Merck Ceo Dispenses Business Advice
Raymond V. Gilmartin '63 arrived at Union College in his parents' Ford station wagon in 1959, the first in his family to attend college. Schenectady was the farthest he'd traveled in a day from his Sayville, Long Island home.
More than four decades later, the former engineering student and award-winning athlete is at home the world over, be it partnering with the leaders of foreign nations and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or dispensing life-saving drugs to combat HIV and AIDS in South Africa.
As chairman, president and CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Merck and Co., Gilmartin has been hailed by The Economist as “a role model for the new breed of socially concerned, non-celebrity executives” for his philanthropic work and for being a business leader with a social conscience.
As Gilmartin himself likes to relate with amusement, members of the investment community asked, “Who IS this guy?” when he moved into the top spot at Merck in 1994, the first time in a century the company had chosen a leader from outside its ranks.
Gilmartin took an unlikely path toward pharmaceutical CEO. During his years at Union – a time he describes as “exhilarating” – he studied electrical engineering; excelled in football, wrestling and lacrosse; won numerous athletic and academic prizes and also broadened his perspective by taking such courses as “History of the English Novel.”
“Attending Union was a critical opportunity for someone from a small-town high school to have exposure to the humanities, to social and intellectual diversity,” he says. “It built my confidence about what I could aspire to.”
He credits Union for helping him learn to balance multiple responsibilities and sort out values and priorities. “Going to chemistry lab was, for example, considered a higher priority than football practice,” he recalls.
After business school at Harvard and holding positions as a development engineer at Eastman Kodak (1963-66), management consultant at Arthur D. Little (1968-76) and CEO of Becton Dickinson & Co. (1976-94), Gilmartin arrived at Merck in 1994 and quickly turned his outsider status into an advantage.
He introduced a highly inclusive management style, asking his new colleagues to identify key issues and advise how they would face challenges.
“That helps unleash an organization's creative talents,” Gilmartin says. “I focus clearly on the success of Merck and not on my success. If Merck succeeds, I'll do fine.”
By concentrating on Merck's core business of developing breakthrough drugs and divesting non-drug businesses, Gilmartin has led the firm through tremendous growth, launching 17 new drugs and increasing annual revenues from $15 billion to nearly $50 billion since his arrival.
He traces this success to the philosophy stated in 1950 by Chairman George W. Merck: “Medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow.”
“One of the reasons we're here at all is because of these values,” Gilmartin says. “Even though our mission is to discover medicines, we also have a responsibility to help people gain access to those medications.”
Since 1987, before Gilmartin took the reins, Merck has donated $1 billion of the drug Mectizan to treat 30 million people annually for river blindness in sub-Sahara Africa.
A vision and a mission
Under Gilmartin's leadership, the company has continued its mission of providing medicine to those who need it most.
It has donated $100 million worth of vaccines for hepatitis and other diseases to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and committed $50 million through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Republic of Botswana to help combat AIDS in a nation where 40 percent of all adults are infected.
“More than ever, the business world has an important leadership role to play in terms of closing the gap in health and other vital social issues,” Gilmartin says. “Not only do I think it's possible to succeed while maintaining ethical standards, I think it's the only way.”
WORK: Chairman, president
and CEO of Merck and Co.
PASSION: Fighting AIDS
FAMILY: Married to Gladys Higham; three grown children
HOME: Park Ridge, N.J.
DEGREES: B.S., electrical
engineering, Union, 1963; M.B.A., Harvard, 1968; Hon. LL.D.,
INTERESTS: Skiing, tennis, sailing
ALUMNI ACTIVITIES: Trustee (1990-98); Trustee Board of Advisors (1988-90); class president (1984-88); ReUnion co-chairman (1988); Friend of Union Athletics
Union Helped Me Take a Major Step Forward
A strong supporter of Union College, Merck CEO Ray Gilmartin has attended all but one of his class ReUnions.
“It's great to see what became of these brilliant and creative people who used to work on Concordiensis or be on the football fields or in the labs. I'm always impressed by the people from Union,” he says.
“As good as the school was when I was a student, I have seen it become stronger and stronger over the years. It's important for alumni to continue to support the school so others can have the same opportunities, or more, in college.”Speaking at commencement in 1999, Gilmartin offered this advice: “Climb higher. Believe in yourself. Follow your instincts. Pursue what you enjoy.” He also quoted writer Tom Wolfe: “The future will be nothing like you imagine.”
Clearly, it's an aphorism that applies to his life.
“In 1963, when I graduated from Union, I had no idea I'd ever be fortunate enough to be able to do the things in that picture,” he says, referring to the photo of him dispensing drugs in Africa that appeared last year in The Economist.
“Union helped me take a major step forward.”