Ask the Experts Interview Series

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Pierre A. Morgon

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Pierre A. MORGON is CEO of MRGN Advisors, Regional Partner for Switzerland at Mérieux Equity Partners and Senior Vice President International Business at CanSino Biologics.

He is Chairman of the Boards of Theradiag, Eurocine Vaccines, MYCB1 and Health Technologies Holding, as well as Non-Executive Director to the Boards of Vaccitech, Univercells, Adiposs and Amoeba.

Pierre has over 30 years of experience in the global life science industry, especially with specialty care, vaccines and immunotherapy, at the helm of international operations, in C-level positions at global level in multinational corporations and as CEO of start-up companies.

He is a lecturer in several MBA programs and in life science conferences, and at the Mass Challenge incubator in Switzerland where he is also a mentor for start-up life sciences companies.

He holds a Doctorate of Pharmacy, a Master in Business Law and a MBA. He is also an alumnus of INSEAD and IMD.

Ask the Experts Interview Series

With: Pierre A. Morgon

Tell us more about your background. 

I have a Doctorate in Pharmacy and worked as a hospital pharmacist for three years before deciding that working in a hospital was not for me. I moved into law school and obtained a Master’s in Business Law. 

After practising for a year as a corporate lawyer in a vaccine company doing international contracts, tenders, etc., I once again realised that it was not the job for me. I went back to school to get an MBA, before moving into the industry. 

My career path at the beginning went through some trial and errors, the same way you would approach development of new assets in pharma. You try different animal models and clinical trials to see if you succeed. 

I tried many things before finally growing an appetite for specialty care, biological products, vaccines immunotherapy—which is the bulk of what I currently do. I decided that I had enough of the corporate life after my last CEO role at a startup vaccine company headquartered in Kuala Lumpur where my role was essentially all about negotiating, explaining to the shareholders, and trying to bring their vision to fruition, which was not always easy. Yet, it culminated with the acquisition of a vaccine business based in Denmark, which accelerated the achievement of the development goals.

Despite my promise to myself to focus on consulting and board roles, I have made an exception in becoming an executive again, when the Chairman and CEO of CanSino, who’s a long-time colleague and friend, offered to become the Head of international Business after a stint as a non-executive director at the Board 

I said “maybe”, and it was supposed to be a part-time job. But now, it is more like 2 full-time roles. I have also accepted 2 other board roles, and one of them wanted me to be the chairman.

So, when do you sleep?

Well, that is a part of the problem. Work has invaded my private space in every direction, from early morning to the after-dinner slots, and even the weekends, but it doesn’t matter because I’m doing lots of extremely exciting things

What drives you? 

Number one, I must admit that I have a lot of respect for people who live out their mission as entrepreneurs in life science. These people are really driven by the intent to do something good for others who suffer from ailments. 

The second thing is, even though I have never been an R&D person, I’ve always had an interest in innovation in healthcare. I was among the very few in my career in commercial roles, typically dealing more with planning, market access, commercialisation, and so forth. However, I was also very close to R&D in my global roles and very involved in the various functions that provide the product strategy framework around an asset. 

Starting my career in a hospital and taking care of patients by doing clinical pharmacology and toxicology work and being raised in a family where both of my parents were medical doctors likely played a role as well. 

I also skim through medical newsletters and read across the board. At times, I read only the abstract and it’s a very superficial understanding, but this intensity of research and attempt to do something good drives me a lot.

Another benefit that I have is diversity and a fast-moving environment that’s intellectually stimulating. I get to work with many motivated people, of different nationalities, origins, cultures, age groups, backgrounds, etc. 

The last thing is that I have a very hard time standing still. One thing you will probably never see me do is bringing a piece of 1m x 2m cloth to the beach and do nothing but grilling in the sun. This is simply not possible for me as I will get bored within five minutes. 

Can you share some highlights throughout your career?

There are several, some good and some even ugly as I went through five product crises in my career where the companies went into crisis management mode. In a couple of instances, I was given an assignment whereby it was really the last attempt as everybody else that tried had failed, it was like flashing a red cloth to a bull for me.

As an example,  when I was at Synthelabo after 2 product crises (one of the company products—a closely related molecule to the one I was in charge of—withdrawn from the market due to rare but fatal adverse effects, and one direct competitor product undergoing massive media pressure over multiple side effects that were not adequately disclosed) where we managed to generate $500 million in revenue with one product, in a market that was only $125 million in total market size when we first launched. 

