Passion to help others a mission for life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 July, 2004, 12:00am

STEPHEN LEUNG, country manager of drug manufacturing firm Pfizer Hong Kong, regularly checks the office pantry. When he discovered most of his staff did not like soft drinks ('too fattening'), he asked human resources to conduct an internal survey.

'We asked them [staff] what they liked to drink and when the results came back, I couldn't believe it. They wanted healthy drinks and yoghurt. But it's what they wanted, so they got it. Now we ask their opinions every three months,' Mr Leung said.

It is a small perk for Pfizer's employees, but it reveals the philosophy behind how the company is run. And it is only one of many privileges that staff enjoy.

Human resources director Polly Cho said: 'If it's a colleague's concern, it's not a small matter. We listen to our colleagues. We have established a lot of communication channels.'

The benefits are two-way: for senior management it is a chance to instil Pfizer's core values.

Mr Leung said: 'Pfizer employees must have a passion for health. We take the slogan seriously: Life is our life's work. It's the nature of the company. We don't just sell products, we spend our working lives saving lives, enhancing people's quality of life, prolonging life. We honestly believe that, so when we hire, we look for people with the same passion.

'We provide our colleagues with something they can be proud of when they present a business card. They know this is a good company. The implementation of our internal branding strategy allows each employee to feel good about whom they work for. That's very important.'

Ms Cho said management sought to have Pfizer employees who 'live the brand'. It knows it cannot be done by having them read slogans on the wall.

Much of her department's work involves implementing strategies to 'get our colleagues involved' in activities that promote the company's core values, she said.

'If you don't believe, if you are not convinced, then there's no way that you can sell. So, we aim at adding value to our colleagues,' Ms Cho said.

Too many companies seem to have forgotten the principle that a happy employee is a good employee, but not Pfizer.

Pfizer Hong Kong, with 160 employees, had only a 10 per cent turnover in employees, Ms Cho said.

Most of those who leave are new hires.

Mr Leung said: 'Most who have stayed with us for a few years are here to stay.'

Ms Cho said turnover for middle-management and above over the past five years was only 5 per cent.

'Pfizer is very demanding, but we are happy doing what we do,' she said.

Ms Cho said taking the company philosophy to heart also meant showing a willingness to help colleagues, go the extra mile for doctors seeking information on new drugs, and showing an interest in community-building efforts. Although selling drugs is ostensibly Pfizer Hong Kong's primary activity, it almost seems incidental when Mr Leung and Ms Cho are asked to describe what the company does.

Mr Leung emphasised how the 'health-care representatives' (not salesmen, he insisted) traded in information, constantly providing doctors with updated information.

Then there are activities such as tree planting, volunteering for child-care services and participating in events such as trail walking.

In many companies, getting people to participate in activities that seek to bring the company closer to the community is difficult. Pfizer has the problem of having too many volunteers.

'Each time, the activity is fully booked,' she said, which is quite impressive considering these activities are often done outside of company time.

Last month, one of the company's 'core-values teams' arranged to do tree planting in Tai Po. 'We said the limit was 40, but 50 people insisted on coming. There were not enough trees to go around,' Ms Cho said.

She said senior management participated just as much as the rank and file. 'You have to walk the talk.'

Ms Cho accompanied sales staff as they made their calls even in the summer heat, just to remain aware of the daily difficulties they had to contend with.

But she stressed that when participating in community projects, the rank and file often led the way. They did so through the concept of core-value teams.

There are six teams: community, communication, technology, motivation, internal functions and business environment.

Employees can join more than one team, and the structure allows rank-and-file employees to assume roles of authority. 'It's a very good chance to practise leadership skills,' Ms Cho said.

It also makes it easier for her to spot potential managers.

The teams are given a surprising degree of responsibility. The internal functions team helps organise meetings such as quarterly conferences, and may even make decisions about whether they should be held in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

The business environment team did market research and came up with suggestions on marketing strategy which, Mr Leung said, were seriously considered by the marketing staff.

Even potentially crucial decisions such as the Chinese names for new products depend on input from all levels.

If the tea lady comes up with what seems to be a better translation, the marketing department will use it.

The teams serve to keep employees engaged with the company and their colleagues in more ways than their jobs would normally dictate.

Pfizer goes out of its way to involve even the lowest-ranked employees in management decisions. Senior management acknowledge that they do not have a monopoly on good ideas.

The result is an organisation where volunteering is the norm, Ms Cho said.

Mr Leung said the teams allowed the company to make full use of its employees. 'Of course, if you implement a good idea, you must give credit. Don't claim it as your own. That way, you inspire them to try even harder.'

Another factor that keeps negativity among employees down is the principle of openness among top management. Mr Leung is candid enough to speak about product failures and bad publicity.

'Pharmaceutical research and development is a risky business and we have to face failure. The best way to handle something like that is to tell them the truth. Otherwise, you lose all respect.'

It's all part of 'communicating the brand', not just to the buying public, but to the firm's employees.