Vertex’s Matt Emmens on His Journey From Security Guard to CEO

Xconomy Boston — 

The man hired to turn Cambridge, MA-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals into biotechnology’s next big success story might never have gotten into the industry if he hadn’t been a security guard.

It was the early 1970s, and Matt Emmens was a middle-class New Jersey kid with a vague idea of studying business at nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University. He worked as an auto mechanic for a while to help pay the steep private school tuition. He even dropped out for a while to save cash before he got a lucky break: During his senior year, he scored free tuition and room and board as head of security on campus.

Being the man with a lot of keys meant Emmens got to know a lot of people on campus who sometimes needed help. That included people in the career office, who suggested he interview with a drug company: Merck. “It was a godsend,” Emmens says.

Thirty-five years later, this 58-year-old executive with humble beginnings, finds himself as a leader in an industry full of hard-charging brainiacs. He took over last May as the chairman and CEO of Vertex (NASDAQ: VRTX).

Today, Vertex is a company that aspires to do no less than shake up medicine like only a handful of biotechs have ever done, namely Genentech and Gilead Sciences. Vertex plans to finish up the final phase of clinical trials of a drug that it hopes will transform the treatment of hepatitis C liver infections, and which analysts predict will exceed more than $2 billion in U.S. sales after just a couple years on the market. Vertex plans to follow that up with a first-of-its-kind oral pill for cystic fibrosis that experts say has the potential to be the first to correct the underlying protein abnormality at the roots of the fatal lung disease.

Matt Emmens

Matt Emmens

The pressure to perform is on, and plenty of people will be watching Emmens closely this year. Vertex’s market capitalization has swollen to $7 billion, and it spent a staggering $516 million on R&D in 2008. Vertex added 200 employees last year, and now has about 1,100 on staff in Cambridge, MA, and another 175 in San Diego.

“This is about getting a group of people together, and developing a vision for something that seems impossible,” Emmens says. “This is about involving people in an undertaking they’ll remember their whole life.”

I talked to Emmens in depth about his life journey a couple weeks ago in San Francisco while we were both attending the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. I’ve been itching to interview him one-on-one since May. He officially took over at that time when founder and CEO Josh Boger stepped down after a 20-year run at the helm. The rationale was pretty straightforward. Boger was the scientist with the adventurous entrepreneurial spirit who built the company’s R&D engine. But as Vertex inched toward the anticipated commercial introduction of telaprevir in 2011, it needed an experienced commercial guy to take over.

The official corporate biography of Emmens doesn’t say much about who he is. He had previous stints as CEO of U.K-based Shire Pharmaceuticals, president of Germany-based Merck KGaA’s pharmaceuticals division, CEO at Astra Merck, and a series of managerial jobs at Merck.

Meeting Emmens in person, he doesn’t strike an imposing figure, at about 5-foot-10 with a medium build. He speaks in a soft monotone, and has the standard-issue conservatively cut gray hair … Next Page »

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3 responses to “Vertex’s Matt Emmens on His Journey From Security Guard to CEO”

  1. Josh Boger just sent this comment to me in response to two questions.

    Xconomy: Has Matt done anything so far as CEO that has particularly stood out for you, or surprised you?

    Josh Boger: I think Matt’s decision to hang onto the JAK3 compound and boldly tell the Street last Fall that we would thereby lose an extra ≈≈$100M (roughly the expectation of a JAK3 deal downpayment) was both bold and absolutely the right move. I was proud of him (not surprised), especially when he responded to a question about taking on more development risk with the quote (and I’m paraphrasing): “That’s the business we are in.” It is about time leadership in big biotech and even in pharma realize that taking these kind of risks is precisely why people park capital with them. Stop trying to “minimize risk”. You can minimize risk by buying T-bills. One of course wants to optimize risk/reward, but in our business that means taking big bets and taking big risks. Matt “The Commercial Guy” Emmens gets this, which is why he is the right person to be at the Vertex helm.

    Xconomy: What did he do when you first got to know him, or that you learned about him over the years, that gave you the confidence that he could be the one to lead Vertex into the commercial phase?

    Josh Boger: See above. Matt and I go back to Merck days 25 years or so ago. Then he was known as a courageous marketer with incredible people skills. Since then he gained a love and appreciation for scientific innovation (partly by working in some companies that didn’t do that very well). The combination of that experience and skill is hard to beat.

  2. Des says:

    Great article, I can only imagine a time when doctors would spend 30 to 40 minutes on average with a sales rep, and even getting the sales rep lunch. Emmens has clearly had a very interesting career.

    It’s interesting that Emmens states that he only intends to stay in his CEO role for five years, skilled people do tend to do their best work in the first few years that they enter a particular role at a company because they bring new perspectives to the table.