The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Sometimes, taking the road less traveled leads to unexpected places. That was the case for AbbVie G.K. President and ACCJ Governor James Feliciano. In the 1980s, he thought Japan would be an interesting place to check out—what with the Japanese eco­nomic miracle and talk of Japan rising. He set out for a trip that would change his life and lead him down an unexpected path. “I felt it was like having a puzzle where I didn’t have the box cover, and every day I learned a little bit and could put in another piece of the puzzle,” he told The ACCJ Journal. And when that puzzle was complete, he found himself leading one of Japan’s top pharmaceutical companies. To find out more, we sat down with Feliciano at AbbVie’s new Tokyo office.

How did you become involved in pharma?
I was living in Japan for most of my twenties. After I had passed the Japanese level-one proficiency exam, I ended up moving to Tokyo and had a couple of smaller jobs. I landed finally at the headquarters of a major Japanese company, and that was an excellent opportunity to see Japan’s business world from the inside, through a well-respected, Japanese global company.

At that job, I was in the room for a lot of meetings and saw people who couldn’t speak Japanese. I was thinking, I can do that. How do I get to be on that side of the table? Someone gave me great advice: Go get an MBA. So, I dropped everything and went back to the States to get an MBA from Cornell University. That’s when I made the career switch to the pharmaceutical industry.

After joining Wyeth Pharmaceuticals’ Asia–Pacific Commercial Operations in 2002,  they asked if I would like to come to Japan to start up and lead the vaccine group. That was about 15 years ago. And I’m still here in the pharmaceutical industry in Japan.

How did you end up with AbbVie?
Wyeth ultimately got acquired by Pfizer, so I was adopted into the Pfizer family, which was a great opportunity. There are a lot of resources at Pfizer, and they were actually making the acquisition in part because of the vaccine business. They were asking, How do we support you and how do we accelerate your growth? I was very lucky to have been in that spot and we were able to have a lot of success. I think personally, it was one of my career-defining moments, in terms of changing vaccination policy in Japan, working with patient advocacy groups, doctors, and academic groups to create meaningful change in society.

Later, Pfizer wanted me to go back to the United States, but I wasn’t ready to do that. So, I decided to stay in Japan and ended up working for Merck [KGaA, the German pharmaceutical company]. I was there for almost four years, and it was a wonderful growth opportunity. I’d never worked in a European company. It was a very interesting dynamic and I think I really learned a lot personally and professionally. I was able to broaden my breadth of knowledge about products, moving from vaccines to covering a more diverse portfolio including oncology, fertility, and growth hormone.

I ultimately became president of Merck Japan. That was my first time to be a general manager, and I was kind of cutting my teeth and learning. A few years later, I was offered the opportunity to lead the business and the organization as general manager at AbbVie Japan, which I decided to accept. I still believe that my decision was right and I have been fortunate enough to lead such an amazing company over the last four years.

How has past experience informed your vision and goals?
My personal leadership style is collaborative, motivational, and empowering. I’m certainly not a micromanager. I like to work collaboratively with my team, and I like to have my management team working closely together, coming to decisions together, collaborating. I don’t really get too far into someone’s business unless there’s a crisis or a need, and then I do so to provide support. I think this leadership approach works well because the mission in pharmaceuticals revolves around patient centricity and trying to make things better for the patient. So, cross-functional collaboration and sharing of creative solutions and innovation are what we strive to do on a daily basis.

I guess the biggest surprise when I came to AbbVie was the size. At my previous company, there were about a few hundred people, and I pretty much knew everybody. At AbbVie, we’re talking about a much, much, much larger organization, where I did not know everybody. It was a big company to get my arms around. So, I had to learn how to lead using media and diffe­rent ways of communicating, because those skills are critical for me to get my message across to a much larger audience.

Collaboration and teamwork is key to Feliciano’s leadership philosophy.

