Samira Sakhia: Taking the helm at Knight Therapeutics and supporting Desautels student leadership aspirations

While leading a Montreal-based pharmaceutical company’s international expansion, Samira Sakhia is also volunteering her expertise in the Desautels and broader McGill community

Samira Sakhia, BCom’90, DPA’94, MBA’01, entered the BCom program as a self-described “numbers person” and naturally gravitated towards earning a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) designation after graduation. “The finance calculations and economic courses came easily for me,” says Sakhia, who gained valuable early experience with Arthur Anderson auditing many different types of industries and companies. But after the heady experience of joining and helping the Montreal-based, digital video effects firm Discreet Logic (acquired by Autodesk in 1999) go public on Nasdaq during the ‘90s tech boom, Sakhia knew she didn’t want to be limited by discipline, gender, or race in her career trajectory.

“I wanted to do more than just accounting and bookkeeping. That’s why I decided to go back to McGill after working in London [UK] and do an MBA in strategy and marketing. McGill has a global perspective, and Montreal and Canada were more open for career advancement for someone like me. If I’d stayed in London, I knew I would be pigeonholed into accounting,” says Sakhia, whose broader business education and network of relationships established at Desautels set the stage for a dynamic career and growing leadership responsibilities in the pharmaceutical industry.

Taking the helm at Knight Therapeutics

Two decades later Sakhia is demonstrating her leadership abilities in the corporate world and through her contributions in multiple roles as a volunteer and benefactor in the Desautels Faculty of Management and broader McGill community.

On September 1, Sakhia will take the helm as President and CEO of Knight Therapeutics Inc., a leading Montreal-based specialty pharmaceutical firm with a substantial presence in Canada and 10 countries in Latin America. Knight develops, acquires, licenses, markets, and distributes innovative late-stage pharmaceutical products, consumer health products and medical devices in therapeutics areas such as oncology and hematology, infectious diseases, pain and neurological disorders, liver and kidney disease, and dermatology.

“I’m thrilled and honoured to take on the role of CEO of Knight and to lead an exceptionally talented and dedicated executive team. I’m excited that we’ll be coming out of COVID-19 running, with an opportunity to dramatically increase the uptake of many excellent medicines in Canada and in the underserved Latin American markets, where we have a competitive advantage,” says Sakhia, who previously served as President and Chief Operating Officer working with Knight founder and former CEO Jonathan Ross Goodman, a fellow McGill alumnus, who becomes Executive Chairman.

Shortly after joining Knight in 2016, Sakhia began serving on the Desautels Faculty of Management International Advisory Board, on the McGill University Board of Governors, and as an independent member of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Board of Directors. She also established the Samira Sakhia MBA Leadership Award in 2017. “In addition to the financial assistance, an award is great because the support and recognition help to motivate and advance students,” she says.

A remarkable journey

“Since I was very little, I wanted to explore the world,” recalls Sakhia, whose father was a banker and was transferred to different countries and cities during her childhood and teenage years. Born in Pakistan, she moved with her family to Saudi Arabia at seven, the UK at nine, Toronto at 11 and then Miami in her teens, before choosing McGill and Montreal in 1986, which became her permanent home.

Moving around the world to many places while growing up had its advantages and challenges. “You get to see new places, you learn to figure things out quickly, and it made me much more independent at a young age, though it can be hard to leave friends,” says Sakhia, whose ability to adapt and embrace different cultures has been invaluable in leading the business as Knight has expanded and integrated employees from 10 Latin American countries since completing its acquisition of Grupo Biotoscana (GBT), a Uruguay-based biopharmaceutical company, for about $365-million in 2020.

After applying to four American universities and one in Canada while attending high school in Miami, Sakhia chose McGill because of its global perspective, high-quality education, and comparative affordability. “I was also keen on Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., which is similar to McGill in its global outlook, but I did the math and Georgetown was too expensive,” says Sakhia, who values the strong grounding in finance, economics and accounting she gained at Desautels and applied as part of the finance team at Discreet Logic as it grew rapidly in the United States and Europe, creating special effects wizardry for blockbuster movies such as Jurassic Park.

When she returned to McGill with eight years of work experience under her belt, Sakhia was among a small, tight-knit group of students who received advanced placement into the second year of the MBA program. She was eager to become more than a numbers person and to develop leadership skills, knowledge, and experience in managing people and different business areas including but also well beyond finance.

