Michael Nally

October 13, 2016

President, Global Vaccines, Merck & Co.

Saying No to the Status Quo

Michael Nally, President, Global Vaccines, Merck & Co. (known as MSD outside the US & Canada).

An economics graduate, Michael Nally began his career at an investment bank in Chicago, but the work left him with “a bit of an empty feeling.” He went back to business school and while there was introduced to Merck & Co. (known as MSD outside the US and Canada) and MSD’s then Chief Financial Officer Judy Lewent, who brought him into the company to work on competitive intelligence. From that point on, Nally’s career has left him feeling anything but empty; during his first years, he was “exposed to the company at the 30,000-foot level,” working in portfolio analytics, on the pre-commercialization of Januvia, and in communications as an external spokesman for the company at the time of the Vioxx trials and again during the merger with Schering-Plough.

The years of 24/7 working hours and wall-to-wall pressure were exhilarating and offered a steep but rewarding learning curve. Nally says he got to see “every part of the business, and only a handful of jobs have that perspective.” But he eventually knew it was “time to dial in and get a proper job” and chalk up experience of actually running an organization. Not being a scientist, he felt he needed to get closer to the end product. So he took an opportunity to lead the company’s Swedish business as managing director. The posting also turned out to be a great learning experience, not least from a cultural standpoint. “Swedes and Americans look similar on the outside, but the underlying orientation culturally is different. It forced me to grow and listen, to be patient.”

Squaring up to cultural challenges continued when Nally moved to the UK two-and-half years ago to take up the position as managing director, UK & Ireland. He notes that the political interface in the UK is much bigger than in Sweden. “In the UK, I probably spend 40-50% of my time externally oriented-with the government, with the Department of Health, with NHS England -working on policy-related issues. Also, we have a much bigger footprint as an organization here, so it’s a lot more about leading through others than individual leadership.”

Leadership is more than just a job for Nally. He remains a keen student of it. In his downtime he loves reading historical biographies of political, military and business leaders. “Resilience in leadership is something I’m struck by,” he says. “You can say a lot of things, but it’s what you do that ultimately matters. You have to hold your leaders and teams accountable for acting the right way, but you also have to be a role model.” It boils down to ethics and integrity and being able to inspire others. “How do you reinstill belief in what we can achieve? If you can get your team to focus in on what outstanding looks like again, I think you can surprise yourself and the broader organization.”

During the current period of industry malaise, inspiring others is more crucial than ever, says Nally. “Does the industry truly recognize how serious of an issue it faces? The patents on our products provide the pharmaceutical industry with a false sense of security as we are benefitting from work that was done 10 years ago. But the industry is in trouble; we’re going to see continued consolidation, challenges with R&D productivity, and payers exerting more power than ever before.” 

Of course, the industry is intellectually aware of this, he says, “but you have a workforce that has been conditioned in the glory days of pharma. The burning platform isn’t as acute for us as it is in other technology industries. But we have to push that sense of urgency.”

In a career that has seen Nally eager to face new and diverse challenges at almost two-yearly intervals, it is no surprise that, as Pharm Exec went to press, he was about to take another step. After a successful tenure in the UK, which saw him help the organization become the first company to “really leverage” the country’s early access to medicine scheme, putting its melanoma product, Keytruda, into the program and bringing it to about 500 patients treated before marketing authorization, he is now taking up the position of president of global vaccines. 

By his own admission, Nally “struggles with status quo.” He explains: “At some point in an organization there’s a time where you come out of an intense-change period to a business-as-usual period; I’m probably not the best leader in the business-as-usual period.” He is being modest, but his passion clearly lies in predicting the model of the future and understanding how he can deliver on it. “I love that intellectual challenge-how to mobilize an organization to really change the way it operates.” 

As the industry stands at the moment, there is plenty for a leader of Nally’s caliber to tackle.

- Julian Upton