SHE wanted to be both a doctor and a teacher. Perhaps it was because of the nurturing personality she naturally exudes. It could also be because she grew up in an environment filled with so much hope and dreams despite the daily struggles, and being a doctor or teacher would enable her to give back.
Marcelina “Ace” Itchon never realized her dream of becoming a doctor, yet her sheer determination and single-minded focus landed her in an industry that came closest to realizing her dream.
Itchon is the president and CEO of Aspen Philippines, Inc. It is the Philippine subsidiary of the South African company Aspen Pharmacare, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Although Aspen Philippines is newly established, Itchon explains that the company is in fact one of the oldest and established globally, having been in business for 160 years.
Aspen Pharmacare is a South Africa-based global supplier of both generic and branded pharmaceutical products, infant nutritional and consumer healthcare products in selected territories. It currently has 26 manufacturing facilities in 18 sites across six continents, where it employs around 10,000 employees worldwide. Its products reach 150 countries and it is present in 57 countries with subsidiaries, representative offices and manufacturing sites. It is publicly listed and is considered to be one of the blue chips in the JSE—the largest stock exchange in Africa. Aspen is also ranked among the Top 5 global generics manufacturers and is the leading generics manufacturer in the southern hemisphere.
In the Philippines, Aspen began operating in January 2012 and was formally launched in March of the same year. The company offers over-the-counter products like Valda Pastilles, Dequadin, Kwell, and Bio Oil. They also distribute prescription products on anti-hyperthyroidism, anti-hypothyroidism and an anti-maternal hypertension product that is safe for both mother and fetus, anti-atrial fibrillation, oncology products, kidney transplant support products, anti-thrombotics, and pediatric anti-infectives.
Itchon says she is happy that the company had such tremendous growth in just three years. She points out that from 2012, Aspen Philippines grew from one employee to 155, with brands introduced expanding from 12 to 37, and with total volume of sales jumping from P67 million to P1.4 billion for 2014. The growth, she says, is also a validation of the decision of the mother company to invest in the Philippines.
She says, “The plan to launch Aspen in Asia in 2012 was a perfect timing to position the Philippines as a launch pad in the region.”
Because the company took off with a great start, Itchon says the challenge is obviously how to sustain such dramatic growth. But she is confident that the industry is growing at a comfortable rate, especially because, according to her, “there is a vast selection of products available to the medical practitioners and the patients. Patients are increasingly becoming educated on generics, and this is an opportunity for Aspen to bring in our quality and affordable products.”
At the same time, she is also optimistic that the Philippines will sustain its impressive economic growth due to a more favorable perception from the international community that the country is serious in fighting corruption. The lady chief executive adds that some of her goals for both the short and medium term would be aligned with Aspen’s strategy of acquisitions, organic growth and establishing commercial alliances with other multinational companies.
With all of these bright prospects, Itchon says she is very much excited to be a part not only of her company’s growth but of the whole industry’s growth as well. The presence of and access to more superior and affordable medicine also redounds back to a healthier nation, as more patients are now able to afford quality medicines.
It’s all about getting second chances, she says, much like the way she does in mentoring and training her own people. After all, her life story is pretty much the same. She recounts that she wasn’t born with a silver spoon, having been born 3rd of seven siblings from an average middle class family in Bulacan. Growing up, she was fortunate to have been taken in by the nuns at a nearby Catholic school as one of their scholars. It must have made quite an impression on her young mind as she resolved to also someday open up her own school and mentor poor but deserving kids.
In college, she took up Biology as her pre-med course, but never went to medicine proper due to financial constraints. Then one day, she was sent to apply in a pharmaceutical company as a medical representative. She laughs out loud as she remembers “acing” all the tests, yet didn’t know what a medical rep does, and this is how she earned her nickname from her peers.
Since then, she says her many years in Zuellig Pharma helped shape who she is now. She even thought Zuellig would be her retirement company, until opportunity once again knocked on her door. At this point, she says her goal for Aspen— apart from making it grow into a socially and ethically responsible company—is threefold: second chances to deserving talents, including mentoring; giving back to the community; and giving back to the country that nurtured her and helped turn her little girl dreams into reality.