I’m now in my fifth year here, and we’ve gone from about 800 to well over 1,200. AbbVie is a young company that was founded in 2013 when we split from Abbott. So, we have been establishing our corporate identity and corporate culture. How do you build a culture, bring in new people, and get them to assimilate into that culture and add value quickly while you’re building it? And how does that translate here in Japan? That has been the challenge.

Is the new office space a reflection of this?
Absolutely. We introduced the Activity-Based Workplace when we relocated to a new office in February this year. This environment absolutely reflects where we’ve been trying to go on this journey over the past five years. You see now that no one in the executive management team has an office. I don’t have an office. I’m moving around, whereas in the old space I would sit in my office and everyone would come to me. I’d have meetings at my table in my office and, you know, I felt so separated. It was just my world.

I thought, How can we be talking about collaboration? How can we be talking about working closely together—breaking down walls and silos—if we’re all sitting in these certain seats and we’re on different floors? You can’t. I think the office needs to reflect what you say you are trying to be.

Tell me about your midterm strategy, the 5-Year Focus.
This goes from 2016 to 2020, so we are four years in now. I joined in the middle of 2015, and when I did my initial review of the business—looking at our pipeline, at our future and the organization as a whole—I saw such opportunity. There was going to be a lot of growth in the organization.

We had a wonderful company vision for Japan, but I thought we were missing a little more granularity about how we were going to execute on that vision. So, I pitched 2016–2020 to the organization as our transfor­mation period. At the time, we were ranked 37th among Japanese pharmaceutical companies while globally, AbbVie has always been a top-10 company.

We asked, How are we going to evolve while bringing in these new products and growing? What are we going to be? The year 2020 can be kind of a springboard moment, almost like our debut as a major leader in the Japanese pharmaceutical market, which we define as being a top-20 pharmaceutical company in Japan. Personally, I need something like that to guide me on where I can add value. And I felt that, if we had this goal as an organization, it could help us to focus on what’s important, what matters. Ultimately, we achieved our goal of becoming a top-20 pharmaceutical company two years ahead of schedule. I would like to think that the 5-Year Focus played a driving role in achieving that success.

How do you achieve 94-percent employee engagement?
How we support individuals and commit to individual growth is a big theme for AbbVie Japan. We’re a growing company, and every month we have 10–20 new employees join. I go to every new employee orientation and give the opening comments. And I say the same thing every month: I want this to be the last company you join. I tell people that you don’t have to leave this company to grow.

In the third year of this 5-Year Focus, we talked about the need to get better at sending out our message about being the company of choice. We started thinking about our employee value proposition. One of the things that I think is unique about AbbVie Japan is that, even though we’re a big company, we spend a lot of time in the field meeting with our employees. Every year we have an all-employee meeting where everyone gets together. And every year, in the middle of the year, we do town hall meetings where the management team goes to 15 or so locations around Japan for much smaller one-on-one interactions.

At our 2017 town hall meetings, we asked our employees, What is it about AbbVie Japan that keeps you here? What do you like about this place? We want to hear from them and we’re always trying to get better. What we learned was really heartening, and there are three main points.

First, our employees tell us that we’re clearly committed to individual growth and they feel like this is a place where they can grow, because every employee has a career journey that they talk through with their managers. And we really focus on that career journey. What kind of experiences do you need? What kind of coaching and training do you need? We talk to employees about where they are going to be in five years and what they want to do.

Second, we hear that they feel we’re building this company together. Through the frame of the 5-Year Focus, and the way we communicate with and involve employees, they feel like they’re building this company. They realize that we’re new, that we’re building something, and that they’re a part of that. They feel a sense of ownership.

And third, we hear that they like working at AbbVie because we are really on the cutting edge of science, bringing innovative medicines to patients in need. The mission of what we’re doing as a pharmaceutical company is real.

