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Meet the MD: Karen Winterhalter of Onyx Health

Bringing experience from nursing, pharmaceutical sales and medical education, Karen Winterhalter found her niche in healthcare communications. She created Onyx Health, wanting to give SME healthcare companies "the same support and advice that global companies were receiving but at a cost they could afford." 

What is it the company does?

Onyx Health is a marketing communications agency that specialises in healthcare. We work with life science, pharmaceutical, medical device and diagnostic companies who want to market their products and services to healthcare providers, such as the NHS.

Describe your role in no more than 100 words

I have a very much hands-on role at Onyx Health. As well as heading up the company and leading its strategic direction and growth, I also take a strategic role on many clients' accounts. A lot of our clients are looking for significant market growth, so my job is to steer them through that growth process and help them to overcome many of the complex challenges that come with selling a healthcare product or service. 

Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?

I started my career as a learning disabilities nurse but then switched to a career in the pharmaceutical industry. I worked in sales initially, before moving into medical education. I also went to business school to study communications, advertising and marketing. After a couple of years working in a pharmaceutical company, I switched over to agency life and very quickly found my niche. I headed up the European, Middle East and African healthcare divisions of two global PR/communications agencies, running major global pharmaceutical accounts. 

I set up Onyx Health because I wanted to offer SME healthcare companies the same support and advice that global companies were receiving but at a cost they could afford.

What do you believe makes a great leader?

Passion, determination and the drive to be able to keep going no matter what, whilst also making your team part of that journey.

What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?

The NHS – despite all the amazing innovations in drug development, pharmaceuticals, medical technology and diagnostics, the NHS is a very slow beast to move forward. It takes an inordinate amount of time and effort to get products adopted. We spend a lot of time working with clients to get them through the adoption process.

How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?

I turn to exercise. For mindfulness, there is nothing better than a couple of hours of mat Pilates followed by a Reformer class, at Shaping Futures, in Durham. When I have a particular work challenge I need to solve, I run, and when things get too much, the boxing gloves come out. 

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A nurse – there is still a huge part of me that it is still a nurse. Every day, I use the skills and knowledge I learnt as a nurse. I also care immensely about people, especially how I nurture and mentor the team at Onyx Health, to be the best they can possibly be, but I can also be a stern matron.

Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?

I read this question out loud in the office; the resounding response was formatting. I am slightly obsessed about how documents look and how either our branding or a client's branding is applied to them. We have brand bibles for all our clients and ourselves. However, my major pet hate is exclamation marks - there is just no need for them - and they just antagonise people. You can make your point in how you frame your words. 

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?

Our plan is to be the UK’s leading healthcare digital marketing communications agency. Digital marketing is not just about putting a few posts on Facebook, an HTML mail here and there. It is multifaceted. We are taking customers on a purchasing journey being responsive to their reactions. No one is doing this well in the healthcare sector; we are starting to gain a huge footprint in this space, so our plan is to own it.

What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?

Never give up but innovate, innovate, innovate. Just because something worked well five years ago, does not mean it is relevant in today’s market. Always be ahead of the game, then you will be well prepared for the ups and downs of leading businesses.

What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?

Do not overthink things, focus on what needs to be done and get on with it.

Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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