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Samira Sakhia is the incoming CEO of Knight Therapeutics. She will take the place of Jonathan Goodman, current CEO of Knight Therapeutics.Chloë Ellingson/The Globe and Mail

It’s not often a business leader relinquishes daily control of a corporation to someone who’s virtually their polar opposite.

But that, on the face of it at least, is what will happen Sept. 1 at specialty drug company Knight Therapeutics Inc. when founder and CEO Jonathan Goodman hands the reins to Samira Sakhia. She has been his number two since she joined Knight five years ago. And if investors and analysts consider this transfer of power largely a non-event, the two protagonists see it in a different light.

As Mr. Goodman, 53, puts it: An old, tall, white, bald, brain-damaged Jew is stepping aside to make way for a more youthful, medium-height, brown, Pakistani, Muslim woman. Ms. Sakhia is a corporate “superstar,” he says. And as his chief lieutenant for years, the person who scouted and executed the company’s first major acquisition – the $420-million purchase in 2019 of Grupo Biotoscana that launched Knight’s major strategic push into Latin America – she has earned the right to lead.

For Ms. Sakhia, it’s a chance to prove that a hard-working immigrant and person of colour can steer one of Canada’s homegrown pharmaceutical companies at a pivotal time in its development. And if she can help usher in the next generation of business leaders still facing barriers trying to clinch top roles, even better.

“It’s got to start somewhere,” says Ms. Sakhia, 52. “I know it makes a difference to the people around me to see [this]. It makes a difference when people see someone that’s either different from them or like them that gets there. And then they’re going to try for those opportunities. Because otherwise, you don’t even try.”

In many ways, the decision was a natural one for Mr. Goodman. No other person is as familiar with the company and its inner workings as Ms. Sakhia, who was Knight’s president for almost four years before adding the chief operating officer title in June, 2020. The two have been working together for almost 20 years in various capacities.

“It’s time,” Mr. Goodman said during lunch with Ms. Sakhia and a reporter for The Globe and Mail. “The only way we’re going to have more diversity on boards is to have diversity as CEOs and it’s got to start now … I’m hoping that others follow. I mean, I’m not the only old, bald white guy.”

But the reorientation also speaks to the kind of in-depth reflection about the future that many executives and workers are having during the COVID-19 pandemic. Air Canada, WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Transat A.T. Inc. have all announced CEO changes in recent weeks. Jeff Bezos withdrew from his job as Amazon.com Inc. CEO after 27 years.

Mr. Goodman had a deep gut check. And it told him to take a step back. Working and sleeping in his bedroom for 18 hours a day for the pandemic’s first 14 months, (“I got dressed every day and I shaved every day. I didn’t want my kids to see me not working.”), he decided he would devote more energy to philanthropy while still keeping a hand on Knight’s strategic direction as executive chairman. He remains the company’s biggest shareholder, with a 17-per-cent stake.

“I understand that some shareholders bought the Jonathan brand,” he says. “[But] this is now the Samira show.”

Mr. Goodman’s reasons have nothing to do with the devastating brain injury he suffered in a bicycle accident in 2011, which continues to sap his energy and cloud his short-term memory. Rather, he characterizes the decision as a natural leadership evolution: Ms. Sakhia has been running the company day-to-day for years and, as he puts it, “getting stuff done,” while he focused on the big picture. Now, her title will reflect that.

When Ms. Sakhia joined Paladin Labs Inc. in 2001, an earlier company founded by Mr. Goodman, it generated less than $13-million in annual revenue. Twelve years later, she completed Paladin’s cash and stock sale to Endo Health Solutions Inc. for $3.2-billion.Chloë Ellingson/The Globe and Mail

A bitter but unsuccessful activist campaign launched two years ago by one of Knight’s former shareholders, Israel’s Medison Biotech Ltd., also played a small role, Mr. Goodman admits. Citing a March, 2021, study by a researcher at the University of Illinois and three colleges that suggested a CEO loses one year of life from a hostile takeover or shareholder activist campaign, he says: “I am relieved that I am not alone at taking less joy from the job post-hostility.”

Mr. Goodman and Ms. Sakhia acknowledge they’ve built up a comfort level with each other over the years that has facilitated this transition.

When Ms. Sakhia joined Paladin Labs Inc. in 2001, an earlier company founded by Mr. Goodman, it employed 35 people and generated less than $13-million in annual revenue. Twelve years later, she completed Paladin’s cash and stock sale to Endo Health Solutions Inc. for $3.2-billion, delivering a financial windfall to Paladin investors.

That comfort doesn’t always exist at other corporations. But the incoming Knight CEO says you don’t have to wait for such perfect circumstances to arise. Sometimes it’s just about giving someone a chance to lead.

