When Belén Garijo was a student, she was pictured protesting on the front page of a major Spanish newspaper. Just after the end of the Franco dictatorship, you didn’t see rallies a lot. The photo depicted the Spanish health minister, surrounded by sign-wielding students — Ms. Garijo in the forefront. The group had slept at the university for two months, protesting their denial of entrance to the medicine program amid tightening admissions.
Eventually grade requirements were loosened, and Ms. Garijo got her medical degree from the University of Madrid. "I never give up. Anything is possible. That's my philosophy," she proclaims, sitting up straighter in her chair.
Today Ms. Garijo oversees over €7 billion ($8.4 billion) in sales and more than 20,000 employees at Merck Healthcare, the division of Germany’s oldest pharmaceutical heavyweight that encompasses everything from biopharma to consumer health. She earns an annual salary of €5.7 million, making her the country’s highest-paid female executive.
Ms. Garijo didn’t set out to be an executive. As a child, she fantasized about becoming a doctor like the ones seen in American TV hospital dramas. Hailing from the southern town of Almansa, Ms. Garijo was born to an office worker and housewife, and before her 30th birthday had barely been out of Spain. She never had the chance to practice medicine — she was one of 20,000 graduates competing for 1,500 general practitioner vacancies in her homeland. Ranking No. 2,030 on the exam, she instead took a job testing new medicines.
Hard work helped her land a gig in the research and development department of the US healthcare company Abbott, which led to working in cancer drug development at healthcare company Sanofi, where she eventually became head of European operations based in Paris.
In 2011, Ms. Garijo was tapped as chief operating officer to rescue Merck Serono, now Merck Healthcare, which at the time had “one of the worst research and development pipelines in the industry,” as US investment firm Morningstar put it. Only a few drugs purchased externally by Ms. Garijo's predecessor were keeping the division on life support.
Ms. Garijo and the other executives focused Merck’s wide range of medicines down to fertility hormones and a small stock of remedies against cancer, multiple sclerosis and diabetes, reorganizing research and development. This tactic allowed more drugs to be tested more thoroughly, increasing the chances of market victory.
"Merck has always had good projects in pharmaceuticals, but we've gotten a lot better at implementation and communicating with the regulatory authorities," says Ms. Garijo, who took over as CEO of the division in 2013.
Women must dare to formulate their ambitions. Belén Garijo, CEO, Merck Healthcare
It hasn’t been straightforward success — Merck pulled the plug on cancer drug Evofosfamide after two trials failed in 2015, but seems to be on track with dark horse Cladribine, a drug that helps relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. It was originally rejected by regulatory authorities because of supposed cancer-causing risks, but auditors have since changed their minds. Cladribine is now on the German market and pending US approval, which could secure billions in revenue. Meanwhile Avelumab, known by its brand name Bavencio, is already approved as treatment for two types of cancer. At the end of March, when word of approval from the US Food and Drug Administration arrived, Ms. Garijo is said to have written an all-employee email in the middle of the night thanking them for all the hard work.
Employees describe her leadership style as rather impatient, but Ms. Garija says she has learned a lot since taking the helm. “I used to be very aggressive, maybe a bit abrasive at times,” she told pharma magazine Life Science Leader in 2014. “I saw this in myself. This style doesn’t work when you intend to really influence and build a network.”
Merck Group CEO Stefan Oschmann is clearly pleased. Since Ms. Garijo started, sales have risen by 50 percent and net profit has more than doubled since 2011. "Merck is on the right track," says analyst Bernhard Weininger of Independent Research.
Her work is far from complete. Merck’s biopharma division had a late start in cancer immunotherapies compared to its global competition, even if it has accelerated ahead of German competitors Bayer and Boehringer Ingelheim. Past successes Rebif, Erbitux and Gonal-F are no longer groundbreaking drugs. The innovation pipeline needs to be refilled.
Ms. Garijo has spent much time lately looking for a potential buyer for Merck’s over-the-counter medicine business, hoping to unload the division for a reported €4 billion to free up cash for drug development.
She is also dedicated to promoting diversity at her workplace. According to Ms. Garijo, junior female executives need to be more assertive in articulating their goals. If she were to ask about career plans, "I'll get an answer straight away from a man," she says. "Women must dare to formulate their ambitions."
Ms. Garijo is married to a fellow physician and has two daughters. Six years ago, the family moved to Frankfurt to be near Merck’s Darmstadt headquarters, although both daughters live on their own now. It’s been decades since the chief executive lived in her native Spain, but she will forever be a Real Madrid fan.
She has come a long way since staging protests, but the cards have been stacked against her in Germany, too. She is the only female board member at Merck — only a third of the company's senior executives are women, in fact. On a broader scale, Ms. Garijo is one of just 45 female board members compared to about 600 men on German DAX-traded companies.
As such, she's a role model. "Belén Garijo shows that you do not have to choose between an international career and children," says a female executive. Ms Garilo’s tip to young women: Do not seek to copy male archetypes of success. Be self-confident and take responsibility for your own career.
A version of this article originally appeared in Handelsblatt's sister publication, the German business weekly WirtschaftsWoche. Barbara Woolsey adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]