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 »