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The WOW Series

Markus Sieger, CEO of Polpharma

This podcast illustrates how Markus built a hugely successful career through his total commitment to achieving a goal - and his ability to motivate other people to work towards a shared cause.

Listen Time
37 minute listen

Markus has been in the workforce from a young age. He entered the workforce at 16, in the punch card era of IT. Since then he’s worked in a wide range of countries across a wide range of industries, from investment banking to consumer goods, media and now in life sciences.

He’s spent much of his career in emerging markets, drawn by the positivity, ambition and willingness to learn in these regions that still excites him after almost thirty years.  Markus also shares his thoughts on the role his military training has played in his career,  the importance of getting your hands dirty and continually learning, the secret to his success as an outsider in the pharmaceutical industry, and the relationship between success and happiness.

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Frederic Brunner: Welcome to today's podcast. On today's podcast I have the pleasure and privilege to talk to Markus Sieger. Markus Sieger has had an amazing career with very different stages. He's been across industries, he has been in different type of ownership-based companies ranging from M&A, he’s been employed, he's been a CEO, he's been a founder, he's seen a lot of things, and we'll have a chance to discuss with him what stands behind his success. Markus, a warm welcome to the podcast.

Markus Sieger: Frederic, thank you very much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Frederic Brunner: Very good. So, Markus, as you know, this podcast is really about giving the people that listen a better understanding of who you really are, and what made your success. And for that I'd like to start, if it's okay with you, with what I would call the fundamentals which everybody has a starting package in life, you were born somewhere, you have a family set up, etcetera. So, can you tell us a little bit. How was it for you at the beginning and what was your kind of package, how you started life when you were young?

Markus Sieger: And so basically, I grew up close to Zurich in a suburb of Zurich into a family which was run by, and really run by, an entrepreneurial father who was himself an entrepreneur. He was in a trading business, highly successful in all that he touched, being it the business side, being it politics, or also on the social side, so he was really a role model for myself. I'm the first born of three boys so basically, you have as a reference with your father. And so, I was born into this family and from the beginning performance and winning, was something which was part of my life. Also it has to do a little bit with my last name, because my last name in German means "the winner".

But besides that, it was just taken as granted that you bring out your best in you, and that really coined me from the beginning. I didn't really succeed a lot in sports or in other areas, I just tried to be good in whatever I did and use my potential and my possibilities I had, so I think this was basically the foundation. Then when I went through formal education and training, also there, I really tried to train and go into new areas in the very beginning, in the '80s and '90s I had to possibly to work in IT which was where I really started with the punch card, and then I had the opportunity also after my studies to work in the US and really get an exposure in the beginning of the '90s to a different culture. And that somehow coined me that being from Switzerland, in a very traditional set-up family, and all these principles, then going some sort of... Then you have your military education. There also I spent quite a lot of time and I became an officer and was in a second I would say, culture or setup, then I got the exposure to the US which was again, a totally different business culture. It was a large organization which was acquired by a Swiss group and which sent me there, and then I changed in the beginning of the '90s to a small, and we were four people at that time, investment bank and boutique. Where I started to work with private entrepreneurs in emerging as I...

Frederic Brunner: So maybe before we go further in all your story, I want to maybe double-click on two things you just said, because I think they're very important to you. And you mentioned them, but I'd like for people to be able to listen more on that. One of the things you once told me is how the military has been a key moment for you. And I remember that you told me that your life is really about dedication and that this is one of the moments where it sounded to me at least that dedication was very clear, and it became a bit one of your signature. Can you tell us a bit about military dedication or the discovery of dedication in life, and how that was one of the fundamentals of your success?

Markus Sieger: Absolutely. Yeah, so this dedication as I said, started a bit in the family setup, seeing my father dedicate himself to his business, to his family, but also to politics and the social elements around it. But then when I myself got into the military, I was somehow attracted to this very clear setup and basically clear rules. But also that you yourself were not important anymore, but actually the team or the... Being with the group or whatever you called it at that time. And in this context, I really started to work with people and tried to convince them of my dedication, my goals, which I had in the setup and this worked astonishingly quite well, this I continue doing now and in the future. So whatever I do, I take charge and I really try to deliver, so I really... When I really fully buy in and that I take ownership in this sense.

