People | The Big Questions

Boehringer Ingelheim’s Thorsten Poehl on fostering organizational change

Global ambitions defined by empathy, opportunity

by Jane Kitagawa

Contributing Writer

Name: Thorsten Poehl
Title: President and Representative Director at Boehringer Ingelheim, Japan
URL: https://www.boehringer-ingelheim.jp/
DoB: Aug. 21, 1963
Hometown: Norderney, Germany
Years in Japan: 3


Boehringer Ingelheim Japan President and Representative Director Thorsten Poehl is proof of the old adage that good things come to those that wait.

Long fascinated with Japan, he was a university student during the 1980s bubble era and studied the country’s rise as a dominant economic power; this kicked off a journey that took the self-described “highly competitive” businessman roughly 30 years with the pharmaceutical giant to make it to the land of the rising sun. But it wasn’t through a lack of ambition or trying.

“My first opportunity working abroad with Boehringer Ingelheim was in Brazil (where there is a very large Japanese community),” said Poehl. “I think there are more than 1 million Japanese living there, and there are areas where you can live very well speaking only Japanese,” he continued, emphasizing he was drawn to learning about what made Japan so driven at that time and sharing that he began studying Japanese.

“I suggested to my company that my next assignment could be Japan.” The Japan office at that time, however, did not require Poehl’s services. “I then stopped learning Japanese — unfortunately.” Poehl said with a laugh.

Poehl’s long-term tenure with Boehringer Ingelheim — “(for) almost my entire working life” — could perhaps be likened to the traditional system of employment in Japan, where a person enters a firm after finishing their degree and slowly gains seniority through the company ranks. Despite coming from a family of doctors, the marketing student was initially drawn to “working on cool campaigns at brand name companies in the fast moving consumer goods sector.” However, an underwhelming interview experience steered him to the health care industry instead.

The reasoning behind his turnaround boiled down to finding a sense of purpose. What attracted Poehl to Boehringer Ingelheim, one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies renowned for developing innovative drugs in the therapeutic areas of oncology, cardiovascular, respiratory, metabolic, central nervous system-related and virological diseases, were the company’s values. According to him, they “came straight out of the living room of founder Albert Boehringer nearly 150 years ago.”

“These four core values are entirely human centric,” said Poehl. “Trust, respect, empathy and passion. A passion for helping patients, trust and respect in how we deal with each other, and empathy for the world that’s around us, empathy for our patients and empathy for people. This is what’s visible everywhere and how we work at Boehringer Ingelheim,” he said. Yet while Poehl noted the business is renowned for providing staff with development opportunities, it also allows ambitious employees like himself “to be creative and help develop the company.”

Poehl, who first worked within Boehringer’s business unit management, prescription and over-the-counter medicine, and chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing divisions, first made his mark helping to transform marketing and sales operations.

“I have an eye for things that are not good enough. The driver (in whatever I do) is transformation,” he said, adding that being competitive was also important. Initially working to change the way Boehringer globally marketed its products so that efforts were more seamless and integrated with medical and research teams, Poehl said such work was still relevant today at a time when digital communications and technology have to be factored and incremental changes to industry all play an important role in customer interactions.

“We have not yet seen the one big game changer in the pharmaceutical industry,” Poehl said. “There’s no Amazon versus Sears. We are driving digital improvements step by step to most of our processes. That’s something very high on my agenda.”

Another area where Poehl has made his mark has been transforming Boehringer’s human resource functions on a global scale, the ramifications of which continue today. “Suggestions, ideas, how to do things differently, how to develop real talent management, how to manage and improve our business culture to what’s more collaborative, and more sharing and transparency. More diversity,” he said, about his role as corporate senior vice president of talent management at company headquarters in Germany.

Addressing the challenges in hiring across different markets and cultural landscapes has not been his biggest business achievement, however, Poehl noted. His overall time at Boehringer has seen him step into roles where a market is not performing at its best; his job has been to foster organizational change and turn situations around.

“When I came to Japan we wanted to make (it) more part of our global organization. It was a little bit too isolated and had become a bit too traditional. We wanted to move more toward a more open, collaborative (less hierarchical) way of working,” Poehl said.

Confronted with a major patent loss in 2017 of a product comprising 43 percent of the company’s portfolio, Boehringer had to renew its sales, portfolio and pipeline. Team building and involving staff in the responses to organizational change placed Boehringer in a stronger position overall, Poehl said.

Japan’s expertise in scientific research and development — “In the last 10 years, four medical Nobel laureates have come from Japan” — is another area in which Boehringer aims to drive company success, Poehl said. “I think we’re the only multinational company (of our kind) doing research here,” he noted, referencing an 80-person research center in Kobe that belongs to Boehringer’s global research network. “To work with the staff and Japanese doctors to maximize the opportunity for patients to better understand our drugs, and how we should develop them, that is exciting,” he said, smiling.


An ever-increasing range of expertise

Thorsten Poehl was born and raised in Germany. After majoring in marketing at the University of Muenster, he began working at multinational pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim where he remains employed to this day. Stationed in countries ranging from Brazil to Norway, and Mexico to Spain, Poehl’s roles have seen him develop expertise in areas such as business unit management, prescription and over-the-counter medicine, chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing, talent management, leadership development and country market management, among others. He has also strived to keep abreast of changes in management and business theory through study at institutions such as INSEAD and the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University. Since arriving in Tokyo in 2016, Poehl has been drawing on his passion for transformation, talent management and organizational change to develop and enhance the medical giant’s presence in Japan.

The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.

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