Your own dreams create the most energy - An anniversary interview with Thomas Meldgaard Petersen

10 years ago Thomas Meldgaard Petersen started AlfaNordic as a sole proprietorship. Since then AlfaNordic has transformed into a privately owned limited company with close to 100 employees. Here he talks about why and how he started AlfaNordic.

Thomas started his career at a forge and machine shop where he helped build and service machines. He worked in the workshop while he was studying to be an engineer. The practical experience gave him and some fellow students the idea of establishing a company already during their studies. They had seen a gap in the market where they could go in and help forge and machine workshops that had no engineering capabilities themselves and needed some help. They called the company MTM maskindesign because they were called Mikael, Thomas and Michael. The smaller companies needed computational skills – someone who could do drawings or design machines when they didn't have the ability themselves or the desire to contact a major engineering company.

When they finished their studies, all 3 of them quite quickly were offered regular jobs with good pay, with benefits such as a canteen scheme, pension, etc., so they closed the company. That was the first time Thomas –experienced self–employment. He was subsequently employed by Rockwool Engineering, which designs Rockwool production plants, and then Krüger Engineering, which designs water treatment process plants, and he later joined NNE, where GMP and process plants were made primarily for Novo and Novozymes, but also for other companies in the life science industry. In this connection he was involved in projects in both Switzerland and China and met Christian Ilsøe, who now owns AlfaNordic together with Henrik Linnemann and Thomas.


Why did you choose to start AlfaNordic and become self–employed?

To go back a bit, in NNE I had the opportunity to become head of the machine area since my former boss was looking for new opportunities. The machine area consisted of 3 departments and I had 3 heads of department who referred to me. So, contrary to what I was used to, primarily strategic tasks started landing on my desk. I felt there were some things I needed to learn more about and signed up for the MBA degree at CBS in 2005 and completed it in 2007. It was a great education, a special MBA that they called MBA–TMO (Technology, Market and Organisation).

It was a targeted MBA for technology companies – executives who came from technology companies, so we worked a lot with know-how and knowledge management. A lot of it was about how to develop new products and create new services. We visited exciting, innovative companies and universities around the world. It was a great study and it fit with the times and inspired me to see that there were some things that I thought could be done in a different way. However, I later had to acknowledge that there were some things I wanted to do that were not listened to or was believed that there was no time for. In 2006 I left NNE and got a job in another consulting engineering firm, Birch & Krogboe. They had a smaller area that worked with services for the pharmaceutical industry, but wanted to develop it further. I became the business manager for this area, but I could still feel that there was something I needed to live out. I simply had to become self–employed. I wanted to make my own strategies and take responsibility for getting them implemented. The dream was to create a consulting business, which focused on the life science industry and with the customer at the centre. From the start, it was a goal to create a company consisting of employees with the attitude and desire to make a difference. I felt that the time was right with regard to the experience I had, where I was in my working life, and also in my family life, because that is also an important part of the decision when you want to be independent – you need involve your family. At that time, my family consisted of my wife, Elisabeth, my son, Alexander, and myself. In March 2008 we decided that now was the time to take the step, so I handed in my notice and immediately went on to establish AlfaNordic; at first as a –sole proprietorship, because that was the fastest way and required very little. Today, almost all companies can be started just as quickly.

I had some conversations with a former colleague, Ole Bækgaard, who was on his way home from the US at the time. He had been posted on a project over there. He was also ready to become self-employed and quickly became a partner in AlfaNordic. Now we became two owners by converting it into a private limited –company, so we each had one half. We had tasks from the beginning, so the danger that we would not be able to make a living out of it was quickly averted. We were simply able to do that from day one. Everything we feared – for example that we were unable to get customers and assignments fortunately never occurred.


How is your perception of the period of time since you started AlfaNordic? Does it feel like 10 long or 10 short years?

It varies how I think about it. A lot of things have happened in those 10 years, so when I look at everything that has been accomplished, I feel like it's a long time since we started. We have established ourselves in both China and Denmark, and we have a company in the US. We will soon be 100 employees, and are working with many of the companies we would like to collaborate with in the industry. In other areas it doesn't feel like 10 years, because something new is happening all the time. It has gone really fast. So it depends on how I think about it.


