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


Certainly, Novartis was entering into an unprecedented period of product launches. Looking to 2001, the company faced the prospect of registering 11 drugs with regulators and launching 15 new products, three—Gleevec, Zometa, and Femara—in oncology alone. There was an acute need for a centralized coordinating body.

"Instead of having one large organization that had to understand the customers, the development processes, the special science in all those areas, it was more logical to break the company down to smaller pieces," says David Epstein, who was named CEO of the business unit when it formed in 2000.

Epstein needed a CFO, and liked Zausner immediately. He saw a dynamic self-starter with international experience and a compassion for cancer patients. He knew he was taking a chance: After all, Zausner wasn't classically groomed for the position and she had never been a CFO. But Epstein had never been a CEO either, and he gave her the job.

An early order of business was a tour of the global oncology affiliates. As Epstein, Zausner, and then-marketing head Rainer Boehm visited the various units, they expected the business to be underserved—that was why the global unit had been created. But what they found was downright neglect. Although the budget was already negotiated for the year, Zausner approved several major investments, including the doubling of several sales organizations.


At a Glance: Novartis Oncology's Cancer Compounds
A traditional risk-adverse CFO might well have noted the deficiencies and moved on. But not Zausner: "We're no longer what they call 'bean counters,'" she says. "People like me made sure that changed quickly when we started working."

"She put her career on the line," says Epstein. "It's hard to take that risk and say we're going to spend more money than we planned because we want to capture these opportunities."

But on most days, Meryl is conservative, and part of the global business unit's success stems from its focus on long-term investment. Each year, Novartis Oncology moves money from the commercial side of the business into the development portfolio, with the idea that pipeline investment will drive growth for the company over the next three years. "We've made a concerted effort to sacrifice some of the short term for the long term," says Zausner. "We debate that with our stockholders quite a bit, but the fruits of that have been fantastic in terms of the number of drugs in the pipeline."

Novartis has several key compounds moving through its oncology pipeline, including Tasigna (nilotinib), its Gleevec follow-up. (For a listing of other drugs in the pipeline, see "At a Glance: Novartis Oncology's Cancer Compounds".)

"I think Meryl has a keen understanding of how to manage the ambiguities of drug development," says Deborah Dunsire, MD, who used to lead Novartis' US oncology business, and is now the president and CEO of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, "There's a lot of art in addition to science to that."


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