One of this year’s nominated leaders is YPO member Riad Armanious. In 10 years, Armanious was able to transform a small, struggling family business into a regional leader in the pharmaceutical sector. By providing needed medicine to people in the most underprivileged places in the world, he was also able to create a powerful purpose-driven business with real social and economic value beyond profit.
Reinventing a family business with a health care heritage
Today, Eva Pharma is acknowledged as one of the fastest growing pharmaceutical companies in the MENA Region, with a large footprint across Africa. But it wasn’t always a smooth ride in this third-generation family business, founded 100 years ago by Armanious’s grandfather as a health care distribution business in Cairo, Egypt.
“In 1917, my grandfather set up a pharmaceutical distribution company then by 1935 the second pharma manufacturing plant and more followed. But in 1962, the business got nationalized and my father had to restart in the 1970s, taking a small loan to make creams in the lab of the old family pharmacy,” says Armanious, recalling how Eva Cosmetics was born selling creams to local pharmacies. “Only in 2000 did we get back into pharmaceuticals. I joined in 2004 for a couple of years then rejoined in 2008 when the company was still very young.”
Armanious completed his bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from Cairo University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. “I decided to come back to Egypt because family was home and because I realized I can have a bigger impact here,” adds Armanious. Since he joined Eve Pharma in 2008, he grew the business twentyfold despite the difficult political climate in Egypt and in some of the 31 countries where Eva Pharma operates, including in Iraq, Yemen, Libya as well as Sudan.
“We make difficult-to-make medicines but try to cater for specific local needs. A lot of our success is attributed to offering quality products, catering for local needs that big pharma just don’t care about,” says Armanious. “By 2008 we began expanding to the Middle East and Africa. With time, we started to harness the power of purpose.”
Filling a need, creating value on the ground
While all the WEF nominees have demonstrated an ability to approach unmet needs through building bridges between business, government and civil society, Armanious’s story stands out because of the direct impact it carries on improving and saving lives.
“I believe in purpose-driven organizations and creating impact through business,” he says. “We make medicine. There is, in my opinion, nothing more rewarding then finding products that improve and save lives.”
Leveraging the value creation of the business not only led to profitability but filled a real need for basic health care in places with little government planning or social welfare system.
“Aligning business in terms of purpose has become part of our mission. People have a lot of energy to be harnessed if they believe they serve a bigger purpose, when the business is at the intersection of societal needs and comparative advantage,” says Armanious. Since aligning company with purpose, he also finds it easier to have conversation with regulators, customers and different stakeholders. “We create patient value first and success follows.”
He recalls how in 2012, when violence erupted in South Sudan, he and his team were on the ground, ensuring that their medicine was available as soon as possible. “We didn’t always get paid, but in the long run we built a good business just by being available where products are needed.” Similarly, when Egypt was hit by a currency drop, the products continued to be accessible at a fixed price to meet patient needs in spite of losing money. “The team believed they were doing something right. Many years ago, this was how business was done. You get paid sometimes, but the real value is in patient value not because you get paid well.”
Young and purpose-driven
Working with young people, irrespective of their leadership role, has been particularly fulfilling for Armanious. “It’s far easier to get the youth engaged and connected with core values, because you need believers in purpose-driven organizations. Not only youth in terms of age, but youth of heart is needed as we live in a part of the world that has serious issues that are only getting worse,” says Armanious.
In the past five years, besides his work at Eva Pharma, he has also initiated and led programs, research awards and training centers for underprivileged youth in Egypt. In addition to launching the first Egyptian Pharmaceutical Research Award for pharmacy students and young alumni, he also founded the T20 for Egypt, an organization that focuses on utilizing the knowledge of highly educated youth to develop people and programs for social and economic improvement.
Summing up his commitment to purpose, Armanious says, “More companies need to figure out their real purpose. It is in their interest to leverage the power of purpose, a main driver for business success. But it is also their absolute responsibility to make impact with products and services needed by our world today, including in largely forgotten places where the need is greatest.”