And then this is also something which has most likely sometimes limited me because I was just too dedicated to it, or for other people, and didn't really look for my best return. But at the end of the day, I think it made me pure and true to myself. So I took on a task, I try to do the best out of it and then, yeah, deliver. So dedication as you said it's very important, but you also flagged, what comes out that was as a second element which is basically people. I truly like people. I really like to be with them, to meet new people constantly. It's also why I'm really slightly restless in traveling and meeting new people, going to new situations, go to new countries to explore, and working together with people to achieve something. Also being there for them and especially utilizing their potential, motivating them to also dedicate themselves to a cause I think that's what it's all about in leadership. And this is something I have worked on from the beginning when I was standing in front... As an early... As a young person in military in front of a group of people that I took responsibility not only for them, but for ammunition, for weapons, for exercises. So you really had quite a large responsibility as a young person, and this for sure also formed me to be even be more dedicated and more responsible in what I did.

Frederic Brunner: Yeah. And the third thing, and I'm not sure if this is correct about the foundation, we talked about your father and how you got exposed to performance, you talked about the military and dedication. The third thing when I was looking at your CV is you started to work very young. And what I think might have happened is you have much more years of experience than many other people, so is that... Did you start working at 16? Is that something I read correctly?

Markus Sieger: Yeah, yes, yes, I'm actually working 40 years already, actually 41 years now, because I'm 56 now. So basically, it is a classical Swiss setup, I started with an apprenticeship... But then I very quickly found out that, I never worked on the job which I learned for. I immediately went into an education for one year in IT, because at that time you couldn't study information technology. Then I studied economics while working, and I continued to train myself in moving forward. So that's true, I really had a lot of experience, but also, I think to the contrary of some other colleagues, I've done it myself. I really had to work with my own hands, and in different departments, also doing apprenticeships, so you really do everything from being the clerk in the postal office to whatever. It really was, in that sense, very good, because you really understand also the role, and the issues of everybody in an organization. It's not only about strategy and big finance, it's about the people and how they feel in their own environment, in their job and their profiles, talking about Maslow and the needs of people, I think it's really important to understand that.

Frederic Brunner: Yeah, so I like that because I think this is a very, I would say, atypical starting package for an amazing career. And I think the military combined with the working early, a lot of people don't do as much military and they tend to study forever, and when they turn 26, they haven't started to work in life, and I think, we'll explore that a little bit later in the conversation. You had a very strong foundation of getting things done, entrepreneurial things, how you got, I would say, activities or job after job, and what I'd like to talk a bit about what you started to explain before is how this led to quite a series of jobs, when you discovered different countries, so you went to investment banking, and then you actually used that to go to several industries like the consumer goods, the healthcare, the media. You have done a lot of industries for an executive, so can you tell us a bit about how come you did all of these industries and in particular with, in the particular geography of the world?

Markus Sieger: Yes, so I had the chance that... I think it was in '94. I was also joined a very small team by a friend of mine, which said, I found out there is a gap between a private entity and other stakeholders, being it banks, being it tax authorities, being it transactional partners, being whatever. There needs to be a buffer which covers the financial, legal, structural side, and he had this idea, and so we started working, the four of us, which then was quickly growing, with several families. But, two families came out of Poland, and one family came out of Switzerland, which had those emerging markets like Singapore and others had their companies and the fascinating piece is, and that's what I was saying, I had to change my whole life. To work either in emerging industries like IT, or emerging markets, which means one simple thing, in terms of people: They're all motivated, they all want to learn, they all want to grow, they all have dreams. And this makes it, as a leader, really fascinating to work with them. There is a positive environment, and I'm going now for 27 years to Poland, and to other countries, and every time I touch down on Monday morning with the plane, I'm just excited. And it hasn't really gone away. It's this excitement of working with people who have these dreams, and who want to learn, and who want to move, where I think in Western Europe, it has slowed down.

