How a rep car led to a CAR-T

By Megan Brodie 3 years ago | In People
  • 3 years ago
Novartis Oncology country head Cheryl Maley

12 July 2021

Cheryl Maley may well have spent her working life standing in front of a classroom of rowdy teenagers if it hadn’t been for a backpacking trip, returning broke and the lure of a car.

The general manager of Novartis Oncology in Australia and New Zealand grew up in a small country town in northwest NSW and completed a science degree and diploma in education with plans to teach high school students before doing what most Australian teenagers did in the 1990s; donning a backpack and setting off to see the world.

“I came back with no money and really unsure what I would do,” says Maley. “I saw an advertisement looking for someone with a science background and the ability to sell. I had worked in retail and hospitality while at university, and it was offering a car which I was super excited about.”

The job was for a Servier sales rep based in Wollongong and turned out to be both a great entry into pharma and a launchpad for a number of future leaders – Maley found herself working with the likes of Pfizer’s Anne Harris and Biocelect’s Karl Herz.

“Starting with Servier was an extraordinary experience in itself and I landed in an industry that I absolutely love,” she said. “The level of training, the environment we worked in, the strong competition in cardiovascular and diabetes. It was a great experience and an amazing starting point.”

While she loved the industry, the fast pace of pharma, the travel and a young family prompted a move into business development for a consulting company before a return to pharma in a managerial role at Abbott, then moving to AbbVie when Abbott split in 2012.

“I loved consulting and it worked for me personally because it was less travel, but it just solidified how much I loved pharma,” she said. “I realised how big an impact the work we do in pharma has. It is so motivating and inspiring, which is why I came back, and why I now don’t intend to leave.”

Setting a vision for Novartis

Maley started her Novartis journey in 2013, initially in marketing and sales and working her way through various divisions and roles before last year being rewarded with the Oncology GM job. Commencing mid-May, her first challenge was to meet the people with whom she would be working – all in a Covid world where everyone was in lockdown.

“Whilst Oncology is part of the Novartis business, I hadn’t actually met or worked with a number of people on the leadership team or across the business,” she said. “It was a challenge trying to build connections, particularly in the Covid environment.”

Yet despite the challenges of the pandemic, Maley made sure she did not waste her first year in the top job, setting her sights not just on making a difference within the organisation but also by tackling the meatier external challenges.

“We have a very clear vision for Novartis Oncology over the next few years about creating the most impact for cancer patients that we possibly can,” she says. “To do that, we have to transform ourselves. Our plan is very focused on innovation, on building capability within the organisation, and on agility – making sure that we are responsive, efficient and productive in the way that we work.

“When we look externally, it’s about how we focus on co-creation, how we get deeper insights to focus on the moments that matter. And last but definitely not least is patient access. Access is a key priority for us, whether it be through PBS funding, early access or clinical trials.”

With an oncology team of 90, Novartis is a local leader, particularly in cell therapy. Its CAR-T Kymriah was the first cell therapy approved in Australia and is now manufactured locally, making the company a pioneer in the space.

While it has launched few other oncology products recently, Maley says a number of treatments are in the late-stage pipeline with major readouts due over the coming months. Like Kymriah, these treatments will increasingly target small patient populations – a growing challenge for health technology.

“The launch of Kymriah has been a huge lesson, not just for Novartis, but for the broader biotech industry, as well as for governments at both state and federal level,” Maley said. “We still have a way to go in improving our readiness for such therapies but I do believe there is a genuine openness to improving the pathway.

“It’s one thing to apply learnings from Kymriah but we may not be reacting at a speed for which the multitude of treatments coming through require.”

Novartis is working to raise awareness of the benefits of the next-generation therapies, for which Kymriah has shown the way, but Maley says Australia needs to re-evaluate how we value such treatments “because the current system does not do that effectively”.

“The impact of these treatments is just unbelievable,” she said. “As a country, we need to determine who these treatments are going to be most effective for and treat those patients earlier.”

Mindful leadership

Maley describes herself as an ‘unbossed’ leader who focuses on developing her people so they can follow the career paths they desire.

“I am also very curious and like to understand different viewpoints,” she said. “I’d say my leadership has evolved over the last 20 odd years of managing people. In the past 10 years, I’ve focused more on mindful leadership. I’ve worked hard to make sure there is effective empowerment and accountability.”

A mother of two young adults, Maley is also enjoying the freedom not having younger children provides by spending more time volunteering for her one of her favourite charities, Riding for the Disabled, while also enjoying different activities.

“I feel like I’ve got quite a nice balance for the next few years,” she says. Yet when it comes to her career, one thing is for sure – Maley is not looking for a change anytime soon.

“This is my first time working in oncology and I absolutely love it,” she told MedNews. “I feel like it resonates so much around the work we do broadly as an industry but personally, I’m passionate about the patient access part, especially access for rural and remote communities and access for smaller patient groups. I know my career path will be in oncology for some time.”

Looking back, Maley must sometimes wonder had she not taken off with a backpack and returned broke, she may well have chosen a different career path. Looking at where this small-town country girl is today, it seems she landed exactly where she was meant to be.


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