Novartis’ Zeller here on a mission

By Megan Brodie 3 weeks ago | In Companies, People
  • 3 weeks ago
Novartis ANZ Country President Matt Zeller. Source: ©MedNews

6 May 2024

Matt Zeller is a change maker, the former high-level global strategy consultant on an upward trajectory at Novartis as he both expands his skillset while solving problems for the Swiss pharma giant.

There is no doubt Zeller was an incredible catch for Novartis, his experience being dropped into problem markets to identify what needed to be done and delivering an outcome making him a valuable asset for any company, and Novartis has both made use of his unique skillset while building his leadership capability, in the process making him an even more valuable asset for the company.

Australia rarely sees a leader of this calibre arrive on its shores. J&J’s Biljana Naumovic was one – and made US President of Oncology 18 months after leaving Australia. Zeller is on a similar trajectory at Novartis, so why did he come to a relatively small market like Australia?

“Australia has a market context that is changing rapidly,” explains Zeller. “You have an ecosystem that acknowledges things need to change moving forward, and you have a lot of white space in terms of the roles the various players within that ecosystem are going to play.

“My hope – and why Novartis has so much urgency in trying to change the setup and implement our strategy and vision – is the role we want to play over the coming years. We needed to quickly put ourselves in a position where we were ready to get the most out of what we think can happen here.”

A need to do things differently

There is no doubt Novartis has been under-performing in Australia. Five years ago, the Swiss pharma giant had the largest share of the local medicines reimbursement (PBS) scheme at 6.7 per cent, but its heavy reliance on older drugs such as Entresto and Lucentis means while one in every 11 Australians is on a Novartis drug, the company’s value share has fallen to five per cent.

Matt Zeller (right) with Health Minister Mark Butler

“Make no mistake, this is a very challenging market to operate in,” says Zeller, but he also sees it as ripe for change.

“My hope is the HTA reform process and the various stakeholders in the ecosystem here have an understanding that change needs to happen moving forward, and that we have hit the point where we want to start to make a real difference for patients.”

An experienced change maker, Zeller sees his task here as making Novartis “a change enabler”. To do that, he is leaning heavily into the company’s pipeline to “figure out how we work creatively to get these products to the market, because ultimately, if we’re not bringing our products to market, we’re not getting them to the patients that need them and it doesn’t really matter that we have this great pipeline”.

“We’re at a wonderful pivot point globally for the company right now,” he says. “We have one of the best pipelines in the industry and we want to bring our breakthrough innovations to market, and the conclusion we came to was Novartis ANZ was not fit to realise our full ambition, was not fit for purpose for where we wanted to go.

“The operating model and what it would take to be successful in ANZ was not how we were set up. We wanted to over-index things like market access and public affairs, data-driven decision making, and therapeutic area changes. We wanted to build on some of those great foundations of the past and put ourselves into a position to be leading and shaping the future.

“What I’m understanding about Australia is that there’s still plenty of opportunity for innovative therapies that make a difference for patients. My job is to take what we have, which is a huge portfolio much of which is not on the market yet in Australia, and work collaboratively with stakeholders to try and get them to as many patients that can benefit as possible.”

From baseball to Basel and Budapest

There is no doubt Zeller is something of a corporate rockstar, his consulting experience giving him a unique skillset and mindset in an industry dominated by former sales and marketing executives, although he also spent time carrying the rep’s bag.

Raised in Midwest America, Zeller’s parents instilled in him a strong work ethic, meaning he put as much attention into his academic studies as he did sport. He dreamed of being a baseball star and was even able to have a brief professional career until a broken ankle at age 21 put an end to that dream, and Zeller took a job at Eli Lilly as a GP sales rep.

“You’re running around like crazy all day making tonnes of calls, trying to understand the science and the environment and what makes an office tick and what makes the Georgia healthcare ecosystem tick,” he says. “I loved it, and it was at that point I knew there was something about healthcare I really enjoyed.”

The Zeller family is enjoying getting friendly with the Aussie locals.

Wanting also to have a range of experiences, Zeller left Lilly to work for a not-for-profit in Argentina and in the hospital space in Washington DC before enrolling in a healthcare management program at Duke University where he met his wife. On graduating, he took a job at Boston Consulting Group.

BCG took the young couple to China then back to the US when their first child was born, Zeller soon making the decision that if he was going to be the father and husband he wanted to be, he needed to get out of consulting. Wanting to also “get closer to the strategies I was recommending, to the patients, and to really build my leadership,” he took a role at Novartis’ Swiss headquarters as Global Strategy Director.

“The reason I joined Novartis, especially the role I took in Switzerland, was because it was a perfect entry point for me with the global strategy group to see the entire company from corporate headquarters, to work on the long-range planning and to be dropped into projects in different markets,” he says.

“Novartis had a path for ex-consultants and knew what to do with our strange skill sets, not only at the entry point but beyond that. I knew I would end up in good roles.”

Working on the coalface

After six years in senior operational roles in Switzerland and the US, Zeller was given charge of a small market in Hungary for two years. He then took leadership of the Europe Central Cluster, which consists of 24 country markets stretching from the Ukraine to Albania, before accepting the ANZ top job last year. The move allows Zeller to build his leadership capability while also enabling an underperforming market to reach its potential.

“Because I spent time in headquarters, I have a better understanding of the broader picture and how to get things done,” explains Zeller. “I love building teams aligned around a common goal and a common purpose to make an impact on the world, and I’m now going deeper into that, taking the opportunity to develop as a leader and to make an impact in the markets I am serving.”

Matt Zeller speaking at Mednews’ Corporate Reputation event.

There’s an obvious link between Zeller’s work in Hungary and his plans for Australia, the pharma executive seeing his role in both markets as enabling change by building external partnerships and having an internal team focused on delivering the agreed vision.

“I want more external stakeholders and customers to know what we are doing, to know our strategy and the role we want to play in the market, and I want a group of people in Novartis working to make that vision a reality,” he says. “No patients get served inside our office. Our job is to enable the delivery of our medicines to patients outside the four walls of our office.

“What I’m understanding is that while the PBAC is massively successful at doing what it is designed to do, there are going to be some areas and some levels of innovations where we are going to have to find new approaches to get these on the market for patients.”

Zeller is initially focused on cardiovascular disease and radioligand therapy, believing this is where Novartis can be an “impetus for change”  as they are “great areas to start”.

And while most leaders who land in Australia take time to understand the local ecosystem before moving forward, Zeller says the urgency to reposition Novartis and enable it to reach its full potential meant an almost immediate restructuring of the senior leadership team was necessary.

The fact another high performer from Novartis HQ is joining Zeller in Australia, Aneta Porczynska, is another sign the company has earmarked the country as one that will deliver, given the right people and strategy.

“One of the reasons I am here is to be a change-maker and to drive a different perspective on the outlook for Novartis and for the industry,” says Zeller

“The role of the patient in the ecosystem is changing and there is no reason the role of a pharmaceutical company committed to doing all that it possibly can to get its innovative therapies into the hands and arms of patients across the ecosystem should not change with it.

“We think we can do something really great here.”

©MedNews 2024

Leave a Reply