Life sciences, strategy consulting and six months in Shanghai

A consultant at IMS Consulting Group tells Keely Lockhart about her career, including her secondment to China's business capital

"Consulting is a great foundation for a business career," says Celine Zeng, Strategy Consultant at IMS Consulting Group, one of the world's leading consulting firms in the life sciences sector, on which the firm is exclusively focused. "You get to work on real-life problems that are both challenging and intellectually stimulating, and involve a lot of teamwork."

Celine started out as an analyst at IMSCG three and a half years ago and has a background in pharmacology. Although her degree has helped her in her job, she insists that having an interest in healthcare and life sciences, general commercial acumen and problem-solving abilities are more important to success at IMSCG than a relevant degree. "The good thing about consulting is that you get to learn on the job very quickly, so no specialised knowledge is required," she says.

Right from the start, graduates at IMSCG are an integral part of the team. "Analysts are involved in anything from data analysis to interviewing physicians to preparing presentations and making forecast models," says Celine, who was promoted to a consultant role in 2012.

"Now I do a bit less analysis and have more client interaction. I also help to manage multiple projects across different practice areas at IMSCG," says Celine. She adds that she's mostly been able to choose which practice areas to work in based on her interests and availability of projects (see box).

Exciting and challenging work

As part of IMSCG's Short Term Assignment Programme, Celine went to Shanghai for her six month placement. The programme is designed to offer the opportunity to work in any of the IMSCG offices around the world; Celine was given the opportunity to choose from offices in Singapore, Beijing and Shanghai, and chose Shanghai because it was an area of China that she had yet to explore. "I was born in China and I know Beijing very well, but Shanghai was a new adventure for me and I knew there was a real business need there."

Celine also mentions that the significant interest many of IMSCG's clients have in the Chinese pharmaceutical market meant that going to Shanghai gave her a real opportunity to accumulate on-the-ground market insights.

Another reason Celine gives for her interest in travelling to China was the chance to work on some very exciting projects. "In Shanghai, I worked with multinational companies with varying levels of presence in the country. For those already established in China, we help them develop strategies to grow their business. For those who want to enter, we help them evaluate whether they should enter and how they can do so successfully.The market is evolving so rapidly which makes projects both exciting and challenging."

Process and methodology

Though the issues were different, Celine says that the consulting process in China was very similar to that in Europe. "In both markets, the client has a business question that needs to be answered and then they engage consultants to provide potential solutions. The same goes for the methodology," says Celine. "Although the day to day tasks can be similar, no matter which market we work in, the project approach is always tailored. For example, direct interviews with stakeholders, external decision makers, and desk research. Globally, we all share the same dedication: to support our clients in creating an impact on healthcare."

One of the projects she worked on in Shanghai involved advising a large multinational pharmaceutical company that recently launched an oncology product in China, for which patients were mostly paying for themselves. "This was not sustainable because the product is relatively high-cost and therefore not always affordable," explains Celine. "Our role at IMSCG was to explore the different reimbursement opportunities and improve patient access to this innovative and effective drug."

Celine and her team came up with a few ways to do so. "We identified opportunities in national reimbursement, provincial reimbursement, private insurance and partnership strategies," says Celine. "Then within each option we conducted interviews with physicians, policymakers and patients to really understand its suitability, and finally we came up with a recommendation, presented our findings and proposed action to our client."

Small details, huge difference

Despite her Chinese heritage, Celine still found the first month and a half of her secondment challenging. "The biggest challenge was adapting the way I worked. In China a lot of business is very much relationship (or Guanxi)-driven, which means you're expected to pick up the phone rather than send an email, and have a face-to-face meeting rather than a telephone conference, in order to maintain that personal connection. They're small details, but sometimes they can make a huge difference."

Celine is now back in the UK but explains that consultants at IMSCG often travel in the course of their jobs because of the international nature of their work. "Right now, one of my colleagues is in India, another is in Japan, and another is in the US. One of the projects I'm working on at the moment is to grow a client's business in China - a direct result of my time in Shanghai."

"At IMSCG, you can expect to travel within Europe, to places like Switzerland, France and Germany, as well as farther afield." adds Celine. "I even went back to Shanghai for a workshop for three days in November, which I didn't anticipate! Besides traveling, another great element about working at IMSCG is being able to tap into a wealth of global market insights in our local offices, so there is always something new to learn!"

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