Woman of the Year 2013 - Pharmaceutical Executive


Woman of the Year 2013

Pharmaceutical Executive

A first test

Bridgette's first big career challenge came as the junior brand associate charged with charting a strategy for a failing brand. Simply put, Stove Top Rice and Noodles was a disaster. The product simply never worked well and the company was getting complaints.

Heller convened a group within the company's R&D division to talk through the issue. As people introduced themselves, Heller soon realized she was the most junior person in the room. Here she was, the team leader and with only two years of experience. Everyone there had specialized in their function for 25 or 35 years. Bridgette made it through the session with an unexpected insight: "I realized that they had all this expertise in one area and what I was really good at was bringing all of that expertise together into a plan of action to move the team forward."

In the end, Bridgette dismantled the business, but was widely credited for doing it in a quick, rational, and thoughtful manner, limiting the damage to staff and the business as a whole. "Some people would say Stove Top Rice and Noodles was a big failure, but for me it was one of my biggest successes," says Heller.

Bridgette went on to seek other perspectives. She was always a "whiz at math and science growing up," and could spend time with the finance department discussing the P&L. She did a three-month stint as a salesperson, and another two-weeks informally in a manufacturing plant—she even walked the rice paddies in Arkansas to better understand the origin of her product.

Meanwhile, at General Foods, Bridgette was making her mark another way. The company had a summer program for underserved high school students. Ann Fudge, who became Bridgette's mentor after they began working together in 1989, remembers that one summer, there was a death in Bridgette's group.

"She brought resources together to help," says Ann Fudge, who now sits on the GE Board of Directors. "She knew instinctively what to do and how to handle it—bringing the kids together and talking about it. That kind of caring she exhibited at that incredibly emotional time for people was to me a shining example of someone who is focused on getting the job done, but focused on the people as well."

Bridgette's perspective driven, people-first attitude has really distinguished her throughout her career. Coupled with the warmth she so clearly gained around her grandmother's table, she creates a nurturing environment, which has its assets in developing her team and connecting with consumers.

"Bridgette is as committed to the development of her staff as she is in the development of the business," says Jim Mackey, Senior Vice President, US Region Head for Merck Consumer Care.

Bringing the patient perspective to Merck

It was three years ago that Bridgette joined Merck, but through her position and role on the executive committee, she's already had an impact. In particular, Heller has been successful at exporting her ideas about connectivity and the consumer perspective throughout the company. Merck CEO Ken Frazier writes in his HBA support letter, "Her relentless commitment to the consumer reinvigorates everything that Merck's consumer division does. This is frankly a new way of thinking for Merck, and I believe is one way pharmaceutical companies will succeed moving forward."

Connecting with consumers is now part of the equation for doing business. "Healthcare leaders need to be aware that you can't be in the industry if you're not patient-focused," said Eve Dryer, an independent consultant in stakeholder engagement and patient advocacy and HBA's 2013 STAR volunteer award winner. "As women in leadership, it's important to invest in not only the business skills of the new generation of leadership, but teach them how to focus that lens on patients."

For Bridgette, her work all comes from a simple consumer insight: "The big value I bring to the executive committee is reminding them that patients are consumers and that people don't walk around thinking of themselves as sick, but think of themselves as wanting to be well."

Her perspective comes to life in a number of areas, from sales operations to marketing to supply chain. Merck's portfolio of brands or activities across the entire company can be viewed from the customer or audience's perspective—without the artificial barriers internal structure or process can put in place. "By driving work from a different vantage point, we can be more open to and tailor our approach to the unique needs of our consumers, our customers, and our employees. Being relevant and timely is a challenge in today's dynamic environment."

This approach to the consumer may be new for Merck, but a more knowledgeable and vocal consumer is a growing fact of life.

"If you look at they way healthcare as an industry is changing, the consumer mindset is something that all pharma companies are going to have to become more ingrained in and more comfortable with. They're going to have to start seeing the world from that perspective." And there are valuable work and life lessons to be had from retail consumer companies whose competitive position depends on understanding better than their rivals what the customer wants—and the choices they make every day.


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