There's not the same motivation, not the same... And especially in the beginning of the '90s, there was all of this wild west mentality, that many industries didn't exist over really in a sleeping beauty face which you had to wake, and the entrepreneurs, which were working for or with, were actually extremely entrepreneurial, 'cause they started... They include... They started in media, they started in cinemas, they started in healthcare. So through this, I basically touched those industries through M&A activities. Then somehow, I was also joined on supervisory board, and at a certain point in time, even some managerial functions being involved in, especially on the media side, wherever, with a lot TV group, where I was doing strategy and basis development and was actively involved in really shaping some new technology. And then at the end in 2013, I decided to leave after 19 years, this investment banking set-up, which I owned, partially, and I joined one entrepreneur, which I've worked before with, and basically continued to build with him. Again, the same context, I started shaping the family office and sharing it, and then going into the boards, and then I was asked in '16 to take over the leadership role in this pharmaceutical group, also in Central and Eastern Europe, which I'm now running for five years.

Frederic Brunner: And this is something I'd like to take a moment to talk about, because, if you don't mind me saying, this is for me a remarkable thing, you became the CEO of a pharmaceutical group with almost no experience in pharmaceutical, if you compare to a lot of the industry, people are groomed up for 20 years in pharma or generics, etcetera, and you were given that job and you had fantastic growth at Polpharma, but in essence, you came as an outsider of the industry. So how could you be successful in such a domain, which requires knowledge and expertise coming essentially with limited knowledge?

Markus Sieger: I think there are three reasons for it. First of all, it's a private-owned company, which means the shareholder and chairman is quite involved, right? So there is a strong leadership by him and also the supervisory board which is really an excellent and very experienced team. So I play a role in between that group and the shareholder and basically the management team. I think, because I have this level of trust with the owner and the board, it works extremely well. Secondly, then you have the group, which has different companies, which are run, so I'm not operationally running a company, I never have. I'm running the overall group, so my core role is basically to define strategy with the share... Is then making it workable into workable pieces so we can implant it into the group and basically motivate the team and challenge the team in implementing of those, the strategies and achieving targets set by that and so forth.

So this is the second, the second element, and the third element, why I think it works well, because I love this region. I love the people in this region, I think I understand the culture, I think I understand the needs, and I think I can adapt well. Now, contrary to many other models, I think that my job is not to say what has been done, I think I have to work with the team, which is, as you said, a lot more experience in terms of the pharmaceutical industry, it knows a lot more about R&D and BD and commercial tactics.

And basically together, then form an opinion and at the end, yes, decide, but then it's basically inspired and motivated by a team opinion, so I rarely go against the team in that sense. For sure I have opinions, and I'm sure, I’m also get to get stronger in certain areas, but I think that has worked quite well, especially in this area, because people want to contribute, they want to be part of the solution. And yes, they need somebody, again, which then set a desire, or is the frontman, if that needs to be. But I think in our context, I really invested a lot of time and energy in building the team, in opening ourselves, in trusting, in being transparent, in terms of information. I think that has worked quite well. So I think it's a more of a humble role than I take you would see... In all the roles, of a really tough CEO dictating every single day what has to be done. So I think that's the real reason why I think it really works.

Frederic Brunner: Yeah, I think it's a fascinating model, especially seeing the success you have had, to show that, indeed, essentially, you plus the team can do wonderful things without you having the better knowledge about the industry, and I think that's quite remarkable. The one thing that I would love to know a little bit is, when you look back on 35 or 40 years of career, what is only success if you look at the CV, do you see yourself as successful? Do you feel successful today? Or do you feel like there is always more, and how successful do you feel?

