A CFO Who Listens to His Intuition

CEIBS Global EMBA 2010

CFO and Board Secretary of Pharmaron

Twelve years ago, Gilbert Li was offered an olive branch by an investor he had previously served, inviting him to join a start-up to take charge of its finance and help develop its IPO plan.

At the time, Li had worked in consulting for almost 8 years. A graduate of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology with a degree in accounting, he joined KPMG, one of the “Big Four”, fresh out of college in 2000. Three years later, he moved to another international consultancy specializing in M&As and financial services.

Lured by the promise that the new company would get listed in three to five years, and convinced that he could improve himself and his career prospect through greater exposure to the business world, Li embraced the offer without any hesitation. However, the company did not go public on China’s A-share market until the beginning of 2019, twelve years after Li joined.  

Li admitted that the company’s growth and IPO process did not go as smoothly as planned, with its fair share of desperate moments. When he felt frustrated, a line that he picked up from a radio program about the successful IPO of a start-up gave him the needed strength to carry on. “The biggest secret to success is persistence!” shared the executive about his experience.

“If you believe that you are in the right industry, your team is doing the right thing, and what you are doing is meaningful, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t keep going.” said Li.

What made this young Hong Kong-born man stay with a mainland China-based business for 12 years? What experience and insights does he have to share?  

Taking One of Two Diverging Roads

In January 2008, Li joined Pharmaron Beijing, a life sciences research and development startup founded by returning overseas scientist Lou Boliang in 2004, and engaged in research in the fields of combinatorial chemistry, pharmaceutical chemistry and organic synthetic chemistry. Today, the company is a world-leading business with operations in China, the US, and the UK, and over 6,500 employees across the world.

By the time Li joined Pharmaron, it had already attracted the attention of investors through its stellar growth in the first few years after its establishment.

In January 2007, Pharmaron completed its first round of financing, with investment from two renowned investors, including Legend Capital. In April 2008, three months after Li joined, the company completed a larger second round of financing. All these developments seemed to be heralding the company’s lift-off moment. However, Pharmaron’s management was facing two different strategic paths. One was to continue to focus on laboratory-based chemical services, increasing revenue as fast as possible, and then pursue a flotation. The other was to branch into different areas of the new drug development process, which would mean more manpower and capital investment and a longer payback period, and hence more unknown risks.

Despite the greater uncertainty, Pharmaron’s management resolutely chose a more arduous entrepreneurial journey, through remarkable foresight and based on its assessment of the trends in the industry, embarking on a transition from a pure chemical service company to a full-blown drug research and development business.

“The company was making investments in the first decade of establishment, and it didn’t break even until 2014,” said Li. “Naturally, the original IPO plan was put off.”

In fact, Pharmaron wasn’t listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange until early this year. 

Behind the 12-year Journey to an IPO

Investors typically do not have the patience to wait for more than 5 years for an IPO. However, it took Pharmaron 12 years to be listed. Many early investors, including Legend Capital, supported Pharmaron along the way. Some executives of the company’s early investors who had jumped ship also participated in Pharmaron’s subsequent rounds of financing. That was a relatively rare sight in the industry, precisely because investors found great confidence in Pharmaron’s team and business prospect.

Why was Pharmaron able to win the trust of investment partners?

Li believed that the professional expertise of the management, as well as the team’s confidence in and commitment to the chosen strategic direction played a decisive role. “Our chairman’s academic background gives him a strong sense of what’s going on in the industry. Our team members are also united and purposeful. Since we set the strategic direction, we have never given it up,” Li explained.

In addition, it is crucial to select the right investors, Li suggests. “We’ve brought in long-term investors who might not have the highest valuation of us, but have enough confidence in us and have been supporting us all along.”

Furthermore, Li said that a business needs to keep the channel of communication with investors wide open, communicating its ideas about business development to ensure that investors are aligned with its founding team strategically. It needs to set objectives at each stage and work to achieve them, in order to boost investor confidence, he added.

Business representatives who engage with investors must have two important qualities: integrity and honesty. Don’t cover up the problems that your business faces, and don’t make promises that are beyond your team’s capabilities. I’m proud to say that we have fulfilled all our promises in the expected time. Keep delivering on promises to boost investor confidence,” he emphasized. 

