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 of a corporate executive. Emmens was born in 1951 in California, and his family moved to New Jersey when he was about seven years old. “It was centuries ago. I’m old,” he joked.

His dad was a product distribution manager for Union Carbide, and his mother managed the house. He grew up in the heart of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, with friends from school whose parents worked for the big name companies, like Merck. He didn’t say much about what influences he’s carried on from his parents, other than maybe a restless nature. “My dad taught me about the idea of getting transferred. That was 22 moves ago,” Emmens says.

Emmens wasn’t sure he’d find his way into pharmaceuticals, and he says he got job offers while in college from big companies in other industries, like Exxon Mobil, Prudential, and Sherwin-Williams. But he hit off with the recruiter from Merck (NYSE: MRK). The entry level job was in sales. A friend had taken a pharma sales job with Roche, and he knew some other people with Merck. “I figured if you could do that, you’d have a lot of opportunities later. You kind of make your own schedule. It’s performance-based, which I liked,” Emmens says. “I figured that if I worked hard, I’d do well.”

He was thrown into training at Merck as one of the few business guys, in a group of trainees who were mostly scientists. “It was intimidating. They knew all these big words,” Emmens says. But he caught up pretty quickly on the important concepts. He found early on that he enjoyed sales, meeting with doctors, and the respect that Merck commanded from physicians.

I scoffed a little when Emmens said he was old, because I don’t consider 58 to be old, but some of the things he said about his experience at Merck in the ’70s and ’80s sounded like they were from the Paleozoic era. “Back then, we had 600 sales reps, or something like that. Doctors would give you 30 minutes, 40 minutes to see them. It was a different world. You’d come into their office, and they’d give you lunch. It was really weird. It was a great time. It got harder as we went on.”

But he found a calling in sales and within his first company. “I really liked the doctors. It was an intelligent audience who knew what was going on. Merck had great drugs. During my tenure, it was America’s most admired company for something like seven years in a row.”

Merck took him on quite an odyssey, including stints in Roanoke, VA, Tampa, FL, and Raleigh, NC. He was promoted to district manager by the time he was 26 or 27, and looked even younger, Emmens says. This forced him to practice diplomacy when he was a boss of people much older, who had an average tenure in sales jobs during that era of about 12 years, Emmens says. “They called me the ‘teenage district manager,'” Emmens recalls.

While he climbed through the ranks at Merck in the 70s and 80s, he got to know another bright young businessperson, Dave Brennan, who’s now the CEO of AstraZeneca. Emmens also got to know a young scientist there with a reputation as something of a maverick—Josh Boger. They didn’t exactly have any memorable male bonding sessions, Emmens says.

“We were director-level guys. I just met him briefly a couple times, but he was well-known. He was a bit of a maverick, and I like mavericks. I read his book, the Billion Dollar Molecule. I just wanted to meet him, I kind of followed him over the years.” (The Billion Dollar Molecule, by Barry Werth, detailed Vertex’s startup years under Boger.)

So the R&D maverick, and someone who prided himself as a business maverick, went their separate ways. Emmens really made his mark inside Merck back in about 1992, he recalls. That was when the company formed a joint venture called Astra Merck. The main assignment was to sell a heartburn drug called omeprazole (Prilosec). At the time, the drug was tagged with a severe “black box” safety warning that it might cause stomach cancer, based on some rat experiments, Emmens says. It put Astra Merck at a disadvantage to its competitors, ranitidine (Zantac) and cimetidine (Tagamet), he says. “They had a field day with us,” Emmens says.

The assignment at Astra Merck, where Emmens was the chief operating officer, was to get rid of the Black Box and boost sales. Not only did they boost sales, this drug became one of the biggest-selling pharmaceutical franchises of all time, and in the new era of TV advertising it entered the popular imagination as the “purple pill.”

That was a surefire way to get noticed, and Emmens rose through ranks to other jobs. He’s particularly proud of the unconventional work he did at Shire, taking the top job there when it really only had one major product, and re-fashioning it as diversified maker of niche drugs for rare diseases. “We basically tripled the market cap,” Emmens says. “We got into the orphan drug business. A lot of things that people said ‘that’s crazy.’ It’s worked out very well.”

He reconnected with his old acquaintance, Boger, in 2004 when he was invited to join the Vertex board. He says he felt right at home with the culture Boger fostered. “I like new ideas, creativity, doing things differently. Challenging convention. If you get a group of smart people in a room and you decide to do things, you can do amazing things, things that were thought to be impossible. I always had that idea, and Josh always had that idea, too,” Emmens says.

The task in front of Emmens is certainly something thought to be impossible a few years ago. His goals will be to launch telaprevir on a blockbuster trajectory, follow that up with a couple of big steps for patients with cystic fibrosis, and then show Wall Street that there’s more there in the Vertex pipeline, to keep momentum building. The way to do that, Emmens says, is to rally people around a truly compelling vision, he says.

“It’s about getting a group of people together, and developing a vision that seems impossible. Then achieving it. It’s not about proving anything. It’s about involving those people in an undertaking that they’ll remember their whole life,” Emmens says. “The people at Astra Merck did the same thing. We had a reunion of Astra Merck a couple years ago. About 140 people showed up. Ten years later. Why did they do that? They were part of a very special moment in their careers. They had respect for each other. This company can have exactly the same thing. This is a defining year for the company.”

Emmens definitely sees himself as carrying on “Josh’s dream,” which he mentioned a couple times in our conversation. (I asked Boger to comment for this story, but didn’t hear back by my deadline). Emmens stayed humble throughout our conversation, noting that he doesn’t view himself as an expert in any single aspect of pharmaceuticals, except maybe for finding the right people to surround himself with. His plan is to find people with a stomach for risk-taking, technical expertise, communications skills, and the energy to “make something greater in their career than the average person.” With the right people in place, he won’t need to be around stick around forever.

In fact, Emmens said he intends to stay in this job for only five years, because he doesn’t think a CEO should stay around any longer.

“You implement a vision and a strategy in a period of time, and it takes something primal to do that,” Emmens says. “And the world is changing the whole time you’re doing that. Are you changing fast enough? Is the team changing fast enough? Will they tell you that things are no longer the way they should be? You need a new set of eyes to come in and look at the company about every five years. I think you can stay around too long.”

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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.