Markus Sieger: I think first of all, I feel happy. I think that I feel happy in my life. I feel happy with my job and... And I think that's the foundation. I think you have to feel well in what you're doing, otherwise you're most likely not doing it well, or you're not doing it well for the environment. I think this is the first. And yes, I think I have been very lucky, being able to work in environments with motivated teams. Thirdly, obviously, it doesn't come for free, I'm basically traveling four days a week, and that's taking it's toll in one of the other areas. So I think in this context, yes, I think I have done well, but you know to take the words of my shareholder, you know he... "What can we do better?" I mean it's the daily question, what can we do better? Where can we improve? Because otherwise, if you don't have that drive, you're not pushing forward, so that means, yes, no, I'm not really happy in terms of I could do better, but I think, it's not an aggressive push-forward, I think it's more of a in a... I know what I can do better, and but as I said, I'm really happy with where I am and how I am in this area.

Frederic Brunner: You touched on a notion when I asked you, do you feel successful? You answered, I'm happy, and I just wanted to ask a question on that is, does success mean happiness? Because a lot of young people who want to be successful, I think assume success means happiness. Do you think that's the case? Or do you think this is a part of it, but not all of it?

Markus Sieger: I truly believe that you have to make your happiness yourself every single day. There are terrible circumstances like illnesses and losses in life, which can influence you, but pushing this aside, I think you have to work on your happiness every single day. And I think you can be happy without being successful. Absolutely. But it depends on your purpose and your goals in life, and I think there is where it starts. For me being successful without having this happiness element inside and the purpose which you're striving for, I think it's really meaningless in a way. There are lot of successful people, which are happy, it could be what they say it. I also had to find out two years ago when I was doing an education, I really spent six weeks, first time in my life after I was 16. For six weeks, only for me, looking into myself, being inspired by many of my colleagues and also some professors, and then really going deeper in, "Am I really happy? Is really this what I'm striving for?" And I think this reflection, I think one has to do, therefore, I think, success can be defined in many terms. For me, what is really more important is this happiness fact and that you feel well with what you're doing, and then most likely also do it, and you're feeling well, I think that you're also performing in that sense.

Frederic Brunner: I'd like to double-click a little bit on that fully dedicated concept, right? Which is your signature. How should people who don't know you represent themselves. What does it mean to be fully dedicated? How do you're fully dedicated?

Markus Sieger: Yeah, I think... So in a sentence, I would say, or just to explain dedication before answering your question, I think with dedication, you can achieve more in, which somehow means, so this is a phrase which was coined about me once. And because I truly believe that if you really put the whole energy into something, you can achieve a better result. So if you do things, do it fully and not half-hearted, and then you better don't start, especially when it involves other people. And especially when you're responsible, because then, I said, there could be only 50% results or, people will be frustrated or whatever. So, I think this dedication means you have to stand behind something. So that means you have to, first of all, for sure, understand it but also have to believe in it, and then you have to engage yourself, but most likely also people around you. And this is so fascinating, what I've learned of all these entrepreneurs, they are not the best in something, the contrary, they're actually not, they're actually, most likely just good at networking, or seeing industries and taking risks in a controlled way.

And then motivating people to take that responsibility of moving forward, that's the entrepreneur, which I'm working for is the same, he's brilliant in finding the right people to run certain businesses, who he trusts. And he just inspires, and he challenges. But he's also fully dedicated to his cause. But he also understands his limits, which I think also, I do, for example, in the pharmaceutical industry. I think that you can understand the concept, how the industry works, you can understand, where the profit pools lies, and where the issues could lie in terms of, improving the organization, but then you need experts really helping you in making this happen.

Frederic Brunner: One question a lot of young leaders have I keep hearing all the time is, “Can you really have a work-life balance and a lot of success and be fully dedicated?” What is your experience? And if we talk real terms, is it feasible or is it nice to say?

