‘We touch a lot of lives, and with that comes a lot of responsibility’

Interview: Bernard Birkett, West Pharmaceutical Services

Bernard Birkett: ‘If you keep developing yourself and keep your eyes and ears open, opportunity is out there and you just have to go and take it.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Bernard Birkett: ‘If you keep developing yourself and keep your eyes and ears open, opportunity is out there and you just have to go and take it.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Despite having moved to the United States in 2015, Bernard Birkett makes sure he catches an RTÉ news bulletin every evening. “It’s always going to be home,” he says of Ireland as we adjust to the post-pandemic novelty of a face-to-face discussion on his life and career in his native Galway city.

A thoughtful speaker who deliberately chooses his words, Birkett explains that, after more than 20 years working in Galway, during which he climbed the corporate ladder at medical device maker Merit Medical, he and his family fancied a change. That change came when Merit offered him a US-based job, a job he took before rising to the role of chief financial officer at that company.

At the time he moved, the business was worth about $700 million. By May 2018, when Birkett took up the role he holds today as chief financial officer of West Pharmaceutical Services, Merit had grown to have a valuation of about $2.6 billion. But the opportunity at West was considerably greater, he notes.

The move, he says, was one of opportunity. “I had learned a lot at Merit over a 20-year timeframe [but] at that point in my career, I was looking for something a little bit different.

“West is the market leader in packaging containment for injectable medicines and I saw a lot of opportunity there,” he adds. “We touch a lot of lives [and] with that comes a lot of responsibility.”

Pandemic supplies

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the business has moved to touch an even greater number of lives, and is intimately involved with the vaccine manufacturing process. From its plant in Co Waterford, West supplies millions of rubber vial stoppers to several global customers to package their vaccine products.

Founded in 1923 and headquartered in Exton, Pennsylvania, West now employs more than 10,000 staff worldwide and boasts 25 manufacturing sites from which it produces more than 40 billion components each year.

More than 1,000 of its staff are based in the Republic, with the headcount at its Waterford facility having doubled as a result of the pandemic. While the Republic only accounts for a small percentage of the company’s business, it is growing, says Birkett.

Overall there’s a very good business-friendly infrastructure in Ireland and that’s what attracts us. Also, what attracts us is the labour force there is here

And the State is “very important” to West’s longer-term plans, he says, something evidenced by the recent establishment of the company’s financial shared service centre in Dublin, a move that created 60 jobs here.

Will moves by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to introduce a minimum tax rate dampen the company’s interest in locations like the Republic?

 

“Overall there’s a very good business-friendly infrastructure in Ireland and that’s what attracts us. Also, what attracts us is the labour force there is here. We operate in countries with higher tax rates than Ireland. So, tax is something obviously we look at, but there are other things that are equally or more important.”

Corporation tax

To date, West’s hiring decisions don’t appear to have been impacted by any mooted change in the corporation tax rate in the Republic. And, in any event, West’s heft in its chosen niche has positioned it well to respond to any changes that may come as it capitalises on the Covid-19 crisis.

As far back as January 2020, West saw an impact on its China-based plants arising out of the deteriorating situation in Wuhan. Its crisis management teams quickly put in place a plan to respond to the pandemic, and then the company took what Birkett describes as a “calculated risk” to invest more than $100 million in new equipment to aid the eventual vaccine rollout.

Today, manufacturing related to Covid-19 accounts for “high single digits, early double digits” of revenue. While Birkett won’t disclose what companies it is working with, he says that West is “probably touching a high percentage of vaccines”.

As with all businesses, West adapted when the pandemic hit, allowing those staff that didn’t have to be on site to work remotely. While staff are now beginning to trickle back to the office, Birkett says that the company isn’t being “overly prescriptive” and notes that he personally likes the level of flexibility that remote working has brought. d

Asked what he’s most looking forward to post-pandemic, he doesn’t miss a beat: “travel” is what he’s most missed. But he’s also looking forward to “simple things” too, like “not having to wear a mask, to shake somebody’s hand [and] to be able to sit with someone and have a coffee and not sit six feet away”.

Curiously, Birkett says he also missed the “connectivity and intimacy” of investor conferences, but they are starting to come back, he adds.

Early years

Birkett grew up in Renmore, the eldest of four children. His father was a joiner while his mother worked in the home. He went to primary and secondary school locally, and attended third level at both the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and NUI Galway.

