acquisitions out of what was once Watson. “We have doubled our size almost every year since I’ve been here,” she says.
Actavis made it into the Fortune 500 in 2013 for the first time, by now transforming into a real generics powerhouse. Later that year, it bought Warner Chilcott, based in Ireland, for $8.5 billion, and moved its headquarters to Ireland to take advantage of lower corporate tax rates. In early 2014, Actavis bought Forest Laboratories for $25 billion, and then came the big one: at the end of 2014, Actavis announced plans to acquire Allergan for $70.5 billion, cementing the generic drug maker’s rebirth as a branded and speciality pharma company. Actavis became known as Allergan, and Wang’s job got a whole lot bigger.
“Every year it’s been like a new job,” she says. “We’ve been going from generics to brands, and what I really love is being in the middle of everything, conducting the orchestra. I’ve thrived helping this company deal with the amount of change, and every year assessing what the group needs to look like and then helping put that in place.”
With things moving so fast, it is not a place where you can work to a static three-year roadmap, says Wang. “Every year a new business comes in and you have to re-evaluate the model. So you learn to move in a direction, and over- plan but instead make improvements and adjust. You need to find a way to keep moving that process forward and not be handicapped by the fact that the landscape is always changing,” she says.
It’s clearly an environment in which she thrives, and she says that she’s someone who “likes creating, rather than doing the same thing year on year”. That was kind of obvious from day one, when she came out of Harvard Business School and immediately headed for Silicon Valley, looking for a job in operations. She arrived at SGI, a leader in high-performance computing, where she led a team doing materials planning, inventory management and order fulfilment.
Other high-tech roles followed, including a role in a dot com , but in 2008 Wang decided she wanted to shift her career into healthcare and joined Johnson & Johnson. Her first role saw her working in a plant on the commercialisation of a new product, taking end-to-end ownership of a new technology that, she says, didn’t have a clear playbook for manufacturing and supply chain.
“I have always been a jack of all trades,” says Wang, “and I like roles that involve new business units, building teams, and creating processes.”
Wang relocated to the East Coast with Johnson & Johnson, and took on a role as a supply chain manager before spending a year as a director of supply chain planning, then leaving for Watson in 2011.
She would advise anyone seeking a similar career to work hard in the early stages to understand the whole business picture. Wang says: “I always say, make sure you get manufacturing experience and exposure. Having that opportunity to work in a plant for five years was a tremendous experience for me. I advise people to find an opportunity to work in a plant early in your career, because it gets harder to get that experience as you move on, and having that credibility and knowledge is a skill that will really set you apart.”
Also important is taking the chance to rotate through different roles, so as to broaden your exposure to all the elements of a supply chain. When it comes to recruitment, Wang says it can be a challenge to find people that can move seamlessly between plants and the corporate environment.
She says she’d like to see more women working in manufacturing roles, though across the supply chain as a whole there is a growing population of female talent. One of the challenges, Wang says, is encouraging women to put themselves forward for roles where they might not necessarily have all the skills set out on the job description.
“I try to train people on the ability to ask the right questions without necessarily knowing all the details of a situation,” says Wang. “It’s not necessary to obsess about getting the exact calculation in the spreadsheet correct, but it’s important to know what you’re trying to achieve and to think more broadly.”
Over her time in the industry, she’s pleased to have seen the role of the supply chain professional gain credence in large organisations. “There’s been a transformation going on, where we have seen supply chain move from being a back-office function to really being out in front of commercial, as a partner in the strategic top-level thinking,” she says.
“We’ve all worked hard to establish our credibility and demonstrate the value supply chain can add to a company,” says Wang. “More and more we are out leading the discussions of long-range strategy, and making sure we can anticipate and be prepared for where the business is going next.”
Such foresight isn’t always easy in a business like Allergan, where veteran dealmaker and CEO Brent Saunders is forever on the lookout for the next transformational acquisition. But Wang has a hunger for a challenge, and, fortunately, has no desire to sit still.