Markus Sieger: I'm not sure if I'm a good example or not, but I'm thinking about how I see it, I think, I had a very good relationship for over 30 years. And have two great adult children and what we had is we had basically a split of roles. And we had a very clear split of roles. And that worked, what didn't work at the end most likely, especially when you're apart a long time, is that you start to develop in a certain direction, and you start to disconnect to a certain degree and that, yeah, that obviously can kind of lead to split up or to issues. And I think for me, I think it is possible and I think work-life balance has different angles, that you will look for yourself in terms of sports, doing other activities, getting inspired by other topics than just work, which is I think, the easier part and then if you get into the relationships side, I think then, and family, which are extremely important to me, it is another aspect, which takes a toll especially when you're physically distant and cannot see each other so much. It could be now that it's changing with the new hybrid work models and so forth that that can be a better fit on the one hand, but it's not easy, I think especially for your partner and I think it can really take its toll.

Frederic Brunner: One thing that I'd love to discuss with you is, you learned a lot from success you also learned a lot from mistakes, failures, or difficult moments as these tend not to be in the CV and I'd love to hear a bit of what would been... What have you been learning a lot in these tough moments, I know that there is at least one in particular I'd like to discuss in one of your business contexts, I think there was the death of somebody suddenly and you witnessed a bit some negative consequences of what was not taken care of, so a bit what comes after success, if... I would love to hear a bit about what have you learned from that for the audience?

Markus Sieger: Yeah, so I think, when you have a successful life, you obviously want what you have built to continue, that your legacy somehow is here or that there is a positive impact of you being here during your lifetime. And I've experienced one situation very closely where an entrepreneur died and and then the group or the setup was not as strong and not so well prepared as it have should been. And then the family got into a quarrel and that led to certain pressure on the structure and basically assets had to be sold. And let's say the legacy has been somehow lost. So basically, what I want to say with it, I think success also brings a lot of responsibility in a way and I think if you want to also make good because I think at the end, there's always only a few which are very successful. And I think there is also a certain mandate, I think, to give back. And this can be to a group of people, it can also be to the society in whatever shape and form, but you have to really invest time in doing so. And you have to really think long-term when you when you're constructing such an empire or a large fortune and I think that's really important. And that also is reflected on me and saying, "Okay, are you really set up? What would happen to you now if to your close ones, would they be protected? But that was... Are you leaving something behind which is which has a positive impact?"

And I think these thoughts are, I would say, in the early years, not really present in your life and then it can go very quickly and depending on what happens, there are always terrible stories. So in that context, I think it's really important to actually be aware of it, plan forward, protect your loved ones, and also try to leave a positive impact by structuring and organizing yourself.

Frederic Brunner: There's one particular thing, and I know you did really well during that time I would like to talk about, is COVID. And I would love to hear a bit from you, what are the two, three things you've found personally challenging? Because everybody had a different way to deal with COVID, right? What did you find challenging and how did you attack these challenges?

Markus Sieger: Basically, the first challenge I had in the conference I was active in, is that when COVID started, obviously we have a lot of connection to China, India, because of our supply chain, somehow, we were all exposed very early to it because somehow it influenced our supply chain so we immediately reacted to this, it's like, "Hey, if China really has a problem, we have to order more quantities and be prepared and so forth." What was somehow astonishing from my point of view is that everybody around me said, "No, it will never come to our countries. It will not hit us, it won't be an issue," and so I found it very strange because somehow, what I was reading and I was a reading a lot about it was actually saying something totally different. So I had to convince my team, all the time, saying, "No, no. It will arrive and what can we do to prepare?" This was actually the first issue. Then the second one, I think, the second challenge was in the communication field, how you can over the long-term give confidence to your employees. Because obviously we did a lot in terms of protective measures. You can imagine, our factories had to work, we had to supply products to the marketplace, we are the largest Pharmaceutical Company in Poland, the largest one in Kazakhstan and large in Russia. We had basically, a mandate to deliver drugs to the marketplace.