Subsequent to that, he studied for a master’s at UCD’s Michael Smurfit school of business before getting his first real job (he’s not counting the summers working at Claude’s Casino in Salthill) in the Isle of Man as a trainee accountant. He subsequently moved to Arklow to work for a silicone implant manufacturer before returning to Galway, where he would spend the following two decades.

We’d talked about wanting to live somewhere else and experience it, and it was just to go to a place with guaranteed sunshine for a couple of months of the year

After a working life mostly spent around Galway, you might think Birkett wouldn’t have been considered a prime candidate for a major relocation in his early 40s. Was the decision a surprise to his friends and family?

“I think it was for some. But others could see that I was restless... Even in the role I had in Galway, I was travelling a lot and I really enjoyed it. The difference was that my family weren’t travelling a lot.

“We’d talked about wanting to live somewhere else and experience it, and it was just to go to a place with guaranteed sunshine for a couple of months of the year – so we decided to go for it.”

His move into senior leadership, something he hadn’t initially sought out, followed. When he was appointed as chief financial officer at Merit, the company’s stock had dropped by between 10 and 20 per cent. “I had to learn quick,” he reflects. And so he did, having spoken to analysts and investors about what it was they were looking for from him.

He says he’s not a “typical CFO”. “I’m really interested in the numbers but I’m more interested in how the organisation operates and the people.” He explains that he reads about “how the mind evolves, how people behave and think and what’s behind it. I spend a lot of time trying to understand that.”

That quest for understanding has led him to think deeply about the culture at West, a culture which he says is based on purpose. It sounds like corporate-speak, I suggest.

“No,” responds Birkett before telling a story of absenteeism at one of the company’s plants in Germany. In Eschweiler, absenteeism actually fell during the pandemic, with staff cognisant of “the importance of that small little piece of rubber that we were making in ensuring somebody stayed healthy. Once I heard that, [I said] they get the purpose.”

Another challenge

All this philosophising makes me question whether Birkett remains restless, whether there’s another challenge on his horizon?

“That’s a question I’m trying to answer at the moment. I’ve achieved a lot – and that’s not blowing smoke, that’s just a personal thing.”

What about a role as chief executive? Would that interest him?

“I better be careful now,” he laughs. “It’s not a burning ambition inside me. I’ve been really, really fortunate at West and working with Eric [Green, West’s chief executive] that I have a lot of latitude. If I had to do it, I’d do it but it’s not something that I’m waiting to say ‘when is my turn going to come?’ That’s just not where I’m at.”

He does, of course, have interests outside his job. Chief among those is his collection of art by artists including Graham Knuttel, Eileen Meagher and Grace Cunningham.

Birkett also dabbled as a painter himself. “A local artist here in Galway, Jim Kavanagh, he gives lessons and that allowed me to access a different part of my brain and temperament.”

I was walking across from the hotel to the conference centre at 8 o’clock in the morning in Midtown, and I was saying, ‘How the hell did I even get here?’

Birkett is also a collector of vinyl, much of it jazz music. On his latest return to Galway, he found the first single he ever bought – Town Called Malice by The Jam – which he plans to have framed.

Though he returns a “couple of weeks” a year, with his eldest daughter starting in university in Toronto, there appears to be little prospect of him returning to the Republic for the longer term in the near future.

“For me to be doing what I’m doing, I couldn’t do it from Ireland... we love coming back but I don’t know if we’ll come back for good.

“I remember I was going to a conference about three years ago in New York and I was walking across from the hotel to the conference centre at 8 o’clock in the morning in Midtown, and I was saying, ‘How the hell did I even get here?’ I think sometimes things just happen, you can’t overly plan it.

“I think if you keep developing yourself and keep your eyes and ears open, opportunity is out there and you just have to go and take it. But there’s a trade-off for it. You can give up the comfort of home for this excitement over here,” he adds.

Though Birkett could be viewed as having made that trade-off late in life, it appears to have paid off for him.

CV

Name: Bernard Birkett
Position: Chief financial officer and senior vice-president of West Pharmaceutical Services
Age: 52
Family: Married to Marie, they have two daughters, Ailbhe and Niamh
Lives: Wayne, Pennsylvania, US
From: Renmore, Co Galway
Something you might expect: As an Irishman living abroad, Birkett misses the food back home. “I like a proper fry, a proper breakfast, that’s hard to get... [also] some Friday evenings you’d kill for a bag of Tayto.”
Something that might surprise: Birkett enjoys painting and has given away the majority of his pieces. The one he kept was a painting he did of the famous George Stubbs piece called Whistlejacket, an oil-on-canvas painting that captures a racehorse at approximately life size.