For Louis Ko, general manager of Johnson & Johnson Medical Taiwan, change is unavoidable. The Kellogg School of Management graduate has led the Taiwan affiliates of two multinational companies through big structural transitions, a major feat for anyone at any stage of their career. Ko says that being adaptable and adopting the right mindset were key to facing the challenges that those transitions entailed.
Ko met with TOPICS Deputy Editor Jeremy Olivier in November to discuss his educational and professional background, his experiences with change management, and his thoughts on how to make the market for medical devices in Taiwan more competitive.
What did you major in in college? Did your studies prepare you for your eventual career?
For my undergraduate studies, I majored in business administration at National Cheng Chi University in Taipei. I think that this gave me a very useful, generalized background. I learned a little bit of everything related to business and took courses in other core subjects as well.
Something that was also very useful for my future career was my involvement in AIESEC, an international student organization that aims to bridge students from diverse countries and help them understand social and cultural differences. Participating in this group required that I improve my social networking skills, which are essential for surviving in the business world.
In 2008, with the support of J&J, I obtained my MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. While there, I began receiving more specialized knowledge about business and management. I did learn some valuable hard skills from my courses there, but it was the people skills that proved really valuable in my career.
What attracted you to the healthcare industry and medical devices in particular? Would you make the same choice if you were starting over?
When I was searching for my first role 18 years ago, I really wanted to work for a multinational company. At that time, I was interested in a few different areas, such as fast-moving consumer goods, banking, and tech companies.
In the end, I did get some good offers, but the best was for a sales position in J&J’s medical devices division. This role really attracted me because it allowed me to have some autonomy over my sales plan and to serve different territories. It was a good environment for professional and personal growth, which was just what I was looking for.
I also found medical devices to be a dynamic and fast-paced sector. Within the healthcare field, the life cycle of medical device products is quite short – the technology and materials advance every few years. And compared to pharmaceuticals, where it may take some time for patients to try various treatment options before achieving their goals, medical devices can allow them to immediately start returning to their normal lives. That impact gave me a lot of motivation to continue working in this area, and I would certainly make the same decision if given the opportunity to start over.
What are your views on the competitiveness of U.S.-made medical devices in the Taiwan market? What are the most significant barriers to better market penetration?
I think Taiwan’s medical device market is adequately competitive. At J&J, we specialize in products that are technologically advanced and evidence-based but bringing those products to market is another story. Taiwan has a world-class healthcare system with excellent nationalized health insurance that is very beneficial to most patients. It covers over 99% of the population and has one of the best pricing structures in the world.
However, this also creates barriers to introducing better and more advanced products. In the NHI’s reimbursement category, which makes up around 70% of the market, prices are also very low. So, from the supplier’s perspective, figuring out how to launch premium products in Taiwan can be quite challenging. Most multinationals are now trying to leverage patient self-pay and balance billing to overcome this challenge. This is also why we as an industry are continually in conversation with the government on creating a more flexible approach.
Another issue is that Taiwan is a fairly small market compared to some of its regional neighbors. Whenever a company wants to launch a new, state-of-the-art product, they almost always choose China or Japan or Australia instead. Moreover, smaller markets like Singapore and Hong Kong have less regulatory barriers, and thus the time to market is much shorter. Taiwan thus needs an accelerated review and approval process for medical devices to ensure that new products can hit the local market in a timely manner.
Did you have a mentor as a student or young professional who had a big influence on you?
I actually had two. One was the managing director of J&J Taiwan back when I first started. He encouraged me to pursue my studies abroad, to aim high and really put myself in an international environment.
He also taught me about how important it is to create a culture of trust with my team. Managers who do not maintain a high level of trust in the workplace may have subordinates who are unwilling to share their true thoughts and feelings. Without that transparency, it’s hard to make the right decisions at a firm. So, it is incredibly important to create trust and be as authentic a leader as you can.
The other person who had a big influence on me was a fellow alumnus from Kellogg, who is now the founder and managing partner of a hedge fund. He showed me that, although it’s common knowledge that we need to step out of our comfort zones to succeed, sometimes we need someone to give us that extra push. He also taught me about juggling all the different parts of my life – family, social life, career – and finding the right balance to be happy and successful.
What’s been the biggest challenge you faced in your career and how did you deal with it?
Partway through my time at J&J, I made a big career change. At that time, an opportunity arose for me to serve as the country head of a Danish company whose Taiwan operation was changing from a distributor to a direct sales model. I had to help establish a new subsidiary and recruit a new team – basically, to start over from scratch.
To do this successfully, I needed to transform my mindset to one in which I had nothing to lose. That pushed me to take risks and be more creative.
I also learned that if you can look at the opportunities and share your vision effectively with your team, you can easily get everyone working toward the same goal. I’ve taken this lesson with me and applied it to the multiple times I’ve led a team through big changes at a company.
Do you have a particular philosophy as a manager? How has your experience over the years informed the way you manage your team?
Being at Kellogg really taught me the importance of teamwork, something that I think requires a lot of empathy – an essential trait for a manager. Different teams in an organization have different demands and objectives and because of that, conflicts sometimes arise. But with more empathy, they start to understand each other and can solve problems together.
I also champion the values of diversity and inclusion, which are part of J&J’s company culture. You need a team of people with diverse backgrounds to learn from each other and grow. Inclusion is giving all team members the same priority to speak their minds and contribute. You can’t always rely on the most outspoken people to lead the team; you need to consider those who are humbler or more introverted as well. By doing so, you give the organization room to come up with more innovative ideas.
Lastly, although I think empowering people is key, I believe a truly good leader can inspire and move people to make an impact.
If you had one piece of advice for someone interested in healthcare as a career, what would that be?
In my view, the most important thing is to develop learning agility. Like I mentioned earlier, medical devices evolve quickly. There are a lot of disruptive new technologies being introduced in the market. In addition, multinationals frequently go through structural changes, and you need to be prepared for that. So, the ability to be adaptive, to be willing to learn new things quickly, is critical.
How do you like to spend your leisure time? What gets you “recharged?”
I think for me, the interesting thing is that I can find ways to recharge while I’m still at work. If I’m doing something meaningful, something that I’m passionate about, and I achieve success in that pursuit, that kind of work gets me recharged.
I do enjoy my leisure time as well, though. I love all kinds of music – I used to play piano and guitar, and I still like going to KTV to sing. That relaxes me.
A lot of my energy and happiness comes from spending time with my kids. I have two young boys and when I have time on the weekends, I just love hanging out with them, studying with them, playing music and sports with them. That also gets me recharged.