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

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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, … 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.