In just ten years, the Max Zeller Söhne company has grown from twelve to thirty export markets. With 150 employees, the firm specializes in the production of phytotherapeutic drugs. A market leader in Switzerland, it has also succeeded in establishing itself in many Asian and Eastern European countries.
The "Zeller Balm" was their flagship product for a long time. The herbal remedy for digestive disorders was invented back in the 1860s. Named after the pharmacist who invented it, the Max Zeller pharmacy evolved into Switzerland's first phytopharmaceutical company. The SME from Romanshorn (TG) is now operating in around 30 overseas markets. Yulia Kirschner, head of the international division, talks about the challenges and growth of her company.
What products do you offer?
Yulia Kirschner: We develop and market phytopharmaceutical drugs in Switzerland and abroad. We offer a wide range of medicines, including those for sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, cognitive health, and allergies.
Can you tell us about one of your most promising markets: women's health?
Kirschner: We have successfully turned niche goods into "standard therapy" in our women's health category. We offer natural medicines to treat menopause and premenstrual syndrome. Our menopause product is based on black cohosh. It is the most prescribed medicine in Switzerland for this condition. For premenstrual syndrome, we use a plant called chasteberry.
What sets you apart from your competitors?
Kirschner: Max Zeller Söhne is synonymous with high-quality, science-based phytopharmaceuticals. Both tradition and innovation are important to us. Thirteen employees work on research and development and we publish about three studies per year. We are a fifth-generation family-owned company. Through our commitment to total supply chain control, we can guarantee consistency of processes and quality of the selected plant varieties.
Which are your main export markets, and why?
Kirschner: Some of our international partnerships have been ongoing for more than 20 years. In certain European countries, Israel, Mexico, Australia, and Brazil, our medicines are well established. They are recommended by doctors to their patients. In these markets, our success is based on the medical community’s trust.
In the last ten years, we have also established several new partnerships in Asia, notably in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. European phytopharmaceutical products are not well known there. However, we received one of the first approvals for Western herbal medicine in these markets and we believe there is great investment potential.
Is there a particular approach to working with Eastern European and Asian countries?
Kirschner: Yes, indeed. Medicine is part of every individual's culture and is therefore often perceived differently. In Asia, we favour a marketing strategy via social media and TV advertising instead of trying to gain recognition from doctors and hospitals. In Europe, we work closely with doctors who recommend and prescribe our products. They appreciate the fact that our clinical trial results are published in scientific journals.
How did you achieve this?
Kirschner: We work with local partners. They are often pharmaceutical companies who are responsible for marketing our products and developing an appropriate marketing strategy. We are committed to controlling the value chain "from seed to patient" in order to guarantee optimal quality. We see ourselves as a kind of extended workshop for our local partners.
What positive or negative export challenges have you encountered?
Kirschner: Registering medical products can be a challenge depending on the market and local regulations. It can take a long time. For example, in Japan, the legal path to market for our medicines took over ten years.
We also need to anticipate sudden economic and political changes that can cause volatility in the business. The Covid-19 pandemic followed by the war in Ukraine have had a significant impact on our operations worldwide. During the pandemic, our sales numbers dropped. We also lost our growing and promising business in Ukraine and Belarus.
What projects are you working on?
Kirschner: Our partners and customers are increasingly using digital technology for information and purchasing decisions. We therefore need to reach them wherever they are. Innovation remains paramount to fulfill specific customer expectations and is the key to our success.