The Greener, Cleaner Path
Sitting Down With… Thomas Otto, Managing Director of Vetter Pharma-Fertigung, Ravensburg, Germany
Stephanie Sutton | | Interview
Have you always wanted to work in pharma?
As a child, I wanted to drive trucks! Later, I thought I might like to be a teacher or to work in a technical role of some kind. I was working as a bus driver to pay my way through college with those goals in mind when a passenger asked what I was doing. I explained my story and she told me that her company was looking for people like me.
She was the head of HR at Vetter and that was the starting point. I didn’t plan to work in the pharmaceutical industry, but I’m very glad I’m here.
What was your first role at Vetter?
I started as a project engineer in packaging development. Back then – in 1990 – Vetter was pretty small, with about 300 employees. In fact, there was nobody in the packaging development group, so I helped launch it. Five years later, I took over the responsibility of the whole development group and in 2002 I became a managing director.
Whenever I talk shop with my old college classmates, they tell me changing jobs and companies is necessary for a good career. But this has never been necessary for me thanks to Vetter’s strong growth. I’ve had the chance to witness so much and take over so many responsibilities. I’m fortunate that the company has been expanding quickly enough to accommodate all my growth as a professional. It’s been exciting to be a part of that growth story!
What are the day-to-day responsibilities of your role?
We do not have a CEO position in Vetter. I run the operational business together with my colleague, Peter Soelkner. Each of us is responsible for a certain part of the company; I’m responsible for development, pharmaceutical production, quality, technical services, and internal project management – including all of the investment projects, as well as finance and controlling.
I like to say I’m the “inside minister” and my colleague Peter – who took over functions such as key account management, HR, IT, and the supply chain – is responsible for “the outside.”
Vetter has embarked on a number of sustainability initiatives. Why is this so important to you?
Today, sustainability should be paramount. And that means adopting a culture of responsibility and acting in a sustainable manner. It’s important to us, it’s important to our employees, and it’s important for the world community and its future. Obviously, some investment is necessary to achieve sustainability. But, in the long term, the company will not only grow in a stable manner – it will profit as well. When I talk about “savings,” I’m not just thinking of reductions in carbon and kilowatts. Environmentalism is an investment with returns!
What sustainability milestones has the company hit over the years?
Vetter has invested in various energy efficient and environmentally friendly technologies. Greenhouse gas is one of the main drivers of global warming, and so we put a lot of work into that area. At all our sites, we have worked to reduce emissions. Since 2014, these technologies have resulted in an overall saving of more than 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide, which I think is remarkable.
We have also realized more than 100 efficiency projects over the past 10 years, investing more than €6.5 million along the way. Through this work – and strategic spending, we have been able to realize savings of more than 30 million kilowatt hours – roughly equivalent to the electricity, natural gas, and biogas used by 7,000 family houses per year. I think that’s remarkable, too.
One huge milestone became reality in 2020, when our German sites turned climate neutral. We are very proud of the fact we no longer have a carbon footprint. In 2021, our international production sites and offices also achieved CO2 neutrality – made possible by the interaction of many components all working within the scope of a long-term CO2 strategy within the company.
Another significant sustainability project was the construction of our center for visual inspection and logistics. I believe it is a unique facility! It has environmentally friendly block-heating, harnesses geothermal energy, makes comprehensive use of excess energy, and runs photovoltaic systems. All of this runs in together to make it really efficient.
How have customers reacted to Vetter’s focus on sustainability?
We find that sustainability is increasingly a focus and concern for our customers. Green factories are important to them – and we see many more inspections with this in mind. We are really pleased and proud that we began the necessary work years ago – otherwise we would be behind rather than ahead of the curve!
What other big changes are you seeing in the industry right now?
We live in extremely dynamic times. Over the last decade, we have seen high global demand combined with a great deal of unmet needs. There is a strong demand for specialized, targeted, precision therapies, and biotech is preparing to meet these demands with a wide variety of complex medications. But that means we must also deal with greater manufacturing complexity. There are also challenges in drug delivery. Although we are still producing drugs using syringes, cartridges, and vials, there remains a high degree of pressure to develop innovative and more efficient delivery systems.
This all goes hand-in-hand with other trends, such as providing patients with convenient solutions to obtain a high degree of patient adherence, particularly where patients need to self-administer medication on a daily basis.
As we start a new year, where do you think the industry's priorities should lie?
If a company wishes to determine its future, it must understand its past. Success necessitates an understanding of who you are, how you became who you are, and continuous investment in your future. We must have the right infrastructure, capacities, and people to meet growing global demand, and be as flexible as needed for the contract development and manufacturing sector.
Because of the complexity of the new molecules on the horizon, we also recognize the importance of viable partnerships. Collaboration is essential and leads to successful projects and valued customer relationships. Many of our clients still look for a one-stop shop so we need to collaborate to meet their needs. In the end, the most important thing is bringing high-quality, life-critical medications to patients in need in the fastest way possible and collaboration can help us all to do this.
What drives you personally in your role and in your career?
At the start of my career, I just wanted a satisfying job! But as I moved deeper into the pharmaceutical business, I realized that I was working in an industry that saves lives. That reality left a really deep impression on me and that’s why I’ve stayed in the industry.
At Vetter, if you want to take on more responsibility, you can – and the company helps you. In a sense, you can create your own job, which is really satisfying. Working with people to help them to achieve good results is truly rewarding for me.
When Senator h.c. Udo J. Vetter, Chairman of the Advisory Board and member of the owner family, first spoke to me, wanting to hire me as a project engineer, I said, “No. I will never work in the pharmaceutical industry. There’s too much regulation! It’s just not for me!” Six weeks later, my outlook had changed completely. Now look at me – I’ve been with his company for more than 32 years!