Woman of the Year 2013

Apr 01, 2013

(John Halpern/Photographer)
The story of success is usually told through the lens of the individual. And while there is no denying the role of individual accomplishment in achieving worldly success, less often is the narrative of victory told from the perspective of the community. In this world, Bridgette Heller's world, success is rooted in a sense of community and in an understanding that everyone can have an impact. From this point of view the world looks remarkably different: every person is as important as the next. It's this sense of community and connection that Heller learned as a child and has carried throughout her surprisingly varied career and into her current position as president of Merck Consumer Care.

Bridgette, now 51, grew up in a small, tight-knit African American community in the gulf coast town of St. Petersburg, Florida. Her great grandfather was one of the first entrepreneurs in their community with the grocery store he owned and operated. Together with his wife they had 15—yes, 15—children, so Bridgette grew up surrounded by lots of family.

But Bridgette was special. From an early age, her family, her neighborhood, and the broader community recognized that she had potential. "I grew up as part of a very large extended family," says Heller. "It really was the village concept come to life in terms of parenting within that community. It was made very clear that I had a responsibility to live up to that potential. Some saw that as a weight—but I saw it as an opportunity." It was with this strong support that Bridgette was able to venture into the world outside of her small community and become one of the first African American women of her generation to ascend to the upper levels of business.

On scholarship, Heller attended Northwestern University. Before graduation, she went to work for Hewlett Packard in the Tampa office as a summer intern, marketing the first PC. She quickly generated $1 million for the company, which opened her eyes to how the power of marketing can make a difference. She went to business school, and from there, onto a career at General Foods (which later became Kraft) that spanned nearly 20 years. She served as a CEO of Chung's, the largest US manufacturer of egg rolls, and then went on to head the global baby business unit at Johnson & Johnson.

Merck was one of the last big pharma companies to invest in consumer healthcare, but in Bridgette they've tapped a trailblazer, one with big ideas and a proven track record of success. She joined the company in March 2010, just after the merger with Schering-Plough, which brought with it iconic brands such as Claritin, Coppertone, and Dr. Scholl's. The consumer division comprised a fraction of Merck's revenues—in 2009 consumer accounted for a modest $1.3 billion of the $46 billion Merck earned in overall revenues (using supplemental combined figures to reflect the full revenue of both Merck and Schering-Plough pre-merger during 2009).

The conventional wisdom is that the consumer business needs to grow for it to matter in a company the size of Merck. "Merck is either going to have to expand its consumer business to make it more important or spin it off," observes Les Funtleyder, a healthcare strategist and managing director of Poliwogg, a private equity firm.

Interestingly, Merck's consumer business has been growing. After joining the company, Bridgette reorganized the way the business was run, uniting all consumer business under her "roof." Previously, consumer business outside of North America was managed by the pharma business, diluting its impact and tending to make the activity a very lower priority. Since then the results have been encouraging. In 2012 consumer product sales reached $2 billion, a 6 percent increase over 2011. This year looks equally promising.

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