HeForShe: Róbert Wessman | Chairman & CEO, Alvogen and Founder & Chairman, Alvotech

Robert Wessman

Róbert Wessman is Chairman & CEO at global pharmaceutical giant Alvogen, and founder and Chairman at biopharma specialist Alvotech.

Róbert grew up in a small town in Iceland. From an early age he had a strong interest in both medicine and business; it was the latter path he chose to follow when picking his studies and he attended business school. However, he has since set up and developed a series of highly successful healthcare businesses to realise his vision of improving people’s lives through greater access to affordable medication. Róbert’s achievements have made him the subject of three Harvard Business School case studies on business excellence.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I grew up in Iceland, in a small town on the outskirts of Reykjavik. From a young age I’ve been fascinated by the world of healthcare and struggled to choose between medicine school and business school when I was applying to the University of Iceland. Eventually, I chose business but have been fortunate to have the opportunity to combine my business experience and interest in medicine by taking on management positions in the healthcare industry. Today I am the CEO and Chairman of the global pharma company Alvogen and the Chairman of its sister company Alvotech. What unites my companies is our mission of improving people’s lives through better access to high-quality affordable medication.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I have never had a strict plan; it is so important to be open-minded about opportunities when they come up. What I have always had was a focus on purpose, on giving back to my native country Iceland and contributing in some way to making the world a better place. Therefore I took on the task of turning around the failing Icelandic drugmaker Delta some twenty years ago. That successful transformation led me on to new opportunities and, ultimately, to where I am today.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

I certainly have, and perhaps the hardest moment of all was in 2013 when the ultimate storm of personal and professional challenges hit. I was training for a competitive cycling race and one day I had a severe accident, crashing into a car that had stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. My spine was severed in two places and there was not an inch of my body that wasn’t cut and bruised. The doctors were not sure I would ever walk again.

This happened at the very same time that Alvogen was preparing to expand into 35 countries, a huge moment for the company and I simply could not abandon my team at that time. I could barely hold a phone or type because my hands were so badly injured but, still, I persevered, typing emails and speaking to the team from my hospital bed. And we did it – Alvogen is a well-established global company today.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I really believe, particularly in the pharma industry, that we achieve as a Team – so many different talents are needed to develop a new drug and bring it to market. So, I would say my greatest achievement is building up an incredibly talented, diverse team across my companies, united by a common vision and mutual respect.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

This may sound obvious but self-belief and a positive attitude. You will never motivate people to work with you to create something amazing from scratch if you are not enthusiastic yourself. It is hugely important to stay positive, even in the face of challenges.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I believe we all can learn from each other every day.   I am often asked if I have a role model and my answer is that I am not motivated by on single role model.   My role models are people I am seeing every day across different walks of life. The key is to listen to people, ask questions and seek advice.   In the same way I try to give input to others, to help them to reach their outmost potential. I have also been asked numerous times to lecture at Harvard Business School (HBS) going over our HBS cases, our goals, our mission, our failures and our successes hoping that students can benefit from our story.

What can businesses/government/allies do to help diversity and inclusion?

I come from Iceland, where we are incredibly fortunate to have a strong legal and policy framework to support diversity. Iceland has been named the world’s most gender-equal nation for 12 years running in World Economic Forum research now.

With the benefit of my Icelandic heritage, I think there are some useful learnings that could be applied around the world. In particular, Iceland has generous parental leave provisions, with five months for each parent and two months to share. This helps challenge assumptions about gender roles and make sure women’s careers do not suffer. Iceland’s system of equal pay certification for large employers is another thing to look at. We at Alvotech Iceland are incredibly proud to have our Equal Pay Certificate and have rolled out process and policy learnings built up from the certification journey across our global operations.

Why do you think it’s important for men to support gender equality in the workplace?

Life is interesting, because we are all different as human beings.  We come from different cultures, nationality, upbringing and religions.   That’s why diversity gives all of us the opportunity to learn as long as we live.  We are all born equal, we share the same planet, sun, sky and oceans and that’s the only way to look at life, in my mind.   This applies of course to gender equality also.   Gender equality is the right thing to do on a human level – and it makes complete business sense!  As a father and a husband as well as a CEO, I obviously want to live in a world where everyone can realise their full potential, regardless of their gender or other factors.

Alvogen and Alvotech could never have got to where we are today without our many talented female colleagues. Numerous studies show that diverse, collaborative workplaces are associated with better business performance.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to prioritise your health sometimes! Drive is important but there were moments during my recovery from the cycling accident when I should not have tried to do everything and take every meeting as if nothing had happened.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Alvotech is due to list on the Nasdaq later this year and I am very excited about this new chapter. Alvotech is an expert in biosimilar medications.  Biologics are a very effective type of medication, but very expensive.   Around 40% of world sales of pharmaceuticals are biologics.  Due to their cost, there is still a high proportion of patients in need of those products, who cannot afford it.   Further access to capital will help us at Alvotech do more towards our vision of increasing access of affordable medicines for patients, while lowering costs for healthcare systems.