How do you support work–life balance?
It’s a key part of that employee engagement. After building that base, we’re finally at a place where we can say, all right, you can work anytime, anywhere. You can pick your own space based on how you want to work that day and based on what your schedule is. If you have to go pick up your kid at two o’clock because they have a fever, you don’t have to use a holiday for that. You can do that, check in remotely, and do your work when you can. We’re more focused on accountability of your job and what your deliverable needs to be as opposed to how much time you spend here.

For example, I sometimes work from home and my mana­gement team works does that, too. We lead by example. We want to create this environment where you are responsible for yourself. But also, really key is communication between the manager and the employee. There’s an understanding around what the deliverables are, and managers are well trained on how to give feedback.

But if your performance evaluation is below a certain thres­hold, you are not eligible to work from home because you haven’t demonstrated the ability to deliver. So, it’s a culture of accoun­tability, a culture of responsibility. But again, that goes back to the employee value proposition. We are building this company together. We hold each other accountable for our success, and then, in the same way, we share that success because it’s ours. It’s not James’s or the management team’s. We celebrate success, we reward success, and we achieve success together.

What are the biggest challenges facing the industry?
It’s clearly around how the Japanese government is going to recognize and reward the next wave of biopharmaceutical innovations. Over the past few years, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has faced significant budgetary pressures, and, predominantly, necessary savings have come at the expense of innovative medical technologies.

There’s only so far you can go with that approach. I’ve been working within Japan’s healthcare industry for more than 15 years, and at the start of my career there was a terrible drug lag in Japan. Innovative products that were available in Europe or the United States were coming to Japan three, four, five years later. So, essentially, Japanese patients were at the end of the line in terms of getting access to those new treatments.

The Japanese government made significant policy changes at that time around pricing, regulatory requirements and regulatory review times, all of which encouraged and stimulated development and investment in Japan. In short course we saw the drug lag disappear. Case in point, a few months ago AbbVie launched an innovative product for psoriasis first in Japan, ahead of any other country. Japan has gone from the back of the line to the front. But now the industry is feeling a lot of pressure, as innovation is not being appropriately recognized and rewarded under Japan’s reformed pricing and reimbursement system.

Recent healthcare reforms have been heavily focused on the pharmaceutical sector. In the coming years, they will need to take a more comprehensive approach to reform, as the Government of Japan needs to address some of the more fundamental issues facing the healthcare system today. Focusing their efforts on the pharmaceutical sector, only a small portion of overall spending and one of the most value-added expenditures, will not contribute to the goal of ensuring the sustainability of Japan’s healthcare system. If Japan is going to be successful in coping with its rapidly aging society, they are going to have to think more seriously about strengthening healthcare system financing and changing the way in which care is delivered. I am proud to see the ACCJ taking steps towards leadership on this issue under the Healthcare and Retirement Pillar.

Ultimately, much more can be done to ensure greater efficiency and effectiveness in care delivery, addressing issues such as polypharmacy, the high frequency of clinic visits, and long hospital stays. At the same time, it is very important for Japan to continue investing in the prevention, early detection and treatment of disease. I believe the biopharmaceutical industry has an important role to play here and we are looking forward to partnering with the Government of Japan in addressing these challenges.

Feliciano wants everyone at AbbVie to feel ownership in the company and its mission.

What is your vision for 2020 and beyond?
Over the past five years, I have been blessed to bring in more experienced talent that helps lead the organization, and to get the ship steady and the course plotted. We now know where we’re going. We have critical mass now and our processes have been improved. We’re delivering year in, year out on our commitments. We really are a high-performing organization.

The next five years are going to be about passing the torch to the next generation, bringing in that next wave of leader­ship, and having them carry on the legacy and drive us forward. We have a very strong talent pool and they’re eager to move up and to move forward. We need to provide them those opportunities and let them take us to that next level. That’s my expectation. Across different business units, we’re going to see a handing over to the next generation. We will empower and support them to drive success and create the best envi­ronment so that we can continue to see the AbbVie Japan culture grow, evolve, and thrive. 

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.
The mission in pharmaceuticals is really around patient centricity and trying to make things better for the patient.