Battle for the best: Attracting and retaining talent in healthcare

Competition for talent is fierce across the board in a post-pandemic world. Willem van den Bruinhorst, a healthcare leader with 30 years’ experience in the industry including as CEO in multiple private equity backed businesses, recently spoke with the Inflexion network to discuss this.

While businesses in medtech, life sciences, pharmaceuticals and the plethora of companies serving the healthcare industry are innovating more than ever, they face challenges around a most basic business need: attracting and retaining the best talent.

“In my career and particularly the last few years, we struggled to find the best people all over the globe,” Willem recalls, saying it was across the board, whether engineering, design, injection moulding or validation. “It really was a battle since if you can’t find the resources, it’s hard to proceed.”

Towards the end of his role as President at Philips-Medisize Europe, a US-headquartered contract development and manufacturing organisation, it was less about where staff were based and more about having the best people. “We closed a plant but opened a small meeting space near Schipol airport with around 20 specialists to maintain the engineers capabilities and to make it very easy for people to fly in and out for meetings. As and when needed, engineers from Denmark and Poland for example as well as a project manager in Italy all come together to progress projects. It’s about flexibility and a central meeting point easy to get to when you need to,” he explains.

Bigger not always better

Size may or may not matter, with pros and cons for large and small companies in terms of attracting talent. He postulates smaller companies may have more difficulty in being flexible as they lack requisite systems in place or experience in hybrid working, with larger companies often better resourced to have admin in place across various locales.

And set-up aside, it’s about the culture of small versus large. Willem sits on the board of a startup so understands the challenges with limited budget. “If talent likes the dynamics and freedom that typically come with a startup more than an established firm, then that can really appeal. There no one talks about a P&L as it’s about burning money to push forward; it’s a very different culture. Going from this to a more established environment can be very difficult, especially if it’s a private equity-owned company with more pressure on the bottom-line. This is an extremely difficult transition, particularly at the management level.”

A recent event for Inflexion’s network highlighted the difficulty in getting it right. “Healthcare is a crucial sector, with the bespoke know-how and pace of change requiring the right people and skillsets to succeed. Sourcing them and keeping them in-house is of utmost importance,” stresses Ben Long, Partner and Head of Healthcare at Inflexion. Some firms at the event admitted to struggling with engineering resources despite being flexible, and others deeming their flexibility key to their success. Yet another created a space welcoming for neurodiverse staff where people could work and flourish and it meant they were better able to attract talent. Another firm in development selling to large pharmaceuticals was sourcing people from Spain and Canada, with its nimble nature, flexible attitude and competitive pay in a tight market helping it to succeed.

Location, location

Sometimes it’s about where you’re based. One firm at the event was based in the eastern Netherlands and found it wasn’t a struggle to attract talent, possibly because of a lack of other options for workers. Willem found this himself during his time at Philips-Medisize.

The contract design manufacturing organisation had 21 sites globally and embraced flexibility even before the pandemic made it mainstream. Having the systems already in place made it easier to pivot to fully remote when needed. Near the end of his tenure as President, he set out to find a new site and chose Poland for its high-quality engineers, with their cost belying their education levels and work ethic. Precisely where to base the office was key – choosing a big city might mean substantial competition for talent and so they based themselves in Siemianowice Śląskie, three hours south of Warsaw. “They can source excellent talent there, good mechanical engineering, design engineering. Firms need to stay away from the auto making areas in Poland as they’re coveted and so it’s hard to lure people away from them.”

Looking further afield, the US is a big market – for talent and for basing a company. “There has always been competition between the US and Europe for talent and development,” Willem concedes, adding that a shift is underway, especially in the pharma and diagnostics space as Europe becomes more bureaucratic in diagnostics: While it used to take longer to register a product in Europe than the US, this has flipped. “This may change the dynamic of where people do clinical testing and market launch,” he says.

It may impact the battle for talent. “There will always be people in Europe that want to go to the US and vice versa. The European pool of talent is growing and that will continue as the EU grows, initially we found strong talent in the sector in the Czech Republic and now Poland owing to high levels of education and very talented people.”

Above all else, it’s about creating a welcoming environment for people to thrive.

“Flexibility and attractiveness of the job can create competitive advantage for finding resources.”

 “Our diverse portfolio underlines the importance of flexibility in attracting and retaining talent across myriad businesses at all stages of development. We help management teams to build out their own talent base to ensure they are fit for growth,” says Freddy West, Talent Director at Inflexion.

Advice for attracting talent – from Willem


“Firstly you need excellent job description. Then you need to grant responsibility and make them accountable through decision rights and autonomy. Providing this authority to decide creates entrepreneurial people who feel part of a big process rather than a mere cog; young people appreciate this more than ever before. Giving the freedom and authority to people on the ground rather than preserving it for management can make jobs very attractive but not many companies do this yet.”

Healthcare forms one of Inflexion’s six key sector focuses, with 16 firms backed to-date and recent successes including Pharmaspectra, a provider of medical affairs data we backed in 2019 before selling it to a NYSE-listed trade buyer in 2022, and Medivet, a UK veterinary pet-care business we provided minority capital to in 2016 to fund acquisitive and organic growth before its sale to CVC Capital Partners in 2021.