Merck Serono – The right medicine for the job

"The CEO not only sets the direction but also walks the talk"

Merck Serono is a biopharmaceutical manufacturer ba-sed in Geneva, Switzerland. Its parent company, German firm Merck KgaA (Kommanditgesellschaft auf Aktien, a part privately held and part publicly traded company) is not just any pharmaceutical firm. With roots dating to the 17th century in the city of Darmstadt, capital of what was then a political entity called the Landgraviate of Hesse-Darmstadt under the Holy Roman Empire, the German Merck Group lays undisputed claim to being the world’s oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company.  

As the largest division in the Merck Group, Merck Serono was created in 2007 by acquisition. According to its website, it has 17,000 employees worldwide and in 2010 accounted for 5.8 billion euros ($7.7 billion) in the group’s revenues. The company is not to be confused with the US-based Merck & Co, a pharmaceutical firm of the same origins as Merck Group which is active in the Middle East as Merck Sharp & Dohme. 

Merck Serono serves the region with a team of about 270 employees of which about one third are working out of the Dubai office, says Dream Samir, managing director, Middle and Near East of Merck Serono Middle East FZ. The regional office relocated recently to premises in Dubai Healthcare City and is set to expand.

Besides sales and marketing of its medical products in the region, the company is active in clinical trials and also is engaged in major efforts in medical awareness raising, training, education and communication. This involves support programs with physicians and patients and important partnerships with ministries of health.  

The company, which regionally manufactures in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, is currently ranked the third-fastest growing pharmaceutical firm in the Middle East and North Africa among more than 100 firms, Samir tells Executive. 

The Great Place to Work Institute 2012 Top Companies report lauds the importance which Merck Serono puts on effective communication, mentioning its elected “Employee Council” with proportional representation of all employees. The council is empowered to present and discuss with senior management all issues brought up by employees. 

The 2011 Great Places To Work (GPTW) UAE benchmark report highlighted the company’s practices on employee recognition, communication and celebration of values-based action. 

Samir says the company has high marks on employee engagement, for which he cites the GPTW as well as other third-party surveys. “There is a lot of evidence that employees love their work” and engagement is “something we want to foster even more,” he points out. “The biggest opportunity that we have now is to bring this engagement to a larger group of people, which is obviously our stakeholders.”

As Samir describes it, the corporate environment is a main strength of the company. It is based on awareness of the need to avoid rigid structures and bring out the best in the company’s people by allowing them “to discover themselves, discover their strengths, and then to work with their strengths.” This means accepting that there might not be one single rigid solution for everything and giving people “the freedom to do it in their own way, but of course in a way that does not violate our system.”

Proper management of remuneration issues is required as a hygiene factor but the paycheck “is one of the lowest priorities in being a great place to work,” he says. “Communication and fair treatment is an area that every company needs to work on. If someone feels that he is not treated fairly and doesn’t get fair chances in promotions, nothing else matters. The paycheck will not matter if you feel mistreated.”  

At Merck Serono Middle East, the emphasis on a flexible work environment — supported by absence of steep hierarchies in the organization — ties in with a positive approach to principled competition. Differentiation is important especially for successful people, Samir emphasizes, and making the rules of the game very clear and encouraging staff to compete on performance, on behavior, on innovation and on collaboration, enables success through “a combination of a system that shows the proper balance between competition and collaboration and a management team that lives this.”    

Leadership and example at the head of the organization is the lynchpin in the whole structure. “The CEO not only sets the direction but also walks the talk — all the messages that the CEO sends all the time in his ways of decision making and leadership will always be seen by the employees.”

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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