Dr. Georg Boonen, you have now been with Max Zeller Söhne AG for over 22 years, starting as Export Manager in 1999 and then being appointed CEO in 2004. How did this early career jump come about?
Back in 1999, I applied for the position of Export Manager at Zeller. I was 31 years old at the time, a newly graduated pharmacist and had only 6 months work experience as a Medical Advisor at the Madaus subsidiary Euromed in Barcelona. The position advertised was for an experienced export manager with several years of professional experience and a corresponding network. Although I did not have the qualifications they were looking for, I was appointed.
It soon became clear to me that I could only successfully expand the international business if I understood all the processes and involved the whole company. That is why I was interested in all areas from the very beginning and - where possible - took on responsibility. In addition, I completed a Master's degree in St. Gallen.
At the time I was appointed the current CEO was 57 years old, and I knew that his plan was to hand over the CEO position at the age of 62 and then continue to serve on the Board of Directors. Three years later, in the autumn of 2002, I was offered the opportunity to succeed the CEO starting in June 2004. The offer came as a surprise, but I immediately accepted it. I then used the time up to the handover in June 2004 in intensive preparation for the job.
When you look back over your career, what challenging event has shaped you the most?
Taking on the responsibility as CEO was formative. Normally you qualify for such a task with several career steps. As far as I know the average age internationally is still over 50. If you take on such responsibility at the age of 36, your own personality development inevitably accelerates. Looking back, I was shaped by numerous challenges, setbacks and above all by the successes that I had together with my team.
You have been working for the same company for 22 years now, was a change of scenery never an option for you?
Due to the constant and interesting development of the company, the change of scenery took place within the company. To be happy in one job for 22 years, you need dynamism and challenges, something which I have never lacked. The most important thing, however, are the people you get to work with, whether in your own team or in the partner companies. I consider it a great privilege to be able to work in an exceptional team of outstanding experts. When you work for Zeller, you become part of the "Zeller family". For me, Zeller remains the place where I want to work.
What success are you most proud of?
I am very pleased that we have succeeded in developing Zeller into one of the leading providers of evidence-based phytopharmaceuticals. Today we are one of the few companies in our international niche that control the entire value chain “from seed to patient”. We are the market leader in Switzerland within our segment. This also includes the fact that with Zeller Medical, we have succeeded in establishing well-documented phytopharmaceuticals in prescriptions by doctors.
This development was only possible because we managed to form the right team over the years. I also try to give young trainee managers responsibility at an early stage as a method of supporting them in their development.
What advice would you give young managers who want a career like yours?
My advice to young managers would be to apply themselves and show themselves willing to take on responsibility. Anyone who is good at what they do, contributes their own ideas and is interested and committed beyond their own area of responsibility, is creating the best conditions for getting ahead.
At the same time the career path also depends on the environment in which you find yourself, how good your supervisor is and possibly also whether you are in the right place at the right time. If the environment does not allow for development, the courage and willingness to move on also play a role. Satisfaction and fulfilment in the job are more important than quick career steps. Everyone has to find out for themselves at which career level and with how much responsibility this occurs.
To what extent has your leadership style changed since the COVID-19 crisis?
I don't think my leadership style has changed as a result of the Covid pandemic. However, I would say that leadership is particularly important in times of crisis. That's why I communicated even more than usual, adopted clear positions and shared my assessment.
To what extent has COVID-19 influenced the product range of Max Zeller Söhne AG?
Our portfolio has proved to be very crisis-proof during the pandemic. We also have products in our portfolio that have suffered particularly from the pandemic. These include, above all, products for coughs and colds. All infectious diseases were greatly reduced thanks to the hygiene and distance rules and by wearing masks. In particular, there was increasing demand for our CNS products in the indication areas of sleep disorders and depressive moods as well as anxiety and restlessness. Our gynaecological portfolio, with indications such as premenstrual syndrome or menopausal complaints, was not affected by the pandemic.
Max Zeller Söhne AG is the market leader in Switzerland in the field of herbal medicines. Will you stay in this market segment in the future or is an additional expansion planned?
Our core competence lies in the development, manufacturing and marketing of phytopharmaceuticals. That will remain the case in the future. We are also expanding our portfolio to include other products that complement our portfolio in a meaningful way and for which there is no plant-based alternative.
Thus, we're introducing a probiotic range next month. We believe that maintaining or restoring intestinal health is very important in many of the indications we work on and that this is a useful addition to our portfolio.
What is the current pipeline like?
We are currently working on two new developments. These are complex extract and product developments that take several years to complete. We are also intensively working on our existing portfolio with the aim of improving our understanding of the underlying mechanisms of action of our preparations. The development of new galenic forms for existing products and the expansion of clinical documentation are also part of our development programme.
What is your forecast for the future of niche products that are still unknown at this time? Which products could you be thinking of?
I believe that the role of the human microbiome and how it is influenced by pre- and probiotics will increasingly become the focus of drug research. Herbal foods and medicines are playing an increasingly important role in this context. I believe that many herbal medicinal products are already working by influencing the intestinal flora.
Another personal question: What excites, inspires and motivates you?
An open exchange within the company and with my management colleagues inspires me and always gives me new motivation.
This interview was first published on stettlerconsulting.ch