Due to the rise in the quantity of counterfeit drugs flooding the market, there has understandably been an increase in demand for track-and-trace packaging solutions in the pharmaceuticals sector in recent years. These solutions use unique codes on pharmaceutical packaging, allowing them to be traced from production right through to the end consumer.

As the CEO of German pharmaceutical packaging company Uhlmann Pac-Systeme, Norbert Gruber is fully aware of the importance of such systems. For his company develops packaging to aid the reduction of counterfeit drugs. Uhlmann’s track-and-trace systems enable codification, full serialisation and label tracking of pharmaceuticals, and can aggregate all the data into various units.

Norbert Gruber, CEO of Uhlmann Pac-Systeme
Norbert Gruber, CEO of Uhlmann Pac-Systeme

According to the World Health Organization, around one in 10 medical products in low- and middle-income countries are either substandard or fake, while PwC highlights that counterfeit pharmaceuticals are an annual business worth €188 billion (US$200 billion). With the growing concern about counterfeit drugs, around 40 countries have established track-and-trace laws to regulate the pharmaceutical products that travel along their supply chains.

The future is digitalisation

According to Norbert, the track-and-trace systems are not only important for traceability, but also enable trade-back if there are problems with the products. “This is a purely software-driven product, which has a lot to do with digitalisation,” he tells The CEO Magazine.

Uhlmann was founded by Josef Uhlmann in 1948 and provides a range of pharmaceutical packaging solutions such as blister machines, cartoners, bottle lines and palletisers. Norbert says the company is pushing heavily into digitalisation, with new software and products due for release in the market. “Now we see every single business is going through digitalisation and we need to adapt,” Norbert says. “We intend to have more digital projects and products in the future.”

Uhlmann showcased some of these solutions at last year’s Interpack 2017 processing and packaging exhibition in Düsseldorf. The solutions include condition monitoring with 3D visualisation and training using 3D glasses. Received well in the industry, Uhlmann’s HoloLens smartglasses won silver in the terminal/installation category at the 2018 Annual Multimedia Awards in Germany, an event that identifies trends in digital marketing and multimedia design.

The smartglasses visualise several parameters including the temperature, speed, output and service life of machine components. They are controlled by speech commands, gestures and visual contact, allowing users to see a machine’s technical details and documentation. The glasses also provide operating instructions and explanatory videos for workers to conduct maintenance jobs faster. Further, they enable conditional monitoring and maintenance to be conducted and documented in real time.

Fast facts:

Uhlmann’s five steps to stronger digital capabilities
1. Exploring the needs of its customers through direct talks and digitalisation workshops
2. Inventing digital pilot applications
3. Improving on these applications
4. Adapting digitalisation internally to the company’s structures, processes and business models
5. Connecting all its processes, machines and participants to the pharmaceutical sector

Norbert believes digitalisation, together with lean management, will continue to drive the company forward. “If you follow the methods of lean management, it really pushes your productivity because you have so many people who are skilled to do that,” he says.

In FY2017/18, Uhlmann’s sales reached a record €407 million in revenue. Norbert attributes this to the company’s portfolio and global scale, pointing to its operations in America, Asia and Europe. “We have a global footprint in sales and services, and in terms of adding value,” he says. “That means we have manufacturing plants around the globe and I think that really pushes our revenue.”

During Norbert’s tenure, the company has undertaken two major acquisitions, another boost to its revenue streams. These are Chinese machine manufacturer Wonder Packing, and Dutch counting and packaging systems company Cremer Speciaalmachines. As another family-owned business, Cremer expands Uhlmann’s offerings by providing technology for counting products in the pharmaceutical industry.

Norbert Gruber, CEO of Uhlmann Pac-Systeme

Maintaining long term relationships

Despite Uhlmann’s global reach, it still remains a close-knit family business. The company’s founder Josef passed the business on to his son Friedrich. When Friedrich passed away in 1994, the company was managed by his wife Hedwig. Now, Friedrich and Hedwig’s son Tobias is chairman of the company’s supervisory board, continuing the legacy into the third generation. “We are a family-owned company and we will stay family-owned and independent,” Norbert says. “This independence is important to us. We are long-term oriented. The owners look to the next generation, not just to the next quarter.”

“We are long-term oriented. The owners look to the next generation, not just to the next quarter.”

Together with its family culture, the company values are based on being strong, open and reliable. When it comes to hiring new employees, Norbert says they should be professional, plan to stay with the business for a long time, and have the right cultural fit. “Cultural fit means you are somebody who feels comfortable within the business family,” Norbert explains. “We all feel like family. It would not work with the pioneers only.”

“Cultural fit means you are somebody who feels comfortable within the business family.”

Further, Norbert ensures Uhlmann maintains its supplier relationships over the long-term. “If we come up with a supplier, we intend to stay with them for decades,” he says. “We don’t do that for opportunistic reasons, but because we rely on each other.” With a background in the automotive sector, Norbert explains how the term ‘partner’ can be used as just a label and taken for granted, rather than in the more appropriate sense as a business that is part of your operational life. “We are what I would call real partners because if a supplier has a problem we help them sort it out,” he adds.

Bringing Uhlmann together is its leadership team. Having been the company’s CEO for more than seven years, Norbert defines an effective leader as someone with good communication skills and who has great adaptability in times of change. “If I talk about leadership, I always come back to this issue of change, and change is the most challenging thing,” he says. “It’s a skill and a talent if you can lead an organisation or people through times of change. The best you can do is communicate well. You need to have close contact by communicating. I also think that leaders need to have a lot of empathy because this is what gives people trust if they’re feeling insecure or there’s a lot of change.”

“Leaders need to have a lot of empathy because this is what gives people trust if they’re feeling insecure or there’s a lot of change.”

Future of business

Norbert highlights four main areas the company will be focusing on in the years to come, beginning with expansion. “The market average is something like 5 or 6% growth year-by-year. And we will grow above that,” he says. “That’s one of the important targets we have.”

The second involves increasing its portfolio. “We will not go into new businesses, but the products in our packaging line will be better adjusted to local requirements,” Norbert adds. The third and fourth elements are in developing new technology and extending its global footprint. “Today, we are in 12 countries and will go into new countries over the next two to three years.”