“As a BCom student, I didn’t think a lot about the courses on operations and human resources, and later I wished I had because these are so important. Through the MBA program, I learned how you say things matters as much as what you say. But the relationships and the network I developed during that time were the biggest benefit. I met a whole bunch of very smart people and to this day, if I have a question about an issue, I’ll contact them,” she says.

Phenomenal Paladin ride

Through an MBA classmate Sakhia was introduced to Jonathan Goodman, who co-founded Paladin Labs Inc. and took it public in 1995. Paladin was a small, but fast-growing specialty pharmaceutical company in Montreal that focused on the in-licensing and acquisition of products for the Canadian marketplace. The bottom had fallen out of the tech market, so Sakhia was open to job and business growth opportunities in other sectors that would give her a chance to take on greater management responsibilities.

“Jonathan reached out because he was looking for a CFO. We met and hit it off. It was a small company in an industry that was new to me and heavily regulated. I knew I would learn a lot and I knew I could help,” recalls Sakhia, who joined Paladin in 2001 and helped build the company’s annual sales from about $13 million to over $150 million and achieve consistently high profitability over the next 14 years.

Sakhia was involved in numerous transactions as Paladin added and launched many specialty drugs ranging from allergy treatments to birth control pills to pain medications in the Canadian market. “It was a fantastic experience. I was on a great management team that worked closely together, and I had visibility and input on company decisions,” says Sakhia, who was responsible for the finance, operations, human resources, and investor relations functions.

She was also very involved in the highly profitable sale of Paladin to Endo Health Solutions, a Pennsylvania-based specialty pharmaceutical company. In 2014, Endo acquired Paladin for $3.2 billion through a corporate tax inversion transaction in which the Canadian firm and Endo merged under a new Irish-based holding company. A stock that traded at $1.50 in 1995 had increased by 100 times to about $150 a share 19 years later.

“The sale was spectacularly successful. For Paladin shareholders, including all our 100 employees who had options, it was a huge lottery win. Jonathan negotiated the transaction and came up with a number. Mark Beaudet [interim CEO of Paladin and McGill BCom alumnus] and I ran the due diligence and papering the deal,” says Sakhia.

Volunteering on multiple McGill boards

Sakhia stayed with Paladin for a year after the sale to help with post-merger integration. Her plan was to go into retirement or semi-retirement from the corporate world and give back by contributing her expertise to McGill in various ways and serving as chair of organizations such as the Montreal SPCA. She joined the Desautels International Advisory Board in 2016 and was a strong advocate for a project to expand the mission and scope of the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship to support entrepreneurs from all 10 Faculties. “The Dobson Centre was opened up to the rest of the university from its roots at Desautels. Like many very successful universities around the world, McGill needs to get on the map of more businesses being founded at McGill,” she says.

Sakhia joined the MUHC independent board of directors in 2017, serving on the audit committee, at a challenging time after the previous board had resigned and the incoming board was responsible for hiring a new CEO and CFO. Sakhia was also invited to join the McGill Board of Governors in 2018, serving on the Finance Committee and IT Committee. “I’ve learned a great deal about leadership and people management by serving with smart and experienced members on McGill boards, which has been helpful in my role at Knight,” she says.

Supporting MBA leadership aspirations

Given the transformative impact of her MBA experience at Desautels, Sakhia wants to support today’s students in realizing their leadership potential. “The MBA Leadership award is another important way to give back because there is something powerful about being recognized that helps push students over the hurdles to achieve success in their studies and career,” she says.

Nandini Biswas Jain, MBA’22 Candidate and 2020-21 recipient of the Samira Sakhia MBA Leadership Award, chose to do an MBA in Global Strategy and Leadership at Desautels to expand her international business career opportunities. As a project engineer with Fluor Corp., a Fortune 500 company, Jain had over seven years of experience planning, executing, and managing engineering design and construction for oil and gas, mining, and chemical facilities in India, the Philippines, and China.

“I was already at a mid-professional level in my career and wanted to upskill myself in terms of managing people and getting into operations and strategy consulting in an international environment. I chose McGill because of its excellent reputation and very diverse, international group of students. The MBA Leadership Award is one of the main reasons I could pursue an MBA now, along with my husband,” says Jain, who earned a BTech in Mechanical and Automation Engineering from the Indira Ghandi Delhi Technical University for Women, and whose husband Siddharth Jain, MBA ’22 candidate, is specializing in Strategy and Business Analytics at Desautels.

