Big dream and hard work earn a place in the pharma world
You’ve seen them often enough while waiting for your turn at the doctor’s clinic – young women and men, smartly dressed, whose eyes instantly dart to the secretary when a patient exits the consultation room. Not everyone of them is lucky enough to be allowed to see the physician but, if they are, the meeting would only last a few minutes and it’s not about seeking medical help.
Welcome to the world of the medical representative or med rep.
Sheila Mae Velilla once counted herself among those who waited for doctors to give her minute of her time. But unlike most of her peers, she had a dream, a big one – to make a mark in the pharmaceutical and health and wellness arena. Now, she is president and CEO of Nutramedica, the company behind the award-winning CocoZen virgin coconut oil bodycare line (Best Product Category from the Philippine Coconut Authority in 2005) and Novuhair, a hair loss remedy product that received tremendous boost from endorser pop idol Gary Valenciano, whose satisfied grin while holding out a Chianti-tinged bottle, seems to be everywhere in Metro Manila. From behind buses, on sari-sari (variety) store tarpaulins and in newspaper advertisements, there’s Gary with the assurance that Novuhair is keeping “all that hair on my head.”
Organic and scientifically backed
What makes Novuhair – formulated by German scientist and specialist in Philippine medicinal plants, Dr. Dietmar Rummel – stand out from other products in the market claiming to do the same?
Velilla recalls: “At the time (the early years of the millennium), there was no natural hair growth product in the market. We had those backyard remedies like sabila, but nothing really professionally formulated and with proper Food and Drug Administration backing.
“In Novuhair, we have that best combination and the actual measurement to use to achieve the optimum effect.”
For such practical rationale, the product was honored by personal care chain Watsons as Most Successful New Brand of the Year (2012) and Medicated Hair Care Brand of the Year (2012 to 2015). Velilla received the Agora Award for Outstanding Achievement in Entrepreneurship, medium scale category (2016).
This year, Novuhair found its way onto the shelves of giant Filipino store chain Seafood City and the smaller Island Pacific Supermarket, whose outlets serve the burgeoning Filipino-American communities in California, Nevada and Washington state, among others.
And to think that the Novuhair story nearly didn’t have a happy ending with the amount of rejections it first received locally as well as overseas. “People wanted smaller bottles and not the 200 mL size that we were marketing. Tingi in short. But we couldn’t reduce it in order [for possible users]to experience the full effects of the lotion.”
On her own at 24
Through adversity, plain old perseverance and holding onto an enduring dream of “running a big company one day” egged on this driven daughter and youngest child of Isabela agri-entrepreneurs Manuel and Violeta Velilla, whose enterprises consisted of a rice mill (now converted into a mill for animal feed contracted to B-Meg, San Miguel), rice farm, poultry and piggery among others. “I had always seen my parents work, running their own business. We were never in the corporate world,” Velilla says. Her story echoes that of countless families throughout the archipelago making the most of demand and opportunity, with relentless hard work at the core of eventual prosperity.
Velilla says without hubris: “I’m very hard working, which I think the doctors I dealt with as a med rep for Duncan Pharmaceuticals saw. The usual image of a salesperson is a bolero. That’s not me I’m sincere.
“That’s why they kept encouraging me to go on my own and be a distributor of pharma and cosmetic products even if I was only 24 at the time. Who would believe that a 24-year-old would deserve your business distributing your product? But the doctors supported me and started introducing me to their suppliers. That gave me credibility.”
Velilla launched operations in 1998, serving Region 2, where her home province of Isabela is located. That strategy wisely avoided the fierce competition in Manila. Northern Luzon, regarded at the time by the drug companies as being too distant, often lacked med reps, which was where Velilla’s arrival was timely. With a staff of four – an assistant, a pharmacist and a driver – she scoured the area, discovering ripe opportunity to supply local hospitals, clinics, drugstores and the like.
Within six months, Velilla had to hire more people, some of whom were former med reps like her, to handle places she had opened up.
At some point, Velilla felt the growth of her business stymied due to frequent irregularity of stocks or worse, manufacturers closing shop. “One day, you’re promoting this product; another day, it’s something else. I realized that the company couldn’t grow, and we wouldn’t be able to execute our future plans of exporting Filipino-made products if we continued.”
She also acknowledged the need to upgrade her business skills, enrolling at the Ateneo for an MBA. “I graduated med tech [medical technology], which wasn’t the proper background for running a company. I needed to be able to relate to my future managers.”