And it was very difficult to protect the factories. We did a lot of testing and the measures and so forth. But you had to keep people motivated, to go to the factory, keep people motivated to work from home in difficult circumstance. Not everybody has an office at home, and then you have two adults working at home with the children also at home. We had to have flexibility when they worked and how they worked and so forth and so forth. But then what we really found out, it's really communication. Open transparent communication. And also that I basically tried to... I did weekly videos, which I was shooting at home with my iPhone and in my living room and just took three topics which were on my mind, and talked... This basically became really then a very positive, a very positive element which we continue now on a monthly basis, but I think it's really helped to bring people together. And then thirdly, I think at the end of the day, the crisis management as such, I didn't really see as a big problem because that was based in the military, one, two, three, you know how we do crisis management and so forth. I think, that was easy to organize and to control there, I think it just needed a lot of attention and being there. And I think now the third challenge is, and that's actually right now, how you bring the motivation back.

Because you had the swing into a virtual work mode, obviously, that's perfect for many, many areas, but there are areas where actually, a physical meeting, physical presence, just makes a lot of sense. And I think we are now balancing this and to satisfy all the stakeholders here and to find the right solution, I think that's the third one, we're now working on, and I'm really confident that we now, I think we're there now with the model and most likely to announce in the next two or three weeks. And so really these are the three challenges. And so these are mostly about the employees, less about our supply chain or technology or so, which I think was well managed too and was not easy but the main challenge, I think was really about the employees and keep them motivated and also keep them in a positive mood and somehow feeling cared for.

Frederic Brunner: And if we talk about you personally, what is the one thing you found the most difficult with COVID and what is the opportunity you used? And is a good crisis also serve as opportunity, how did you... One thing that you find difficult and one thing that you took out of it, as a person?

Markus Sieger: Yeah, so what I really found difficult was not to travel. I travel basically, this week I'm in four countries. I really liked to travel to meet new people and this dynamism inspires me and drives me. And that was really difficult to do, and so I was happy when laws stopped because I started again to travel to a certain extent. And to what I used the opportunity because I didn't travel, as I said, but now it's the element, now I can lose the 10 kilos I always wanted to lose, now I can do more sports, and now I can actually get in shape, and I think that's what I did, and it really worked. Yeah.

Frederic Brunner: Very good, thank you very much. Now, I'd like to conclude our conversation with five rapid-firing questions, that I'm asking through all the guests, if it's okay.

Markus Sieger: Sure.

Frederic Brunner: The first question is, what did you want to be when you grow up?

Markus Sieger: I think it was a car driver like Formula One driver.

Frederic Brunner: Formula One, very good. Second question, what would you tell your 20-year-old self looking back?

Markus Sieger: I would just say use every opportunity to grow, to learn.

Frederic Brunner: Third question, if you were to do it all over again, what would you do?

Markus Sieger: Yeah, most likely, I would do it more or less the same. I would potentially use more time for studying or so because I was just squeezed in my set up and I was working all the time and somehow, potentially I would do that, but other than that, I think, I really enjoyed what I was doing.

Frederic Brunner: Forth question, guilty pleasures.

Markus Sieger: Smoking from time to time a cigar, drinking too much wine, and, yeah, not doing enough sports. Being late.

Frederic Brunner: And last question. What is the moment that you are the most proud of?

Markus Sieger: I think the moment... I think it's an important question. Now, is that business or privately?

Frederic Brunner: We can have two, one private and one professional.

Markus Sieger: The most proud moment personally is when I saw my two children succeed in their school and I see them how they are, how they have become and are responsible human beings, they have to become, I think, that's my proudest moment, in the private life. And in business life, I think it was last June when I looked back to my five years of being at the helm of Polpharma and being able to say we really did it. We achieved the plans, I think we over-delivered to was expected, and I didn't lose anybody on the way of my direct reports. I even was able to add some people, so that was what I think, of my proudest moment, from this perspective.

Frederic Brunner: Thank you very much, Markus Sieger, Group CEO of the Polpharma Group for being here with us today, for sharing your leadership insight, and who you are as a person. For those of you who listened to that, you can find more about these podcasts on the Genioo website. Thank you, Markus and hope to see you soon.

Markus Sieger: Thank you, all the best, take care, bye-bye.


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