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Friday Interview: Karen Winterhalter on Coronavirus and her focus on people

With over 30 years’ in the global healthcare industry, Karen Winterhalter talks to HLN about the challenges of COVID-19 and being named as one of Newcastle’s companies to watch by The Sunday Times.

By Helen Bowman

Tell us a little about yourself and your company, Onyx Health

We’re a healthcare marketing communications agency based in the Hoults Yard in Walker and are part of the UK’s fastest-growing digital cluster here. We work with healthcare and pharmaceutical companies of all sizes and from all over the UK.

I set up Onyx Health ten years ago when I moved back to the North East after several years working in London and the south in the healthcare communications industry. Originally, I was a nurse based in Walker but made the move into pharmaceuticals and then into marketing for the industry. My boss at the time moved my job down to Bristol and my career took off from there.

Agency life in London called and I worked my way up through the ranks to become head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa very quickly. I loved my life and my career, but ten years ago I came up to Newcastle to do the Great North Run with my husband. On the train on the way home he said: “If we moved up North we could have a great life”. I agreed with him and eight weeks later we moved back to the North East.

I set up Onyx Health from my home office, working alone initially, but I quickly took on two more people. There’s a thriving life science culture in the North East and I’ve made some amazing connections up here to help the business grow. We’re 15 strong now and love our home in Hoults Yard.

Obviously, since the Coronavirus hit, we’ve all been remote working. That’s a challenge when our team is so close-knit, but we’ve overcome that by introducing an office WhatsApp group to keep spirits up.

What do you do for your clients?

We look after all kinds of life science, pharmaceutical and med-tech clients and help them with their marketing communications. We help small, new companies get ready to go to market, we work with University spin-outs, and we can help businesses commercialise themselves.

For our more established clients, we help them communicate with their customers. All our clients sell things to, or provide equipment for, the NHS.

Our clients are based all over the UK now. We started out working with North East based companies, but our reputation and reach has spread. The smaller companies we started working with have all grown and we’ve grown with them. We work at CEO level with our customers and business is thriving.

You’ve recently been recognised as one of the Sunday Times’ One to Watch companies in Newcastle – how did that come about?

The Sunday Times came to the North East and interviewed loads of companies in Newcastle. They visited Hoults Yard and spoke to many of the businesses based here. Onyx Health was identified as one of the six top companies in Newcastle thanks to our rapid growth and expanding team.

Being named as one of the six has been fantastic. It’s helped raise awareness of Onyx Health and the boost it’s given us as a company has been incredible. When you start a company up you live and breathe it. Any entrepreneur will tell you, your initial mindset it hopeful but not overly confident. We’ve reached a tipping point in our mindset and we’ve gone through the early phases of uncertainty and we’ve come out the other side.

Since being named as one of the Sunday Times’ Ones to Watch, we’ve been approached by loads of investors and recruitment agencies. It really sets us apart from our competitors. We want people to know about the life science community in the North East, the digital cluster, and some of the big influencers we have around Newcastle – we’re all connected. It’s all about connectivity.

How have you found building a business in the NE?

It’s certainly much more positive up here. Everyone in the North East business community wants to help and it makes a huge difference. My connections are always asking how they can help, who they can introduce me to and what other businesses can do for us.

We’re a solutions-driven region. If I can’t help you, I’ll find someone who can and that’s a real positive feature of our region. We’re working on several projects now that won’t necessarily benefit us directly as a business, but we’re part of a bigger group. For example, Dynamo is appointing somebody to work on digital health technology in the region and we’re part of that.

Building a business in the North East has been incredible. It’s no different from building a business elsewhere but we make sure there are no barriers. The universities up here are a real boon to our business. We take on graduates and work alongside Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland Universities all the time.

The medical experts at our disposal in the region are phenomenal and we can always draw on expert advice for our projects and clients, which has been brilliant.

What challenges has the Coronavirus brought for Onyx Health?

Obviously we’ve all started working remotely, which is a challenge for such a fun, close-knit team. But the digital revolution has meant that it’s business as usual for us. We’re using video calls and social media to stay in touch and keep our mental health in check. We may be out of the office, but we aren’t out of the loop.

Thankfully, we’ve got digital solutions in place to limit the impact of the Corona crisis. Even as public events are cancelled, we are harnessing the benefits of a strong digital presence to keep our clients seen and heard.

Coronavirus may be the worst public health crisis for a generation, but our business wheels will not stop turning. Businesses can continue to engage with their target consumers using webinars, email marketing campaigns and targeted social media content.

How have you found the journey of being a female entrepreneur?

Early in my career, I met Angela Hill in a PR agency in London. She taught me to be supportive, encouraging, open. I’ll always remember the lessons I learned from her maternity policies. She encouraged her female account managers to return to work after maternity leave by tasking their teams with running accounts in their absence and surrounding them in support when they returned. Angela’s approach was incredibly successful, and I’ve never forgotten that.

I hold on to her wellness values and focus on my people. Supporting my team is hugely important to me and I’ll continue to be people-focused as the company grows.

I encourage my team members to push themselves forward and improve their confidence and I have confidence in myself too. We don’t choose people based on gender but rather on their fit with the culture of Onyx Health. As a result, we work well together.

And finally, what are your North East favourites?

I love doing Pilates at Shaping Futures in Durham – it’s part of my fitness routine and my evening Pilates classes are a really important part of the day.

I love walking along the Broken Scar on the River Tees in my hometown of Darlington – outdoors is the best place to be and this walk is always a favourite of ours, right on our doorstep.

My husband and I love to eat at the Bay Horse in Hurworth near Darlington.

Other than that, I love spending my time in Bamburgh. The Potted Lobster does incredible seafood and I love to enjoy a glass of red wine in The Victoria Hotel in the village.

My go-to place for relaxation is The Ocean Club at Seafield Park in Seahouses and I love an early morning run on the beach in Bamburgh. Whatever the weather, the sky is always vast and it’s just breath-taking.

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