The more intangible benefit has been the impetus for Jain to make an unexpected leap into the high-tech industry. “The award tells you that your efforts have been recognized by an institution as renowned and old as McGill, which is an honour and it opens doors. The award also motivated me to do better through my MBA and on the professional front by getting an internship with SAP in their commerce cloud business. I never thought that I would pivot from the traditional energy, chemical and construction industries and make the jump to the high-tech industry, not coming from a tech background. But the MBA experience at Desautels made it possible,” says Jain, who got interested and excited about transferring her project management skills and experience into a high-tech career while taking Professor Jan Jorgensen’s Managing Strategy and Innovation course. She also got helpful advice from Desautels alumni, who work at SAP, in preparing for her internship interviews.

Jain has also embraced extracurricular activities as President of the Desautels Graduate Marketing Club and one of five student partners and the only woman in the McGill Business Consulting Group. “We provide management consulting services to local businesses, helping them solve their most urgent issues. It helps us develop and hone our skills as consultants. As this is a for-profit business, we are able to charge our clients, which also helps with MBA expenses,” says Jain, who is inspired by the example of her award sponsor. “I look up to women like Samira Sakhia, who have made it possible for other women to move up the ladder. I hope to extend the same opportunity to women aspiring to pursue further studies,” she says.

Jinhui Wang, MBA’20, and the 2019-20 recipient of the Samira Sakhia MBA Leadership Award, was thrilled to get a position as a Delta One Trading Assistant, working in financial derivatives at Societe Generale Corporate and Investment Banking (SGCIB) in Montreal, following his graduation last summer. After four years of experience in accounting for Deloitte China and Schroder Adveq in Beijing, Wang did an MBA in business analytics at Desautels to pursue international career opportunities in a technically demanding and exciting area in investment banking.

“Societe Generale is one of the largest investment banks in the world and the leading investment bank in derivatives. The analytics and finance skills I strengthened during the MBA program helped me land the job, as did the McGill and Desautels brands. Although there was a hiring freeze then, my employer got approval from the Paris head office to hire me,” says Wang, who greatly appreciates the financial aid from the Award and the personal validation. “The Award is a recognition of what I achieved in the past and I’m really proud of that. When employers see it on my resume, that also makes me a more powerful candidate.”

In addition to the technical analytics and finance skills he acquired, the detail-oriented Wang also started to focus more on the big picture. “The professors teach the courses so that you become more strategic in your thinking. I’m a different person after the two years in the program. They teach you not only the knowledge, but how to act and think strategically in the business and investment worlds,” says Wang, who absorbed these lessons well and made the Dean’s Honour list.

Back to the future with Knight

Sakhia’s retirement from the corporate world lasted only 7 months, after she reached out to Goodman and was hired as President and Chief Operating Officer of his new company, Knight Therapeutics, in 2016. “My responsibilities as President were very broad from the get-go. I worked for Jonathan, but the rest of the organization worked for me,” says Sakhia.

Although Knight is like Paladin in focusing on later stage pharmaceutical products and taking on the commercial risk rather than the drug-development risk, the target geographical markets are larger and more diverse. “We focused on Latin America because of its proximity, growth in the region and the opportunities in those markets since many pharma companies don’t have a presence there,” says Sakhia.

As a Muslim woman of colour who has risen to leadership positions in the corporate and volunteer sectors, Sakhia is keenly aware of the barriers she feels fortunate to have overcome and determined to make the path easier and more equitable for others at Knight and through her volunteer activities. “Back then if a classmate hadn’t promoted me to Jonathan, I probably wouldn’t have been hired as CFO. People of a minority aren’t generally shown how to promote themselves and they often don’t have someone to promote them,” she says.

Following the acquisition of Grupo Biotoscana, Knight now has annual sales of about $200 million. Sakhia wants to make her mark not only by growing the company to its full potential, but by setting high, progressive standards for career advancement for all employees and creating more management opportunities for those in the Latin American countries. “We’re a very inclusive organization and aim for diversity of colour, gender, sexuality, and experience. With all that, you create a stronger company,” she says.

As Knight has pivoted to become a Canadian-based, truly international company, Sakhia is thrilled to be exploring the world as a business leader, like she did as a child. In the first two months of 2020 before the pandemic, she spent five weeks visiting sites and staff in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, and Uruguay. “It’s a big transition integrating businesses from so many different countries but also very exciting. We want to create a shared culture where people think regionally and globally, but also locally,” she says.


Article by: Mark Witten

 

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