Culturally Nimble CEO Ready to Lead D&D Pharmatech

Yoo-Seok Hong

Yoo-Seok Hong, CEO of D&D Pharmatech, pictured above.

Yoo-Seok Hong, the newly-appointed CEO of D&D Pharmatech, has moved between South Korea and North America eight times. In one two-year period, he amassed one million frequent flyer miles. With business taking him throughout North and South America, Asia, and Europe, he’s learned to adapt and appreciate the nuances of a multicultural environment. 

That wasn’t always the case. When he left South Korea for the U.S. for his graduate degree in finance, “I was a bit overwhelmed,” he admitted. “I was a student, married, and realized later I could have gotten more out of my business education if I had come a few years later.” Much of the value of an advanced degree is in the intangibles, and, at the time, Hong said he didn’t interact and explore as much as he should have.

Subsequent experiences changed that. He was an experienced leader in Korea, but a decade later, as district sales manager for Lilly’s sales team in Boston, “I had to adapt my style and get to know people as peers.” The next assignment, an international marketing leadership position for Lilly’s osteoporosis brands, had him leading a small team that worked with the U.K., Spain, Germany, France, Japan, Australia, Canada and Mexico. “That really broadened my understanding,” and led to a position as general manager (GM) for Lilly Korea.

After a brief sojourn at Teva, whose business strategies he admired during his tenure as the head of strategy of emerging market business unit at Lilly, Hong joined GSK Korea as GM and eventually became president of GSK Canada.

“It was my first time leading a big group of people at the top of the organization in a foreign country, and colleagues’ expectations were very different from those of my colleagues in Korea,” he said.

For example, “In Korea, as president, in a business meeting you lead the discussion, listen to everyone, make a decision, and everyone goes on as long as you are making the right decisions. In the U.S. and Canada, people are very curious about why I’m thinking a certain way, so it was important to share my thinking as I was leading.” He also had to learn to read the distinct nuances of body language in multiple cultures. “That makes leading a team more challenging,” he admitted.

At the time of this interview, Hong was preparing to take the helm of D&D Pharmatech.

“D&D is a relatively young company with a great team of scientists and leaders,” he said. “My first priority, working with the leadership team, is to assess where we are now and where we want to go, and to align the direction of the company to those goals.

“We have an exciting pipeline that addresses significant unmet needs,” he said, noting that D&D has dosed its first patient in a Phase I trial of DD01 for obese patients with diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Its subsidiary, Neuraly, is conducting a Phase II trial of NLY01 in Parkinson’s disease and is entering a Phase IIB trial for Alzheimer’s disease patients. “As we see critical data coming in during the next year or two, we’ll be better positioned to define strategies.”

Hong is conversant in pharmaceutical science, but it isn’t his first love.

“I got into the biotech industry through pure coincidence,” he recalled. “I was in the second year of my business studies and was walking to the library with a pharmacy student friend. She hadn’t had dinner and wanted to stop at a recruiting reception for finger food.”

He went with her and ended up talking with the rep from Lilly, Marc de Garidel, who later went on to become the CEO and the chairman of the board at Ipsen. “He won’t remember that now, but that conversation piqued my interest, and I joined Lilly as a finance guy. I spent two years in corporate finance roles in the U.S. and then planned to return to Lilly’s Korea operations. Flying back, Lilly offered me an opportunity in business development. I was curious and accepted it, but thought I would be going back to finance afterward.

“My GM saw something in me that I didn’t see at the time. After two years, he offered me a choice between a role as finance controller or as a small business unit leader and what could lead to a GM career path.

“This time, I had to make a real career choice. It wasn’t an easy decision. If I took this, my finance career was behind me. My entire commercial experience then consisted of only three months of sales rep experience in New York. I also was concerned about my lack of a strong science background,” he recalled.

After thinking about it, Hong realized his limited scientific background wasn’t a critical barrier. He became conversant scientifically by taking the time to understand the products and by working with the top scientists. “Don’t pretend you know what you don’t, but data is data,” Hong reasoned.

By rising to that challenge, Hong began a 25-year commercial career that eventually led to him becoming CEO of D&D Pharmatech.

The key focus throughout Hong’s life has been his desire for new challenges.

“Often, I went for the opportunity that had the most learning potential for me, even knowing I lacked some of the skill sets,” he said.

“I still remember how much I struggled as a first-time sales leader in Korea, with only three months’ experience as a sales rep back in the late ‘90s. Yet,” he said, “I felt that was an experience I should be willing to pay tuition for!”

As he grew and took on increasingly senior roles, “Learning to understand and navigate the delicate cultural differences and win the hearts and minds of your people has been a challenge. However, those experiences helped me grow as a leader and opened the door for more opportunities,” he said.

Hong can cite notable commercial accomplishments during his tenure at Lilly and GSK, but, “I feel my biggest accomplishment has been identifying and helping grow the next generation of leaders. As one of my former bosses said, ‘We are here because someone took a chance on us. As leaders, it is our duty to look for the next generation of leaders.’”

He aims to provide that encouragement to his family as well as to colleagues. His personal goal, Hong said, is “to provide the opportunity and environment for my family to pursue their dreams.

“Beyond my family, I want to be remembered as someone who has had a positive impact on the people around me.” Notably, he stays in touch with some former colleagues from more than 20 years ago. “The experiences we shared were positive. I want to share the same type of positive impacts with the new colleagues I meet at D&D.”

Some of those experiences have occurred on the links. Hong, an avid golfer, plays with his wife who recently took up the sport. Thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns (spent in Canada), “I picked up the guitar. Now I play 30 minutes a day.” He also recently completed “a couple of very interesting Yale courses; one was about international politics and the other was about anthropology/biology.”

Now, as CEO of D&D Pharmatech, Hong is heading back to Seoul, South Korea. That nation’s biotech ecosystem has developed rapidly and has made significant progress in the past decade, he pointed out. “There are strong companies in Korea, and I’m confident D&D will become a truly global biotech in the coming years.”

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