From a Hunter-Gatherer to a Farmer

Li’s career development has become increasingly in tune with Pharmaron’s growth trajectory.

Li admitted that his team was one of the major reasons why he stayed. “I used to visit dozens of companies a year as a business advisor, and we didn’t always see eye to eye in terms of their corporate culture and philosophy, so I had no willingness to work with them in the long term.” In contrast, he was comfortable working with Pharmaron’s management team, and could easily identify with its corporate culture and values. “Of course we had conflicts of opinion and often argued, but it was important for me to be able to work in an honest and open environment.”

After joining Pharmaron, Li soon realized that he was not just treated as an employee, but as a member of the entrepreneurial team, able to participate in the company’s major decision-making processes. “As more and more decisions were made together, I developed an emotional bond with the company. This emotional connection gave me a sense of belonging and responsibility. And I no longer regarded myself as a pure finance person.

Li started to commit himself fully to the development of Pharmaron. He often jokes that “I was like a venture capitalist left with enough to make only one investment, and I chose Pharmaron.”

His mindset started to change.

“I had almost become numb to numbers after years in the financial consultancy industry. 20 million or even 200 million on the books was just a number. But when I started to be involved in the operations of the company, I realized how difficult it was to make one million yuan, let alone 20 million.”

Li said that he had chosen to join Pharmaron, partly because he was getting tired of working with numbers, and wanted to see if he could create a little bit of real value by working on the front line.

Li likes to compare his previous consulting job to that of a hunter-gatherer with a clear goal to hunt, and the current job to that of a farmer: you have to till the field, sow seeds, and tend to the crops, before you can have a harvest.

STUDYING FOR AN EMBA

In 2010, Li made a decision to study a Global EMBA degree at CEIBS.

“My need for hard knowledge was not particularly urgent. By doing CEIBS’ Global EMBA program, I wanted to improve my soft skills and broaden my horizons,” Li said.

Li believes that attending CEIBS provided him with an opportunity to reflect on his past working experience. “One of the biggest gains from attending CEIBS was that I was able to consider whether I could have done the recently completed work differently,” he said.

As Pharmaron grew rapidly and expanded overseas, more and more of its employees chose to study an EMBA. Li often recommended CEIBS to his colleagues. “Many were colleagues from functional departments who are experts in their respective fields. By attending CEIBS’ Global EMBA program, they were able to improve their abilities in the fields of management and strategic planning, and learn to think holistically like an entrepreneur..”

Embracing a Future of Challenges and Opportunities

In the past few years, Pharmaron has built a global clinical development and service platform and expanded its overseas business operations through a series of mergers and acquisitions at home and abroad.

Today, Pharmaron has created an integrated business model complete with drug research, development and production services.

As one of the people presiding over these M&As, Li believes that the most difficult part of a merger or acquisition is not the merger process itself, but post-merger integration. “Every acquired company has its own characteristics and traditions, and it was very difficult to merge these things seamlessly into Pharmaron’s existing organizational structure. He counted Pharmaron lucky in this regard for having built alliances with businesses with which it is culturally compatible.

Li offered a piece of advice for handling M&As: “Don’t underestimate the difficulty of any merger or acquisition. If you find it difficult for two teams to work together, it’s best to make adjustments sooner rather than later.”

Pharmaron is facing some concrete challenges as it grows bigger. Take scientists, Pharmaron’s most important assets, as an example. For one thing, as scientists’ academic rigor sometimes runs counter to the company’s goal to please customers, not every scientist can successfully transition from research roles to service. For another, as it recruits an increasing number of scientists, Pharmaron has to build a robust system to properly manage them without compromising its service delivery.

“Pharmaron’s first goal is to serve customers. We do not want to see a situation where customers’ needs are not satisfied because of our rigid management system.” he said.

Although it has been 12 years since he joined Pharmaron, Li still feels that the company is in the early stages of development with a lot to learn across the board, and he is confident of its future development potential.

Li said that going forward Pharmaron will continue to improve its integrated research, development and service platform, and expand its international footprint. In terms of his personal career planning, he said he will remain open and sincere, and focus more on strategic planning, management, investor communication, among other areas.

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