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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Merck Job Loss

The slaughter continues. At the same time small biotech companies are experiencing a blitzkrieg of IPOs, Merck is slashing another 8,500 jobs and ending R&D projects the management sees as fruitless. Merck will see savings of $2.5B per year from this move.

8,500 human beings will get their pink slip, put their cubicle decorations in a box and make that sad walk to the car. This on top of the already announced 7,500 job losses previously announced by Merck.

Man this blog is depressing! Sorry.

It brings to mind the many times I lost a biopharma job and what it meant to me and my career. Each job loss lowered my value. It doesn't matter that none of the companies I worked for are still in business except for the last. I established a history of 2 to 3 year stints at places no one has ever heard of. The people I worked with however were no different from one company to the next. We had good and bad, as is the case in any company. The bad ones that I've worked with were really bad. The good ones tended to be more adaptable to new situations, more open and honest and less antagonistic. There was a confidence that came from being good at what they do.

I do  this little thought experiment where I match up the people I've worked with. I have list, as everyone does, where I rank people who have worked in similar areas. For example, Pierre is the best protein purification specialist I have worked with and Hana is the worst. What would happen if those two had to work together at a company like Merck? Pierre had a PhD so he would be the boss over Hana in any biopharma company. Hana was absolutely clueless and like to show up for 5 hours a day. In this environment I assume that Hana would be let go and Pierre would establish an irreplaceable group of downstream process specialists. When Merck sets out to lop off 20% of the work force, Pierre and his people get to stay. But then, how do we know that Pierres superiors aren't more like Hana?

A real life experiment like this took place at my last job. We, a small biotech company, had an antibody drug but no manufacturing expertise. No one working at this small biotech company had ever seen the inside of a manufacturing plant where antibody drugs are made. We hired a CMO to take our master cell line and magically provide us with large quantities of our drug. For some reason, the small biotech had two upstream process development groups however. Neither group could establish a coherent, scalable, reproducible, method for growing our cells. One of the many problems was that the leader of group 1, Katie, would not share information with the leader of group 2. To remedy this situation we hired John, an upstream process development expert, from our CMO to lead a unified upstream process development team. He showed up and  began meeting his new team. Katie met one on one with John and went through three years worth of her work. I could see them through the glass wall of Johns office. Through the glass I could see Johns mood changing from glad, to sad, to mad in just a few hours of first meeting Katie. Within three days John had had enough. She had not produced one bit of upstream process knowledge that John could use. This was his new job and he had nothing to go on. John tried to fire Katie. Katie however was a favorite among the leadership. In a month John quit and Katie stayed.

Imagine now 16,000 people leaving Merck. How many Johns and Katies were there at Merck? How many Pierres and how many Hanas? It is not an option to assume that the CEO of Merck developed a scientific method to eliminate just the Katies and Hanas from his work force, sparing the Pierres. From my experience, not even a small biotech of roughly 40 people can sort out the wheat from the chaff. That is the problems with a Cargo Cult, when the planes don't come, whose fault is it?

It's our fault. We are not standardized, certified, highly qualified professionals. We are a random ensemble of college graduates inventing our jobs as we go along. How do you cure cancer when your boss gives you an antibody and tells you to get busy? There is no manual telling you what to do? Just a boss telling you what the data is suppose to support. Could we get the 16K former Merck employees together to write a manual on drug development? Could they write a book similar to the one that ex-Pfizer employees would write?

16,000 more biopharma experts are going back on the market. Who wants them? How does the next company determine the value of such individuals knowing that Merck turned them down? They will have a greater value than myself or my friend who just started a part time job at Home Depot after 20 years in biopharm. We come from places like Amgen, Gilead and a large assortment of 2 and 3 year jobs at places no one has ever heard of. We have worked with all kinds. Ex-Pfizer, ex-AstraZeneca... There is nothing special among us nor this new graduating class of 16,000 ex-Merck employees. They are all now just like us, just not as long term separated from the Cargo Cults.

So as to not end on a super depressing note, I will put it this way. This new group of 16,000 people are getting on a raft that will take them further down the river. It may take you to a better or a worse place. There are no guarantees. But it is the Katies and Hanas who most fear the unknown. They will stay right where they are for as long as they can. Get on the raft and go somewhere else. If I am correct in assuming that this is a Cargo Cult world, Merck will lose Katie/Hana/John/Pierre in equal numbers. It's all random. Mercks ineptitude will neither grow nor shrink. They'll just have less people to pay. Merck will thus have more dark days ahead. Get on that raft and go somewhere else.

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