Featured today in this exclusive series of interview of business leaders’ perspectives, Vairali Mehta, Chief Operating Officer of Muscat Pharmacy and Stores, shares how her company worked towards adjusting their commercial model to a digital approach to limit physical interaction and physician engagement to promote products. Excerpts:
What is your brief assessment of the position of your company in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the peak season of Ramadan when business in Oman faced a challenge like never before?
As economies globally are suffering from the impact of this pandemic, businesses are exponentially facing a downturn. The pandemic has reinforced that supply chains all over the world can be at significant risk especially in those countries that we have heavy dependency on.
Asa pharmaceutical distribution company, the nature of our business has made it inevitable to remain functional throughout the pandemic, more so, at the forefront of this battle. However, most of our efforts have been focused towards ensuring that equipment and medication is available and distributed to healthcare organisations and to the people of Oman.
Disruption in business working hours, shortage of staff, travel bans and bans on global logistics services has definitely been a challenge. During the peak season, the movement of medicines continued, thanks to Royal Oman Police and the Ministry of Health, for allowing us easy access throughout the lockdown period. However, a major impact on our FMCG and luxury products was evident due to lockdown and closure of the outlets during the peak time of Ramadan and Eid. Yet, being an integral part of healthcare, we find it as our duty to be able to give back to people in times of dire need like this.
What plans/strategies did you adopt to maintain your operations during the lockdown period over the past 2-3 months? How beneficial did this prove to be?
Businesses around the world are facing an unprecedented situation, and for us, staying operational throughout the period was necessary, being an essential business. Our initial approach was to develop a crisis management team that helped drive the process. Managing our people, their concerns and their needs, and ensuring optimum safety measures for all our team members while they continued to work during this time, was our priority. Key members of our HR team also monitored the health status of our employees and their families to prevent risks and offer support during this challenging time.
We also extended the hygiene and safety measures into our business operations, ensuring community health and hygiene. Our crisis team along with our logistics and warehouse in charge also ensured limited impact on our supply chains, which has helped us fulfill the healthcare demand in Oman during this pandemic, with little interruption.
We encouraged remote working wherever possible and had good mitigation processes in place, given the risk of malware attacks, data theft and phishing to stay extra secure digitally. We also adopted strategic policies to ensure we were properly insured and financially protected during this lockdown period.
Looking ahead, what are your immediate and short-term plans that you believe will help the company recalibrate and move forward with renewed purpose?
Our team is closely monitoring the global situation daily and we are strategically altering our business processes to adapt to the new normal. We are also focusing on turning our attention to recovery of the business. Whilst ensuring our core operations, and safety of all our employees remain a priority, as well as taking necessary supportive action where patients may have limited access to medicines or prescription and using a war room approach for supply of critical products.
Having taken immediate action to place additional orders with our principals, we made sure there is no shortage, in cases such as simple over the counter and chronic condition medication. We had also ensured to keep in constant touch with public sector institutional customers to fulfil their requirements of medicine, laboratory and surgical products, medical equipment, along with service and support required for proper functioning of medical equipment, particularly those used to treat COVID 19.
We are also trying to immediately adjust our commercial model to a digital approach to limit physical interaction and physician engagement to promote products. Lastly, our focus will remain on keeping our supply chain strong with alternate suppliers and trying to launch newer products that are critical for the moment, to reduce costs and maintain cash flow.
What immediate changes are required in your workplaces, with regard to physical infrastructure, employee welfare, work culture and business promotion, in view of new guidelines related to COVID-19 (social distancing, hygiene/sanitation, health and fitness)?
Following guidelines set by the Supreme Committee and Ministry of Health, so that employees feel safe at work. While maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, hygiene and sanitisation of warehouses, offices, surfaces and frequented locations are mandatory, we are making this a new norm even for the safety of our visitors and customers. Our business already requires high standards of hygiene and safety, even in the absence of COVID-19. However, after the pandemic, we have increased these measures to ensure utmost cleanliness. Our physical infrastructure remains unchanged, as we are already designed as per departmental requirements and efficient distancing measures are already in place.
We are also encouraging a digital promotion of both our B2B and B2C products, encouraging a shift culture to discourage crowding at workplaces and monitoring the health of our employees closely to mitigate risk and infection.
What do you see as the most feasible solutions for mitigating losses experienced due to the lockdown (cost-cutting measures, downsizing staff, enhancing performance, increasing work hours, any other). Do you consider these as short-term or long term measures?
Having a good BCMS and efficient risk management framework in place helps minimise losses. However, there is no doubt that this pandemic is new to all and such plans will always be dynamic based on the operation and the changing phases the country and the world is going through. Our long-term planning has already been initiated, as it is critical for sustainability, with the economic future of the world being unknown at this time. Our unlock phases will be in line with government regulations of Oman, in a well-coordinated manner. We will continue to encourage the new norms that this COVID-19 phase has taught us, such as real time supply chain monitoring, dual sourcing, digitalisation of medical management, tele-health and business promotions across varied online platforms, thereby creating better cost structures. We will review all our sourcing techniques to ensure great contingency in the event of future interruptions.
What are your primary concerns regarding building/maintaining your company image, post-COVID-19, as well as improving performance to regain connections and trust with your consumers/clients?
This pandemic has encouraged businesses all over the world to analyse and review their strategies and approaches of doing businesses. Although the situation is challenging right now, we have adopted a well thought out short and long-term crisis management approach in order to ensure continued trust and connection with our clients and customers, even during this pandemic. We are moving towards a more dynamic approach through digital platforms in order to help us thrive and engage both B2B and B2C.
Did you have the option of working from home for your staff during the lockdown and to what extent was it helpful? Will you continue to offer that option as part of your new strategy?
Yes. Shift based strategy for our warehousing and retail operations has been developed and effectively implemented during the lockdown period. It has actually opened doors to many more possibilities and efficient use of time and resources. We would like to continue this as an option for our future operational strategies. Our ‘work from home’ policy was also activated for our office staff, effective April 2020. All the required resources were provided for efficient working and continuity of the daily communication, including mitigation of any IT risks, as mentioned earlier. Since it has worked well enough, we can consider this as an option, if needed business-wise, in the future.
What lessons were learnt from this crisis that would help redefine your corporate goals as well as helping your company experience sustained growth in the years ahead?
Resilient leadership, an effective BCMS and a shift to digital channels for businesses is a requisite, no matter how small or big the company is. The situation has made businesses more empathetic towards employees, customers and the community, as a whole. While designing methodologies, we kept our core pillars in mind. We added a little heart to the head, during this pandemic and the motivation and support we gave our employees during this time, helped us sail the rough waters with uninterrupted business continuity.
Our ‘respond, recover and thrive’ approach was the backbone to keeping our sanity as business owners during this extremely stressful time. We stayed focussed on the horizon, yet we are continually making sure our goal of providing optimum healthcare support to the people of Oman is met all along the way. While the pharma industry continues to be on the frontline of the pandemic battle, it is only by setting the right priorities and accelerating innovation can there be a steady supply and long term sustainability.
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