I was the rock star of marketers, and I was the only Head of Marketing amongst all the other Heads of Division that they brought to the top-level meetings when presenting the numbers to L’Oréal, the parent company. 

I worked like an animal. For 5 years, I was working one full week every month in Chicago, another full week in Tokyo, every now and then in Canada, and the rest of the time in Paris. I was a gold or platinum frequent flyer on three different airlines.

At the beginning of my career, success was related to the financials, numbers, and the mission that I was given. The positive highlights in the latter part of my career were people that I had in my team whom I’ve mentored, who later had great careers. 

Specifically, I have a positive recollection of the mentoring of my former direct reports at Sanofi Pasteur, one of whom became the CEO of the company. Another one is now the head of a region. Those two men were the brightest in my team and seeing their career progression, for me, is a genuine source of pride and a real managerial success.

Something that I’m proud of evolve over time because of a gradual shift in focus. Of course, I’ve never lost sight of the P&L and the numbers, but over time I have been increasingly interested in people. I am much more comfortable managing smaller teams of experts of very skilled people, rather than big armies of people that I don’t know by name. 

What has working internationally taught you? 

Working across different countries with different people from different cultures forces you to apply a Japanese proverb that I like: “remember that you have 2 ears and only 1 mouth.”

You could even improve on that and say that you have 2 eyes, 2 ears, and only 1 mouth. It forces you to rebalance observation and information intake vs. communicating and providing input. 

It forces you to hone your ability to observe and capture fine behavioural cues that are not part of your personal codes that you may miss at first. You must learn and understand so you can properly decipher how people react. 

You can hardly think of more distinct planets than the U.S. and Japan from a cultural perspective, and I was “changing my hard drive” when I was airborne. Even the European countries are all very different from one another. 

In the beginning, it was a challenge because I was not necessarily comfortable. But in hindsight, I’m glad I persevered. It’s about having no preconceived ideas, forgetting about what you think in terms of stereotypes and suspending judgments. Listen, observe, understand, reflect, and then speak.

Who or what has shaped who you are? 

Successes, mistakes, bruises, blunders. 

Secondly, the female managers I am lucky to have had early on in my career. They were very benevolent and educational in their approach which was exactly what I needed. Had it not been for them and their management approach, I don’t think my career would have been the same. I owe a lot to the women who managed me early on.

I’ve always been interested in diversity. When I have teams, I always try to have a balance between genders and with different nationalities. You get a richer reasoning on the same facts. It’s very clear to me now, especially in my board roles.

What is your view on failure? 

It’s either failure to deliver or failure to do the right thing. There was a time when I was obsessed with delivering results, I would have run anything over that was between me and the goal. 

I inherited the reputation of being someone who is extremely cynical, and some people in the industry even hated me for what I had told them in public with no filter. I had to learn corporate diplomacy the hard way. 

What early career experiences have you had that has been vital for you to be where you are today?

When I joined Synthelabo from ICI Pharma, my language skills increased considerably my visibility in the company. In the French operations of Synthelabo, I worked with two Heads of Medical Affairs and one of them spoke rudimentary English while the other one had a limited command of that language. 

When International needed someone from the domestic team to speak to the various countries in preparation for upcoming product launches, they came to me to do both medical and marketing presentations since I spoke English fluently and I was knowledgeable about the product, from marketing to medical topics. When a position was open in Europe, they chose me to fill it. 

Two years later, there were some changes and the Head of USA-Japan said that they were going to launch the same product and found that I was a kind walking library with the experience of two successful launches in Germany and Spain. It took a 5-minute conversation for me to be promoted to Head of Marketing. 

The point that I’m getting at here is that there were opportunities, and I was quick to say yes. Now there were also other things later in my life that I should have thought twice before saying yes, but that’s a different story. 

It is the combination of opportunities and somehow being unconsciously ready to jump. I’m not the kind of person who takes forever to think and decide. 

Anything else you would like to add? 

There is another Japanese proverb which I like a lot and I quote frequently: “Saru mo ki kara ochiru”.

Literally, it means “even monkeys fall from trees”, and the insight here is that everybody can fail. The key is to learn from the mistakes, to get back on the saddle and to try again, in a different manner, without giving up.

Insights

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