The pharmaceutical match between DFE Pharma and FrieslandCampina

Imagine going to your pharmacist today, to pick up two randomly chosen medicines. Did you know there is a really big chance that at least one of them will contain lactose from FrieslandCampina? This may sound a bit odd, until you realise that approximately fifty percent of the medication in tablet form worldwide is made of ingredients from DFE Pharma. This global leader in excipient solutions was started as a joint venture between FrieslandCampina and another global dairy cooperative.

As supplier for the pharmaceutical industry, DFE Pharma provides (inactive) ingredients – like lactose – to all kinds of pharmaceutical companies. To explore the unique collaboration between the two, we talk to William van den Bremer, Supply Chain Manager at DFE Pharma. He talks about his ongoing thrive for developing better, more efficient medicines. “We are not only working on the problems of today, but also on finding solutions for the challenges of tomorrow.”

Market leader

Lactose in medication? Yes. While only a small part of a medicine consists of ‘active substances’, the vast majority is filled up by so-called ‘excipients’, or ‘carriers’. These inactive substances are mostly composed of lactose or others excipients, like starch or cotton. Without these carriers, we would not be able to shape medication for oral solid doses or make them applicable for dry powder inhalation formulations, like asthma medication. So, more than a decade ago FrieslandCampina and Fonterra joined their forces in DFE Pharma, to enter the world of pharmaceuticals. Meanwhile, the company has become market leader in supplying lactose for pharmaceutical purposes. This makes DFE Pharma global leader in the market.

From RFC to DFE

Back to William. Before he started working at DFE Pharma in 2016, William spent eight years at FrieslandCampina. Here, he fulfilled several positions, from Sales and Operations Planning to Supply Chain Strategy. In the production factory in Veghel – one of the biggest supply sources for DFE Pharma – he led more than forty operators on a daily basis. This experience is still very helpful for his current job. William: “The fact that I have worked for FrieslandCampina has helped me in so many ways at DFE Pharma. I am not only familiar with the people and the factory, but I also understand the dynamics of the dairy industry.”

However, the switch between the two businesses brought a completely new working environment. When we ask William for the biggest difference between the pharmaceutical and dairy industry, he gives the process of innovation as a clear example. “The pharmaceutical market is firmly organised. The industry is strictly regulated and very precisely documented. When a medicine is in development, thousands of files are documented about the production process or the exact composition and origin of its substances. So, if we – for example – would transfer the production process from one factory to another to make the process more efficient, there is a big chance that the pharmaceutical company will respond reservedly at first instance. Why, and how do you guarantee that the product is the same? Because this would mean that they have to re-validate and document their entire production process all over again, an expensive and time-consuming exercise.” As a consequence, the lead time between the initiation and execution of change and innovation can be much longer here than at FrieslandCampina. William continues with a smile: “That is why pharmacists are a bit reluctant to change… On the other hand, when changes or innovation are put in practice, things go way faster at DFE. Then it helps that we are a much smaller company.”

Parallel purpose

The conversation shifts to the topic ‘purpose’, when William also emphasizes the parallels between FrieslandCampina and DFE Pharma. “At DFE, purpose plays a really important role too. There is a parallel with “Nourishing by Nature”, where we try to enable our customers to help people live healthier lives.” But what does this purpose look like? What is it exactly, that makes his day at DFE Pharma? William responds: “I have a good day when we found the right balance between working on the problems of today and on finding solutions for the challenges of tomorrow. This is essential, because sometimes we get so carried away by our everyday work, while this business asks for patience during the entire process. We have to be involved in a very broad range of projects, offering pharmaceutical companies the right materials to make medicines with the highest chances to succeed. You have to realise that this is a long-term process.”

Culture change program

Innovation and change do not only take place in the production process, but also on the work floor itself. That is why the culture change program is so important to DFE Pharma. Here, connecting different teams and sharing knowledge comes together. This is crucial, especially since DFE Pharma consists of employees with very different cultural backgrounds. William explains how this puts them to the test every now and then: “We, the Dutch, tend to be a bit rude or direct in our style of communication. We interfere with everything, even outside the scope of our own tasks. I’ve noticed that colleagues with other cultural backgrounds are less accustomed to this.” Moreover, the culture change program in itself is a good example as well. “This program is embraced so strongly in Asia, maybe even more than in Europe. We tend to be a bit reserved, while my colleagues from Asia are taking the lead. They are so proud to be working for us, that is really inspiring.” William laughs: “Dutch people sometimes tend to believe that if the rest of the world would work like us, it will all be fine. I have now learnt that the Dutch can learn a lot from the approach of other cultures.” He continues his answer in a serious tone, by referring to the earlier question about success: “It makes my day to see that my team has grown… This also means I have to throw them into the deep once a while, but only to be surprised by all the things they have learned and done. That makes me really proud.”

DFE Pharma turned out to be a win-win construction. The combined forces of two giant dairy companies made innovation possible, using the strengths of both industries. William concludes: “It is the textbook example of one plus one equals three.”

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