Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Biovail growing on Steinbach

Drug firm concentrates all its work in Manitoba

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Biovail has been making pills in Steinbach for more than 10 years now, but judging by the proliferation of mobile sign-boards advertising positions needing to be filled at its plant, you might think they were staffing up a brand-new operation.

The big difference for the Steinbach plant is that as of next spring, the low-slung, 240,000-square-foot facility will be the sole production site for Biovail Corp.

That's when the second of two production plants Biovail had owned and operated in Puerto Rico will close and the company's growing portfolio of about a dozen different drugs will be produced exclusively at Steinbach.

While it may be the largest publicly traded drug company in Canada -- last year sales were $739 million -- it is small compared to the multibillion-dollar trans-national pharma companies.

The Steinbach plant is not the largest pharmaceutical production operation in the country, but it is in the top tier when it comes to industry design, maintenance and overall operations.

Walking through the sleek offices and immaculately clean production cells, Tony Martinez, vice-president and general manager of Biovail's Steinbach facility, said half-jokingly workers should expect to spend as much time cleaning equipment as they do in production.

For 24 hours a day, five days a week, drugs to control pain, depression and high blood pressure, among others, are mixed, compressed, coated, stamped with Biovail's brands and packaged, all under the strictest of compliance protocols.

Gowned workers in small, pressurized production cells packed with millions of dollars worth of gleaming stainless steel equipment monitor the mixture of powders that will become tablets or capsules. (The plant does not make any liquid or non-solid formulations.)

Martinez said the company needs to hire close to 50 general production workers in the next several weeks and then an additional 15 chemists and lab technicians over the next six months to work in the state-of-the-art wet lab and quality control operations at the plant.

It will put the company's Steinbach payroll close to the 600 mark.

"A lot of it has to do with the transfer of Puerto Rico work, which is on-going," Martinez said. "That is pretty close to completion."

A $30-million expansion completed at the beginning of 2007, along with the Mississauga-based company's adoption of a new strategic focus for the company last year, made the decision to consolidate in Steinbach a natural.

"It was clear the Puerto Rico plants were underutilized and that concentration in Steinbach made a lot of sense," said Gilbert Godin, Biovail's New Jersey-based executive vice-president and chief operating officer. "By North American standards, we are not large enough to own multiple production sites. The best decision was to concentrate activity in our best location."

Even though sales last year were 30 per cent less than 2006 totals, one analyst recently referred to Biovail as one of the fastest growing drug companies in the world.

Biovail has survived its share of rough scrapes -- costing the company $142 million in legal bills over the last three years -- but continues to post impressive profits despite the decline in revenue.

Part of the strategic plan that includes the consolidation of production in Steinbach was a decision to start developing (or acquiring) specialty products to address unmet medical needs in the field of central nervous system indications.

In addition to the efficiencies Biovail can achieve in Manitoba, Godin said it helps that Steinbach is a community where Biovail can be a prominent employer.

"We are big fish in small pond from a life sciences standpoint," Godin said. "As opposed to being dwarfed in large markets where competition for talent can be very high."

It was a decision that injected a level of stability that was appreciated, even in one of the most prosperous communities in the province.

"Biovail has been excellent for the community," said Paul Neustaedter, president of the Steinbach Chamber of Commerce. "It is an ideal manufacturer -- one that any city would like to have."

Its service and supply contracts with local suppliers are substantial and the potential for ongoing work with Biovail made the difference in encouraging Acklands-Grainger to open a store in Steinbach this summer.

Unlike other branch plants, Biovail has been active in the community and the Steinbach chamber has given it a community involvement award. The company is also seen as big supporter of the life sciences industry and was recently recognized by the Life Science Association of Manitoba (LSAM).

"Their move to concentrate all their production in Manitoba is a strong commitment to the province," said Darren Fast of LSAM. "Is is a demonstrable statement on the quality of the work being done here and it shows that Manitoba has the ability to compete on a world-class basis. We can be cost-competitive and be right up there in quality and productivity."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

A GOOD CITIZEN: Biovail in Steinbach

 

What drugs does the Steinbach plant make?

Some of the most popular branded names include: Wellbutrin, one of the company's first drugs prescribed for the treatment of major depressive disorder and seasonal affective disorder; Ultram, an extended-release chronic pain treatment for moderate to moderately severe chronic pain sufferers; Cardizem, the U.S. trade name for a drug used to treat hypertension (high blood pressure); and Tiazac, the Canadian brand name for the same hypertension drug.

 

Where does the plant source its raw materials?

Like all drug companies, the active pharmaceutical ingredients are sourced from speciality suppliers in Italy, Israel and the United States.

 

How strictly do Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration monitor production practices?

Biovail must submit specific production protocols for approval and then lock them down. It can take as long as two years and more than $1 million in regulatory filings to move production from one plant to another.

 

How many people did Biovail employ in Puerto Rico?

There were about 300 people there. When those plants move all the work to Steinbach, its employment levels will increase by about 100.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 28, 2009 B5

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