A Balancing Act - Pharmaceutical Executive

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A Balancing Act
Rather than remaking herself to fit the executive suite, Meryl Zausner has remade the executive suite—and the industry—into a place that is more friendly toward women. In the process she is pioneering


Pharmaceutical Executive


She began her career at the public accounting firm David Berdon & Co. at a time when women accountants were relatiively rare. "I didn't mind the hours, which were intense," says Zausner. "During tax season we worked seven days a week for three months straight. But when you're 22, you have the energy. You can go out on Saturday night, go home, take a shower, and go back to work."


Past HBA Woman of the Year Recipients
But Zausner didn't want to go on like that forever. She wanted to see the world. So after she got her CPA in 1981, she called her old boss from those summers at the recruiting firm, who placed her at Colgate Palmolive as an internal auditor.

It was an eye-opening experience. "I was in South Africa at the height of apartheid," says Zausner. "I was in Colombia. I got picked up at the airport by armed guards. They were kidnapping American executives all over the place. They said, 'You could fit in. You look Hispanic. Just don't let them hear you speak.'"

Conversations over laundry detergent aside, Colgate was a good place for women to grow. "[CEO] Ruben Mark was a proponent of diversity and inclusion before the words were ever spoken out of anyone's mouth," says Zausner. She recalls him announcing that if a qualified man and a qualified woman applied for a job, the woman was to get it. "This was in the 1980s, and there was an uproar in the organization. But within 15 months, it wasn't an issue anymore."


One employee told Meryl she was uncomfortable being the only one to wear a sari to a company gala. So Meryl donned one—and others followed, from left: Meryl Zausner, Michele Galen (communications), Carrie Kifner (HR). human resources, Gerber, a Novartis company).
In 1986, as part of a wider move, the company formed a small venture company to reinvent mature products—like turning HandiWipes into claw-proof cat-box liner. Zausner was controller. "We had our own little portfolio," she says. "We went out and set up our own brokerage network and our own warehousing system. It was so much fun."

The fun ended in 1987, when Colgate acquired Softsoap and other brands from Minnetonka, and restructured Meryl's co-workers right out of jobs. "It was a horrible period," remembers Zausner.

The recruiter friend came through again with a position at the over-the-counter business of Sandoz. "The company was so different then," says Zausner. "The pharma business and the consumer products businesses were completely integrated. They didn't even have separate financial statements."

Zausner grew with the company. By 1996, when Sandoz merged with Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis, she was responsible for pharma and OTC business unit support and oversaw budgets of $1.8 billion.

Taking Oncology Global


Past HBA Woman of the Year Recipients
Zausner's next career move was in an unexpected direction. The US oncology group at Novartis had been lobbying to create a global business unit, looking for a management structure that was intimately familiar with the emerging science of targeted therapies, and where oncology projects wouldn't get lost in the list of top priorities.


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