Accelerate - April 2016

Growing big, staying nimble

open this image in new window: Hartley Atkinson

AFT Pharmaceuticals has gone from the garage to the NZX main board, but founder Hartley Atkinson says the company retains the essence of a nimble start-up.

The heady days of 1997 saw Jenny Shipley become New Zealand’s first woman Prime Minister, Stephen Fleming become New Zealand’s youngest Test cricket captain and Atkinson and his wife Maree start AFT Pharmaceuticals from a suburban shed.

19 years later and AFT is a NZ$300m company that is NZX and ASX listed, marketing 100 products in Asia and Australasia and targeting sales in 50-100 countries within the next two-to-three years.

Atkinson now runs a company with dozens of staff. But despite the growth he has worked hard at keeping the flexibility and innovation the young AFT had.

To do this, AFT keeps its innovation processes as close to start-up scale as it can, with a maximum of four people working on a project to avoid stifling idea generation.

R&D people and leadership can also get bogged down with the less exciting elements of running a business. Atkinson recognised early the need to systematise things like paying the bills and ensure they effectively looked after themselves, freeing the technical staff to do their specialist work.

And importantly, despite listing on the stock exchange and having to satisfy shareholders, fear of failure has not been allowed to creep in.

“Part of our credo is ‘we’re happy for you to try things as long as you don’t bury the ones that don’t work’,” Atkinson says.

And listed with ordinary ‘mum and dad’ investors hasn’t changed the company’s direction or priorities.

“My aims and [the other shareholders’] aims are closely aligned – to grow the value of the shares by growing value and getting R&D to work.

“It’s about long-term value vs short-term targets.”

The company also keeps its focus on coming up with new products rather than getting them into a market. That listed status in Australasia doesn’t make AFT a Big Pharma company all of a sudden, which has advantages and disadvantages.

“In pharmaceuticals, the small companies have got ideas, and the challenge is development and commercialisation, whereas the big companies are very good at that.

“We do have ideas and we’re good at that but when it comes to commercialisation you look for a partner to license.”

Leadership is another key factor to staying innovative. For Atkinson, being a visible CEO and staying in touch with the staff in the labs helps him focused on driving those new products and avoiding complacency.

“My wife and I have done all the jobs in the company, so I have some idea what everyone is up to.

“Engaging with the key technical people is important. You’ve got to be able to keep talking to people, because they’ve got different skills.”

Maintaining AFT’s balancing act between growing big and staying nimble is a critical motivator for its CEO.

“We’re really keen to make this work so we can show people that you can take an innovative New Zealand-based company and make it a success internationally – it can be done.”

Index | Nuku ki te Puku

Updated: 7 April 2016