Do you remember the first assignment you got?

Yes, it was a task that ended up lasting 4 years. It was a customer who was looking for a project manager to manage their own resources. The customer was in the process of setting up a new factory for a GMP production of a product they already had, but at that time the product was not manufactured in accordance with GMP. They had made a preliminary test and had to acknowledge that their plant could not be rebuilt to comply with current GMP guidelines. It was decided that the production facility should be built in China. As a result, over the fall of 2008, I had more and more of my activities in China. The customer wanted to use an engineering company based in China, so they ended up asking if it would be possible for us to move to China, rather than commute back and forth. So I moved with the project to China in the fall of 2008, and we created AlfaNordic in China as an independent company in 2009.


When did Henrik Linnemann become part of AlfaNordic?

We needed to get a 3rd party into the company. We realised we needed more knowledge about GMP. That is a must in this industry. We had heard rumours that Christian Ilsøe was looking for new challenges, so we contacted Christian, but he was not ready to become self–employed. "Where do you place your piece, so that you will also get a salary next month?", he asked, and we had no good answer for him. Christian advised us to contact Henrik Linnemann, who was a former colleague of his. At the time Henrik was a freelance consultant. We contacted him and he decided to join the company as a partner in early 2009. Soon we got a demand in China for a validation manager, and that was spot on Henrik.

I also employed a project assistant, and we started to hire local labour in China, and at the same time we brought in specialists from abroad – both Danes, Americans, Englishmen, Irishmen; all sorts of specialists came and worked for us in AlfaNordic. Before we knew where we were, we employed 25 people in China. Ole continued with AlfaNordic in Denmark and served our customers there. At that time, we had 2–3 consultants working for us in Denmark.


When did you start to upscale and focus more on the Danish business?

At some point in 2011. Henrik and I thought we had been in China for a long time, and Ole had run everything that had to do with the Danish department. We were in contact via phone / Skype and met occasionally in Denmark, but not that often. There had been a lot of work in China, so we had actually moved in different directions. Ole decided that he wanted to leave AlfaNordic and become self–employed with his own business. We could see that our strategies were pointing different ways, so we agreed with the decision. We had another meeting with Christian Ilsøe, who at that time concluded that if he was ever to become independent, now was the time. So he bought 1/3 of the business, and came aboard.

I started spending more and more of my time back in Denmark. Christian and I aligned the strategy for the Danish part of AlfaNordic, and we started to look ahead in terms of how we should develop in the future. It was around the turn of the year 2012. Christian and I spent the first six months visiting potential customers in our network. We drank a lot of coffee and talked a lot of strategy. In the summer 2012 it exploded in our hands and we got one query after another. We were extremely busy, and first we solved everything we could ourselves, but we needed to get more help and hire some people in a hurry.


Why do you think everything happened at once at that time? Was it because of the work you put into all your visits, or was it a general trend in the industry?

I think it was a good mix. Of course, you have to be visible so the industry knows that you are there and can help if there are any tasks. And then it definitely seemed like the industry was gaining momentum at that time. At least we got a lot of assignments, and by the end of 2012 we had a total of 12 employees in Denmark. We were simply so busy that all available hands, and anyone who wanted to, could just come and help us solve tasks. From then it was full speed ahead. All our budgets and all our plans were run over. We got some really good employees into the company, and our growing network in the industry has since helped ensure that there has been a constant approach from both existing customers and new customers.


How aware were you of the importance of being more people to handle AlfaNordic in relation to starting it yourself?

The experience I have gained from previous projects in relation to solving tasks and developing competencies has convinced me that everything goes much faster and much better when more people are involved. More brains just think better, and some dynamic effects are created that make it possible to go really far if you gather in a group with complementary skills to solve a task. If it's possible to manage the disagreements that arise in such a group, then you can really move big things. So right from the start, I had a desire for it to be more than just myself. Teams are what create the big results. Therefore, part of the recipe of AlfaNordic has always been to attract talented employees and colleagues to the company.


What was the vision of AlfaNordic in the beginning?

