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Japanese Pharmaceutical Companies Attract Top Talent

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Over the past 10 years, the Japanese pharmaceutical industry has made a 180-degree turn. Japanese companies have slowly lost their market share while foreign companies have gone from strength to strength. In terms of recruitment, at the beginning of this decade, it was difficult to even meet a candidate from Japan’s leading companies, such as Takeda, Fujisawa, Yamanouchi, or Eisai, let alone place them with another company. Those companies were filled with graduates from Japan’s top universities and were promised lifetime employment.

The 2000s have seen an increase in mergers and acquisitions, and early retirement packages have meant that those same candidates are now looking for alternative opportunities at multinational corporations (MNCs). Japanese pharma companies are turning increasingly to overseas acquisitions to drive growth, buy technology, and build market share, spurred by thin product pipelines, a stagnant domestic economy, and a shrinking population.

Domestic pharma companies have also been tapping into their cash reserves, for example, Takeda’s $8.8 billion deal for US biotech firm Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Daiichi Sankyo’s $4.6 billion takeover, and, of course, Eisai’s US biopharma purchase of MGI Pharma for $3.9 billion. The jury is still out on Daiichi Sankyo’s purchase of a controlling stake in India’s Ranbaxy Laboratories.

We now see the top foreign companies filled with talent from Japanese pharmas. Because Japanese companies are now focused on markets outside Japan rather than relying on domestic demand, those famous Japanese companies that traditionally loathed hiring from outside are now looking to tap into the same bilingual talent pool that the MNCs have been fishing in for years.

When one of the big Japanese pharma companies moved its global clinical development function to the United States, it soon realized the shortage of bilingual talent on the ground in Japan. I received a call from the US wanting to recruit a director in Japan. Apparently, out of frustration with the slowness of HR processes in Japan, the company decided to take recruiting into their own hands.

Japanese companies haven’t been our focus up until now—not that we haven’t had opportunities. My colleagues have made several placements with Japanese firms. Our own experience of working with Japanese companies has been slow and cumbersome. Therefore, it was with certain reluctance that I accepted this hiring assignment from a big Japanese pharmaceutical company.

The recruitment process had some problems, as all searches do. However, as soon as I released the brand name of my new client, the proposition became extremely attractive. The same candidates that I had pitched regarding positions from GSK, Novartis, Abbot, and Boehringer were now doing backflips in their eagerness to meet with the big Japanese company. Suddenly, the same candidates who were usually slow and unresponsive were available, cooperative, and flexible with their schedules, suggesting that the brand name of a Japanese company still has a higher appeal than the top-five foreign pharma companies. I’m not sure whether the candidate would prefer to work at HQ rather than a subsidiary (even if the functional HQ is in the United States) or whether cultural or social status preferences come into this.

One thing is clear—Big Japanese companies may be sitting on a gold mine of talent if they are looking to bolster their ranks in Japan.

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