- Managing Me
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Ego seems like a word ill-fitted anywhere on Jane Oppenheim’s moniker. The unassuming leader of science and operations at Ego Pharmaceuticals, Oppenheim has 20 years’ experience as an executive of the growing, private family-owned company, which sold $94 million worth of skincare products under 28 brands in 2011-12.
Oppenheim spoke about her role as chief scientific officer – a role that is not well understood, but it is crucial in a growing number of companies – to participants at this week's Women in Global Business presentation. Ego Pharmaceuticals began exporting to New Zealand in 1960 and to the rest of the world – starting with the United Arab Emirates – from 1994.
The start of big things
Oppenheim had no intention of joining Ego when she married Alan Oppenheim, the managing director of the company. In 1990, Alan took the reins from his parents, Gerald and Rae Oppenheim, who founded the company in 1953. But despite her best intentions, Jane Oppenheim realised that she could make a contribution to the family company as manager of its science team – then five people, and today around 35.
“I attended all the dermatological conferences, read all the journals and thought constantly about what new products Ego could develop,” Oppenheim tells LeadingCompany.
Ego has 120 products today addressing many skin conditions and areas of care. These include sunscreen (SunSense), skincare (QV); headlice treatments (MOOV), and the soothing cream Pinetarsal, invented by Alan’s father, Gerald.
Oppenheim constantly scanned scientific literature for evidence to support Ego’s products, or to support reformulating them. When evidence is lacking, Ego undertakes its own testing and clinical trials (always on humans), the processes used by pharmaceutical companies to establish the safety and effectiveness of their products as treatments. “I never actually did the benchwork,” she says. “When the research and development people have a formula together, the analytical chemists work out assays for the active ingredients to test them.”
Quality, clinical tests and regulation
Stability, efficacy and safety when manufactured in bulk is all part of the development process. Then, all this evidence, together with relevant literature from other sources, goes to the regulator – the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia – for approval before Ego’s products go on sale.
The regulator consistently tests the products for quality even after they are on the market, Oppenheim says.
Establishing tight deadlines to get new products to market, and breaking every project up to take it through its different stages, keeps the scientific team focused, Oppenheim says.
Oppenheim briefs the sales and marketing team on every new product – she knows each one inside out by the time it hit the shelves.
Evolving into operations leadership
The crucial nature of Ego’s scientific operations made Oppenheim key to the company’s success – and put her in an obvious position to step into a full operational role.
Ego employs more than 300 staff, 120 of them in manufacturing, and about 25 in sales. Fifty staff are overseas and another 50 in interstate offices.
Three years ago, Oppenheim added chief operating officer to her role as chief scientific officer. She appointed a long-standing member of her R&D team as scientific affairs manager, reporting to her. In addition, Oppenheim manages production, manufacturing and warehousing of all Ego’s products.
Oppenheim says the new role draws on new leadership skills. “I have found that all through my time here. Since 1988, no day has ever been the same and there is always something new and different to address.
“I love the challenges of operations; it is like a different world. I really deal with production now, with its immediate problems.”
In her early career, Oppenheim completed at least one training course a year. “I still do a lot,” she says. “I go off and do seminars, courses in sales, operations, planning and logistics. I have done leadership training courses at the Australian Institute of Management. I do both general leadership courses, and training in specific skills.”
She has completed the Australian Institute of Company Directors course.
Oppenheim is not a member of any peer network, but has worked in industry, regulatory and technical bodies over the years.
The new job ended her gym habit. “With the operational role, I felt I didn’t have any credibility if I wasn’t here nine to five, and I couldn’t get home to cook the dinner.”
Instead, Oppenheim has just taken up yoga – two week ago – and intends to add Pilates to her regime. To clear her head and relax, she does a lot of walking and makes sure that at home, she and Alan never stray to discussing work problems, which get sorted at the office. She says: “We only talk about something from work if it is interesting.”