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Behind the Scenes of International Pharmaceutical Business Success: A Conversation with Horst Wallrabe

I grew up in the UK, worked in Belgium and France, and have lived in the United States for more than 22 years. I have a home in Plano, Texas, and in London. To say that much of my life has been spent going back and forth over the ocean is a minor understatement, but I would have it no other way.

While I am extremely comfortable with this dual existence, I have always been fascinated watching successful businesses either thrive or struggle as they expand beyond their home markets. And while I have observed, as well as helped, many successful businesses as they expand to new markets, the initial journey is virtually never a smooth one.

After years leading the Haig Barrett team to help US companies thrive in international markets or global companies prosper in the United States, it seemed a good time to start sharing some thoughts on the topic. To my mind, the best way to explore this subject is to talk with executives who have been there. There seemed no better place to start than with Horst Wallrabe, formerly the President of the Pharmaceutical Division of Bayer.

Horst is a German national who dreamed of seeing and experiencing the world and concluded that pursuing a career in international business was the best way to do just that. His first career position was based in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar), for an export company. He then returned to Germany and joined the Bayer organization, leading to positions in South Africa, the UK, and, ultimately, the United States.

Horst is a fascinating individual, not only due to his long tenure in various leadership capacities within the Bayer organization, but also, after what most people consider a full career, for his decision to pivot from business leadership within the pharmaceutical industry to the scientific side. He pursued undergraduate and informal graduate studies at the University of Virginia and serves as a full-time volunteer staff researcher with the school’s biology department and Keck Center for Cellular Imaging.

While Horst’s current work is captivating, I was interested in learning more about his global business experience. Specifically, I wanted to hear his insights on the factors that lead to success, as well as elements that lead to the very significant challenges companies so often experience as they strike out to new markets.

Haig: What do you believe are the most significant determinants of success when beginning a leadership role in a new country?

Horst: I believe empathy, cultural sensitivity, and curiosity are the characteristics that are the largest contributors to success. You have to be willing to go into a market and be open to new ways of doing things that are more in line with that market.

Some people, no matter where they are from, are control freaks. There is a bit of that in Germanic culture and in other cultures as well. Some cultures simply have a more prescribed way of operating and they struggle in more fluid business cultures like the culture found in America.

While these cultural differences most certainly can be overcome by the right people, I don’t think there is a silver bullet or magic formula. There must be the willingness to learn and you must have the fortitude to be willing…continue reading article