To augment the revenue stream, she began to import injectable pharmaceuticals such as Scolmin from Korea and Lactozinc from Taiwan. She then decided to enter the sunrise industry of virgin coconut oil (VCO), the advocacy of eminent physician Conrado S. Dayrit, who trail-blazed tests on the efficacy of coconut oil on HIV and wrote about coconut oil’s health benefits. She set up a manufacturing plant in Laguna, sourcing the ingredient from the area as well as nearby Quezon province.
As one of the pioneers in commercially marketing VCO as a wellness line, her CocoZen brand was recognized by the PCA as Best Product in 2005 during the Coconut Week Festival.
Asians for Asian skin
Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Velilla recently introduced Novuskin Lift anti-aging food supplement. The Thai formulation features a unique combination of 18 natural age-delaying and skin brightening extracts, mainly marine fish collagen, grape seed extract and L-glutathione needed by the body to combat oxidative stress and cellular repair. Clinical studies were, of course conducted for several months, using Filipinos. “Products from Asian manufacturers, especially the Japanese and Koreans work better for us, rather than the Western brands because they’re formulated for Asian – our – skin,” Velilla firmly believes.
Change begins with you
She is an unabashed disciple of leadership guru Stephen R. Covey. She even enrolled in a course on the author of the perennial best-seller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People early in her career. The list starts off with managing one’s self and rounds up with dealing with the team. Change, she says, begins with the boss before turning to others. “If you can’t manage yourself, how can you manage others?”
A former workaholic, Velilla has learned to pace herself, confessing: “I didn’t want to kill myself…” Fortunate to have a retentive mind, she rarely has need of a written checklist and just works out of a 12.9 iPad Pro. “In the morning, I always know what to prioritize. And at the end of the day, all most all of what I planned to do is accomplished.”
If after 6pm, nothing urgent is required, she’ll go off and not bother her staff. “Weekends, I want everyone to spend quality time with their families.”
Once, Velilla thought she might become a doctor. But finding her unique niche in the pharma and wellness industry suits her just fine. She says: “I’m able to develop products and give the market a lower-priced alternative to expensive multinational products.”
There is still that goal “to develop Philippine-made products that have the potential to make it to the world market”. For Sheila Mae Velilla, the dream goes on.
Ginger or Luya
Benefit: Stimulates the hair bulbs that enhances the blood circulation to the hair follicles. With the enhanced blood circulation of the blood, it also increases the nutrient supply to the hair follicles.
Centella asiatica or Takip-lohol or Indian Pennyworth
Benefit: Helps promotes hair growth and helps counteract free radicals
Panax Ginseng / Ginseng
Benefit: Helps nourish the scalp
Phyllanthus emblica / Indian Gooseberry
Benefit: Helps spur luxurious black hair growth and helps prevent hair graying
Dexpanthenol (Vit. B5)
Benefit: Helps improve skin hydration, skin roughness and aids in reducing itch and inflammation
Shikakai / Acacia concinna
Benefit: Helps reduce hair fall and promotes hair growth, cleanses the scalp and also aids in dandruff prevention
Safflower / Carthamus tinctorius
Benefit: Helps promote a healthy environment for hair growth, Helps protect, nourish, hydrate, soften, firm and condition the hair
Lemongrass or Tanglad and Peppermint
Benefit: These ingredients help cleanse, disinfect and refresh scalp pores. They also help in slowing down the growth of bacteria and fungi
Lavender and Rosemary
Benefit: These essential oils help stimulate hair growth as well as disinfect and enhance blood circulation to the scalp
Velilla’s 7 simple rules of successful selling
• Have some ability to sell. I’m lucky, I have a natural talent for selling. If not, do something else.
• Build rapport with your clients and contacts as I did with the doctors I was servicing during my time as a med rep. They were the ones who encouraged me to go on my own and later supported me by introducing me to suppliers.
• The usual image of a salesperson is a bolero. That’s not me. I’m sincere and I think the doctors saw that in me even if I was very young (24) at the time.
• Don’t forget to do your homework and have good product knowledge. How can you sell something you don’t know anything about?
• It’s always helpful to upgrade your skills or education. I took up an MBA since my academic background was science. How could I communicate with my managers if I didn’t have any grounding in business?
• Have a vision to guide all your activities. Mine continues to be to grow into a big company and market Filipino-made products worthy enough for the world stage.
• Treat your employees as your first customer, and they, in turn, will take care of your company’s clientele.