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

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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 … 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.