To create a customer–oriented company that can bring value to our customers and create an organisation that always goes all in. We want to be the preferred advisor for the Life Science industry and help develop skilled and efficient GxP advisors who provide the optimal solution for our clients' tasks, share knowledge and create value in the industry. Going all in is something I've had with me from my youth. If you start a task, then you have to focus and do your best, and then you have to do something extra. I've always been disappointed with colleagues or business partners if I've felt that they haven't gone 100% into a task. When I think back to the time when I served “my national service”, I remember there were group members who wanted to get it over with as easy as possible. That was never the way I wanted to go. So the goal of AlfaNordic has always been, and still is, to create a company that makes an extraordinary effort. A deterministic organisation which, when it starts a task, solves it as well as possible, and otherwise stays on the task until it is resolved. This is one of the things that has always been a guiding star in my way of being – both as a private person, but also at work. This has kind of been the concept of becoming self–employed. We want to be able to service the customers in the best possible way and solve the extraordinary tasks.


How do you ensure that the deterministic approach is found in all employees as the company grows?

First and foremost, we hire employees with the right attitude. We are aware that attitudes are more important than having exactly the right skills. Changing people's attitudes is not as easy as upgrading their skills. It is far easier to teach people new skills. If employees already have a higher education, then we know that they can learn new professional skills fairly quickly.

In addition, we have formulated a vision / mission for the company and 5 principles, which are our guiding principles, so that employees, managers and customers can see and understand what we do at AlfaNordic.

The 5 principles are:

24 hours' response time, A word is a word, We share knowledge, We see possibilities and We go a step further.


If you had to pass on something to other entrepreneurs in relation to starting a business, which experiences do you think you have gained?

If you do not start up when you're very young, but you already have a family, then you have to get the family to go along with the idea, because it is quite a leap when you go from being an employee to becoming an independent entrepreneur. It requires something of you, and you must have clarified with your family that there may be times when they will not see much of you. There will be periods of time when your tasks fill practically 24–7 – at least in the type of companies that I can speak of. The company that does something extraordinary and creates extraordinary results. That said, it's all about letting your dream loose, and I can only recommend it. It creates tremendous energy when you take charge of your own dreams and start up things in the world. If you can make it work, you will be able to create completely extraordinary results that are rarely possible in a larger organisation as an employee. I can only recommend that more people take the plunge into independence and put their own ideas into action. You have to be ready for mistakes and wrong decisions being made, but that's part of it, and then you have to learn from your mistakes, try to minimise them, and avoid too many repetitions. It is important to set some high goals and strive to achieve them. And it is important to remember to celebrate your successes. That is often forgotten. Furthermore, it is important to bring some people with you who can complement your own shortcomings. In that way you are constantly building a stronger organisation. You have to attract someone who has skills that are better than your own in their field.


Where is AlfaNordic going in the future? Where is the industry moving and how is AlfaNordic keeping up?

Looking at the industry, the growth and development that has been, I think it will continue for quite some time. New treatment methods, new drugs, new medicine are still needed, so the industry will grow. I'm pretty sure of that. New technology is emerging all the time. There is a rapid development in the IT field with artificial intelligence, robots and more advanced use of software, so new methods, new work areas are constantly emerging, and I think we will see that happen even faster in the future. We can see that some of the IT that is being developed in completely different industries could be used in the life science industry, for example in the field of quality assurance. The blockchain technology currently available in connection with digital currencies is something completely new that I am sure over time will move into quality assurance.

If we look at the 10 years during which we have been going and the direction we have been moving, then I think it will continue for quite some time. We are constantly developing our competencies and, among other things, together with some of our customers, we have started our graduate programme Pharma Academy, where we hire brand new graduates, and give them a tailor–made education within GxP, so they can start contributing quickly to the life science industry. It is part of our mission to make an active contribution to the knowledge community. We want to expand our competencies and move towards the goal of creating a consultancy company that can solve all tasks in the life science industry. We will do this through continued growth, but we will also buy services within competencies that we do not cover today. We want to be significantly larger in Denmark, and at the same time be present in specifically selected countries with our international business. It is our vision that we will also be internationally recognized for our life science counselling.

Facts

10 years ago Thomas Meldgaard Petersen started AlfaNordic as a sole proprietorship. Since then AlfaNordic has transformed itself into a privately owned limited company with close to 100 employees.”

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