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A Familiar Feel: Similarities Between the Banking Crisis and COVID-19

CEEIHM Issue 1.2.
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Having worked in the banking sector during the global financial crisis that started in 2008, Iliana Byanova, Chief Legal, Risk and Compliance Officer at Sopharma Trading, talks about the similarities between the effects of that crisis on the Banking sector and those of the COVID-19 pandemic on the pharmaceutical sector.

CEEIHM: How would you describe your career? 

Iliana: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity," is a Seneca quote I truly believe in and it is exactly what has brought me where I am now in my career. It is hard work to always be prepared for the unexpected. Opportunities just come.

Banking & Finance was my first love. I spent 12 dynamic years in the biggest Bulgarian-owned and the most innovative bank in Bulgaria – First Investment Bank – climbing the ladder from a legal advisor role up to a C-suite position. I feel I have always been engaged with some of the most challenging projects and transactions. A unique experience a legal professional could only dream of!

When Sopharma Trading invited me to join the team just a few months following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic I instinctively knew that this is the new chapter of my story – an opportunity to be further challenged and be on the crest of the wave. 

CEEIHM: This year has been particularly challenging. How did you see it play out as the Chief Legal, Risk, and Compliance Officer of a pharmaceutical company?

Iliana: It’s been a difficult and challenging year, but also a thrillingly rewarding one for me. The company has decided to move fast on multiple fronts – and all of them were successes. The legal function became more prominent and we had to work not only at full speed and under a lot of pressure, but also to be very creative and innovative.

On top of all that I am so proud that I worked on the successful increase of the capital of First Investment Bank through a public offering in the first half of the year and closed the acquisition of a pharmacy chain with over 150 pharmacies in the second half. The year was marked by insecurity and turbulence, but also offered many opportunities to grow and expand our business. 

CEEIHM: In previous conversations, you have drawn some interesting parallels between the pharma industry, today, and the banking sector, back when you were with the First Investment Bank. Can you share some of those parallels with our readers?

Iliana: I joined the banking sector in the fall of 2008 amid a horrific economic crisis. Since then I witnessed enormous efforts on behalf of the EU not only to recover and strengthen the financial sector but to prevent future financial crises. One of the pillars of these efforts was regulatory change – and this process continues even today. Regulations have expanded and have become much more harmonized at a EU level. The European Central Bank and the European Banking Authority started to set the tone as never before.

It is all too familiar with the COVID-19 crisis, only worse this time, because now it is about not only preserving the economy but also saving lives.

We are witnessing how a crisis leads to more interference by both local governments and the EU in the healthcare systems in member states. Many new regulations and amendments are on their way. In the Pharmaceutical strategy for Europe published in November 2020, the Commission talks very much about convergence, common international standards, EU guidelines, and opinions. The European Medicines Agency’s role will further be expanded and a new European Health Emergency Response Authority will be established. 

Just as an example, Germany, like other EU Member States, was called upon to take a particularly critical look at planned acquisitions and preserve assets in the EU. It sounds so familiar when you come from the banking sector, where acquisitions are subject to enormous scrutiny by the regulators.

CEEIHM: Do you believe a similar harmonization can be expected in the Pharma sector? 

Iliana: I truly believe that unified regulations and guidelines coming from the EU would deliver tangible results and have very positive effects overall. Of course, the EU does not define Member States’ health policies, nor the organization and provision of health services and medical care, because of what was agreed in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. However, I strongly believe the EU will increase its influence on the States because of its importance and because of the crisis. 

As a GC, regulatory efficiency is desired and is the best thing that could happen to us legal professionals and the businesses we serve. It is not the volume or complexity of regulations that matter, but rather their efficiency and adequacy.

And if we, GCs, support the business in improving the services and products, or developing new ones in accordance with all opportunities that regulations give us, we all, as customers, will benefit. Allow me to remind you how much we all benefit, every single day, because of the EU’s interference in the telecom sector and the reduction of roaming costs.

CEEIHM: Another similar element in the two recent global crises is the impact of technology.

Iliana: Indeed, another resemblance is definitely related to the impact of new technologies. 

There are new players in pharma, especially technological companies. They are set to transform current business models and markets, but this process looks like it is still in its early stages. In banking and finance, it is in its advanced stage with all these Fintech companies that conquered a great deal of the traditional banking services.

A couple of years ago, online identification and online deposits and loans seemed impossible because of AML regulations. Today, banks offer all these services, and it seems as if they have always been offering them. This process has been boosted by the pandemic. Similarly, in the pharma sector today, the online sale of prescription medicines is impossible due to local Bulgarian regulations (as it is in most countries within CEE), but this service, I believe, will soon be allowed, because of customer needs. In my view, pharma regulations develop at a slower pace compared to banking, because they cannot benefit as much from the scale of mutual learning, knowledge, and capacity of EU institutions. They are local and not pan-European. However, one of the goals of the European Commission is aimed to ensure that innovation matches the needs of patients. 

Central banks, the ECB, the EBA, and the ESMA have an enormous depository of data about the banking and finance market. The European Commission still struggles to collect all data necessary to enable better research and, ultimately, better healthcare. The Commission is preparing to propose European health data space and establish an interoperable data access infrastructure.

CEEIHM: How is this evolution translating into the operations of the company itself?

Iliana: Sopharma Trading’s mission is to drive evolution in healthcare (you can check out our logo to see what I mean) and these are not only words – evolution is part of our daily life. We are often setting the tone in terms of innovation in Bulgaria. Ask others if they follow us. For example, I am very proud to share that our retail SOpharmacy arm processed the first electronic prescription in the country a couple of weeks ago, on the very same day the ordinances allowing e-healthcare were promulgated. We are leading in Bulgaria by offering this electronic service. We are ready to offer much more to our customers and improve their customer experience, however, the strict regulations that apply in Bulgaria, and across the EU, are still a barrier to that.

CEEIHM: If you could make one call to action to your GC peers, or to the business environment as a whole, what would that be?

Iliana: We need to face the fact that a huge challenge has confronted, and still is confronting, the human race. We should realize and tell ourselves daily that we should come together to address the challenges; we are a piece of the healthcare system and we are required to contribute to the fight against pandemics and diseases.

This article was published in issue 1.2 of CEE In-House Matters. The full edition is available here in pdf format, here in e-reader format, and here in electronic format.

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