Diversity is a conversation that is increasingly taking place at Knight, whether it be about gender, race or sexual orientation, Ms. Sakhia says.

“We cannot default to ‘We’re always going to hire the best person who’s a 10 out of 10,’” she says. “[Because] somebody who’s coming from a minority who’s an eight out of 10 is, in reality, probably a 12. They haven’t been taught on how to sell themselves. They haven’t been taught on how to navigate through these things. And they’re actually going to perform way better than you would expect.”

A self-described workaholic with a travel bug, Ms. Sakhia was born in Pakistan and grew up there before moving to Saudi Arabia and later London, where she learned to speak English. She then moved to Toronto for junior high school, Miami for high school and did her postsecondary studies at Montreal’s McGill University, from which she holds bachelor of commerce, a graduate degree in accounting and an MBA. She lives with six rescued animals (four cats and two dogs), and sits on several boards, including Dollarama Inc.

Montreal in general is a tolerant place where you can make it if you work hard, she says. But she says she still encounters the occasional prejudice, even close to her home in the city’s tony Westmount neighbourhood. “I’ve walked my dogs. I know that a few times I am seen as the [hired] help as opposed to the dog owner and a resident. Like, that happens.”

Knight faces several significant challenges in the near term as it tries to deliver for its shareholders. Chief among them: reorganizing and ramping up Biotoscana, which operates in a fast-growing region that has nevertheless been badly hurt by COVID-19. Six of the 10 countries with the highest deaths per population since the start of the pandemic are Latin American countries where Biotoscana sells drugs, including Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, according to a daily analysis published by National Bank of Canada.

COVID-19 has affected the health and safety of Knight’s staff in Latin America, impacting their ability to do their jobs. And it has hit sales, which remain lumpy. Doctors are seeing fewer patients as they shy away from the health care system, which also means they’re writing fewer prescriptions for medications. And physicians have scaled back meetings with drug suppliers, snarling the company’s new product launches.

Still, Ms. Sakhia is showing she has a good grip on the obstacles and opportunities as Knight scales up its business. The company this past Friday reported an 87-per-cent increase in net income for the second quarter compared with the same period last year, generating a profit of $29-million, or 23 cents a share, on record revenue of $65.8-million.

Knight saw an increase in demand for its product to treat invasive fungal infections associated with COVD-19, as well as sales growth in several other recently launched products. The company has a market capitalization of about $700-million.

Ms. Sakhia and Mr. Goodman are betting the long-term prospects of Latin America will more than offset the challenging dynamics Knight sees in its home market. After several delays, new Canadian regulations on drug pricing are set to take effect in January, seeking to lower the price of drugs by allowing the federal regulator to adjust which countries it uses to set benchmark prices and to take into account a drug’s cost-effectiveness for patients.

Pharmaceutical companies and advocates for sufferers of rare diseases say the changes will further discourage research and development spending in Canada and lead to fewer new drug launches. Supporters of the reforms counter that the industry just wants to protect its fat profit margins.

For Knight, which makes money by buying and licensing largely proven products, the uncertainty in Canada on pricing has made it difficult to plot its strategy. So, it is switching much of its focus to Latin America, a region Mr. Goodman says is much like Canada was 10 years ago. “We know how to make money in that kind of market.”

Ms. Sakhia helmed the Biotoscana acquisition and she’s the one tasked with integrating its 700-some people in 10 countries, a challenge complicated by the pandemic and by the fact that Biotoscana wasn’t optimally organized in its own right. The newly acquired company was in fact four separate companies, each with its own IT systems, accounting and even inventory. For something as simple as a marketing plan for a product, there were seven plans. “It was crazy,” Ms. Sakhia says.

Ms. Sakhia is methodical in her approach to what needs to be done. Unlike Mr. Goodman, who let his subordinates work with little supervision, she is heavily involved in each step of the company’s operations and development and demands constant monitoring and accountability from her staff.

“As Ms. Sakhia has been effectively running Knight’s operations for some time, we do not expect any disruptions and view her assumption of the CEO role positively,” National Bank of Canada analyst Endri Leno said, echoing the sentiment of other analysts.

The incoming CEO is optimistic Knight can grow its profits despite obstacles. Drugs such as Exelon, a dementia fighter whose rights Knight recently purchased for Canada and Latin America, have staying power, she says. And as Knight works through the Biotoscana acquisition, she says the company will beef up its disclosure – something that should get investors more comfortable about its prospects.

“I know that there’s a lot of fear of the next levels of COVID, but we are going to come out of it,” Ms. Sakhia says. “We’re already talking about return to office. We’re talking about return for the [sales] reps. The world is going to wake up again. And we want to be ready.”

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