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Working Life: Chris Round, Head of EMEA Region, Merck KGaA

Published on 19/03/18 at 10:49am

Merck KGaA's Chris Round, Head of EMEA Region, spoke with Pharmafile.com to discuss his time at both the US and German firms which bear the name Merck, his successes, leadership strategies and more.

Could you provide a background as to how you arrived in the pharmaceutical industry?

I kind of got there by a roundabout route. I trained as an accountant with what is now known as PwC, though was then Coopers & Lybrand. I spent a few years working in the professional finance industry and then had nine years with an American company, Black & Decker, in a variety of general management roles.

I actually joined the industry 22 years ago, in ‘96, to be the Financial Director of MSD in the UK. After a few years, I moved into the commercial side of the business as a sales director and then went out into real general management jobs, the first one being for General Manager for the Swedish business for MSD. I briefly ran the Scandinavian region and then became General Manager of the UK business, up until the merger with Schering & Plough in 2009, at which point I moved to MSD’s global headquarters, ironically at Merck in New Jersey.

I had five years in roles leading franchises, the longest of which was as head of the oncology franchise, which coincided with the launch of Keytruda in the US market. They then asked if I’d like to move to China to run operations there, and this was an exciting professional challenge, as well as being a fabulous personal opportunity for my family and me. We had a good few years there until the opportunity with Merck KGaA came up, in a regional role now as head of EMEA, which I’ve been in for the past year. It’s great that we work in an industry where we can experience different cultures and parts of the world, as well as different aspects of the business, through the whole product lifecycle, and through mature and developing markets – that variety has always kept me fascinated in the industry.

How do you think moving across financial, commercial and regional roles has had an impact on your professional development?

I have always loved general management, which, when you strip it down, means that you’re not an expert in anything but you become good at lots of things. After reaching a certain level of the organisation, whether you’re working in strategic functions or more operational and executional settings, how you identify, recruit, select and develop talent in an organisation crosses over the whole range of activities you have underway. There are certain essential elements that are a little bit similar. I have enjoyed every single one of my roles in Europe, Asia and the US, and at the different stages in lifecycle. If you asked me what were my favourite therapeutic areas, I’d probably say it’s oncology because it’s an extraordinary area and one with huge unmet medical need, as well as the explosive advances in science going on right now, which make it very compelling to work in the oncology franchise of Merck KGaA.

Working on the launch of Keytruda must have been one those particularly compelling experiences?

Suffice it to say, Keytruda went first-in-man in 2011 and the BMS compound, Opdivo, went first-in-man in 2007 – so, they had a four year head start. Despite that, MSD launched first in the US and that was through a very, very concerted team effort across a whole range of different functions. When you see our industry moving with a competitive imperative, in an area of high unmet medical need – literally, with the FDA saying: “Get a move on” – when patients are dying, with no treatment options; when you have that degree of intensity, then our industry is able to do extraordinary things. You see extraordinary efforts from people and organisations, effective collaborations – it’s fun to be part of and compelling to be part of. We’ll see how far these assets go but I think the breadth of impact that immunotherapy is having on the whole oncology treatment area is incredible. It’s clearly a new paradigm that is set for the next 20 to 30 years.

I’ll be honest, one of the attractions to working at Merck is the really interesting oncology pipeline and really talented set of research leaders, in Dr. Luciano Rossetti and Dr. Alise Reicin in particular – the quality of the science, the quality of the pipeline and the potential to tackle areas of very high unmet medical need, across both oncology and specialty areas, such as immunology – that’s what drew me to the company.

You’ve been in the role for a year now, how are you finding it?

It is everything I hoped it would be. I hadn’t managed a region of this scale before my current role at Merck, with the addition of a European region to the Middle East, Africa and Russia. There’s the normal challenge of any new position, or company, of getting up to speed with the team, the products and the people. The challenge is then to design an organisation that is right for the short-, medium- and long-term challenges that we have. Then, there’s the need for the right people for the team. All of those factors you’d get anywhere but this is the first time I’ve worked for a European company rather than an American company, and also the first time I’ve worked for a German company. I think there are different nuances of culture and style that are fascinating. It’s an ambitious company: at the same time as being an old, well-established company, it’s also emerging as an innovative, science and technology-led group. It’s at a very interesting stage and I’m having a lot of fun.

You mention that there is a difference in culture in your experience between a US and European company – could you expand on that, in regards to your current position?

I’d point to a couple of things: I think the ownership structure at Merck is pretty unique in the arena of big healthcare companies, with only a third of our shares publicly traded and the rest are still owned by the Merck family.. This ownership structure, which is quite unique, does enable us to have a longer-term perspective compared to your classic Wall Street, quarter-to-quarter focus. I find the pace at which we are able to operate, the speed of decision-making and the availability of decision-makers to be really invigorating. I am really enjoying that openness and transparency across functions.

Merck scored successes with both Bavencio and Mavenclad in 2017 – is there a plan to capitalise on the momentum created by these approvals?

If I think about the past 10 years, the company has been hugely successful at continuing to deliver an effective performance from a well-established portfolio of products. We’ve been grinding out a pretty good performance on a global basis, but the pipeline has not been that productive until recently. These launches are fabulous, particularly for Europe, because we get the opportunity to invest and grow – everyone at Merck is fired up and excited by that. For me, it’s more a proof of concept that the focus on specialty innovation is starting to pay off and, actually, if I look at the pipeline today, the potential for launches over the next 10 years is just extraordinary and supports our objective to double the size of our specialty business in the next five years.

Leadership positions often come with challenges, how do crises create opportunities and make you a better manager?

Crises bring a clear need to react appropriately to the situation and they tend to churn both within organisations, which makes it interesting to see how large organisation handles something when it goes wrong, and within the environment locally.

They also allow you to connect with senior levels of the organisation quite quickly. It gives you the chance to refocus the team and the business in a way that you feel is more appropriate for the environment. I think somebody once said: “You should never a waste a good crisis.”

If teaches you to get the right team in place, focus on the right things and make sure you’ve got the right platform. Experience has taught me to hold the strong belief that you don’t have to sail close to the wind to be successful; often the shortest route to the goal is straight up the pitch, not along the side-lines.

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