Steve Hmelar’s Prescription for Progress

The VP of IT for Impax Laboratories shares how technologists in the pharmaceutical world can change lives

Paper-based systems are becoming obsolete with the ever-evolving advancements of technology, a trend that marks a shift from the tactile to the ephemeral. While this change undoubtedly boosts efficiency, it can also—in an abstract sense—resonate on a grander scale for some in the IT space. How does one connect on a meaningful level with intangible technologies?

Steve Hmelar knows this struggle. After years working for life sciences companies, he took a detour into the semiconductor space. “There’s a relentless pace to that,” he says. “I was trying to associate how better high-tech gizmos made life better, but the connection wasn’t as strong. You’re putting a lot of time and energy into reducing the footprint of a memory chip, as compared to coming up with a drug that keeps someone alive or deals with a chronic condition.” It wasn’t too long before Hmelar found himself back in the life sciences space.

Hmelar now serves as the vice president of IT for Impax Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company with hands in development, manufacturing, and marketing. There, he’s been using advanced technology not just to facilitate advancements in medicine, but also to ensure his colleagues witness the value of their impact. “It’s obvious that employee contributions make a difference here,” he says. “When you see significant process improvements going on, whether it’s in the laboratories, on the shop floor, or with the finance team, it gives you a good sense of accomplishment.”

When Hmelar started at Impax in 2009, the company was already poised for growth. He was hired to help facilitate that growth from a technological standpoint, to help steer Impax out of paper-based processes that worked fine for a smaller-sized organization but wouldn’t scale well. It was a successful pairing. Impax has since grown from a yearly revenue of $210 million to $800 million, while Hmelar’s staff has expanded from twenty-three people to seventy full-time staff members. “During that time, we’ve implemented a full suite of contemporary business systems for running the factories, the laboratories, and the commercial ops,” he says. This includes adopting modern ERP, quality-management, electronic-document-management, and lab-information-management systems.

Obviously, a company-wide shift from paper-based processes to technological ones is massive, but Impax’s aggressive schedule for implementation is exactly what Hmelar loves about the job. “From a professional perspective, the projects were some of the best that you could possibly work on,” he says. “They allowed my team and me to stay current. The technologies and platforms that we’re implementing here are all the latest offerings from top-tier suppliers.”

Proactive Mentoring

With every passing year, Steve Hmelar finds himself further embracing the role of mentor. “I’ve found that by engaging in proactive discussion with people who want to advance their careers, there are many opportunities to help them pick the right assignments, allocate budget for training, and to provide coaching that helps everyone benefit from their advancement,” he says. By actively engaging with the development of employees, you’re also demonstrating your belief in their value. “I’m convinced that one of the key elements of long-term staff retention is for the team members to believe that their time is well spent by staying with you,” Hmelar says.

These technological advancements will also go a long way in addressing some of the unique challenges posed by the pharmaceutical field. With the next round of the FDA’s Drug Supply Chain Security Act regulations going into effect later this year, the need for the flawless execution of a packaging and serialization project is massive. “We have created a large, cross-functional team with the goal of complying on schedule,” Hmelar says. “This team has to ensure that not only our Impax-managed packaging activity is in compliance, but that our many important partners are also ready. To date, we have selected and implemented several new packaging lines, as well as multiple new supporting IT technologies.”

One of the FDA’s computer-based systems that Hmelar has worked to implement has helped Impax look at data in real time and promote better coordination between different compartments. It also helps ensure that the laboratories are consistently operating at top performance. “By recording and monitoring what’s going on in laboratories or on the factory floors, you can efficiently and proactively look for trends that might lead you to believe there’s something changing in your manufacturing process,” he says.

One of the biggest challenges Hmelar faces is an internal one: how do you align an entire organization to such big changes? “Change management in a growing organization is a challenge,” Hmelar says. That’s especially true for an organization this geographically complex. Impax has five distinct geographic locations spanning twelve time zones, with three factories and five laboratories, combined with a work plan with over fifty active projects at a time. “Coming up with the support model that’s well received and cost-effective in an environment that’s this complex requires carefully thought-out plans, well-communicated expectations, and making sure that the resources are aligned,” Hmelar says.

Hmelar’s been at this for nearly a decade, but there are still so many advancements to come. “To manage project risk, only a subset of the capabilities of many of these systems were included in initial project scope,” he says. “We’re now focused on turning on many of the advanced features offered by these solutions as part of our ongoing continuous improvement process to get more value out of these investments.” In this regard, he mentions that Impax has multiple active projects to improve company performance, such as the expanded use of SuccessFactor HRIS systems, mobile application implementation, and the transformation of how vendors are managed by converting from a paper-based supplier-quality-management system to an electronic solution. Another important process improvement is a project to digitize all of Impax’s contracts.

Hmelar’s IT team appreciates the continued application of these cutting-edge technologies, but so does Impax as a whole. Not only do these advancements benefit the company, but they also benefit the individual employees. Expense reports, for example, can be processed much quicker than they did under previous, paper-based systems, which makes work more efficient and saves employees time. “It’s a positive thing for employee morale,” Hmelar says.

And morale is important. It’s why Hmelar returned to life sciences. He mentions a friend’s wife who found relief for her chronic condition through a product she picked up at CVS, one that Impax had helped manufacture: “No one ever called me up and said, ‘Jeez, Steve, I really love my iPhone because of that chip you guys worked on.’”