- 2 weeks ago
12 February 2024
Before travelling to Australia for Merck Healthcare’s 2024 kick-off last week, recently appointed APAC Senior Vice President Alex de Muralt drove 600 kilometres from Tokyo for a day skiing before driving 600 kilometres back, arriving home at midnight. On just five hours sleep, he headed for the airport and flew to Sydney.
It says a lot about de Muralt’s energy and passion, both for nature (he also scuba dives) and his love of going to new places and meeting new people. While very much identifying with his Swiss heritage, de Muralt describes himself as “a citizen of the world”.
“I lived for seven years in Vietnam then moved to Latin America for six years, living in Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil, and travelled from Mexico to Chile,” he told MedNews when we sat down in Sydney last week.
“I then came back to Switzerland, first for Roche then an NGO, and joined Merck 13 years ago in Geneva. Switzerland is my home, my country, but at the same time, I am a citizen of the world.”
Indeed, de Muralt’s life is a kaleidoscope of countries and languages, his Wanderlust fuelled from an early age when, having lost his father and being somewhat of a teenage handful for his mother, he was sent to relatives in Israel who put the 14-year-old to work washing dishes in a restaurant at night and selling gifts to tourists during the day to support a family friend who owned a shop in the Jerusalem old town.
“It opened my eyes to a different world from what I knew in Switzerland,” he says. “When I finished high school and military service, I went backpacking for a year in Asia, traveling from India to Japan on my own on a very small budget. I even ventured into Myanmar to join a group of rebels and spent three weeks in the jungle taking pictures and making a report.”
Driving access in a diverse region
The experience led to a strong interest in global politics that prompted de Muralt to study political science in Switzerland before moving to Oxford where he obtained a Master of Philosophy in social anthropology.
Keen to return to Asia, he moved to Vietnam and worked as a removalist when moving a pharma executive led to him being offered a sales rep role, kickstarting a 30-year career that saw him appointed Senior Vice President for Merck APAC in July last year.
“My job is to ask the right question and understand how it makes sense from a commercial perspective. How is this important for patients?” he says. “I’m not a science specialist but I know to surround myself with people who have good scientific knowledge.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about serving patients and I really enjoy this industry because I feel it’s highly purposeful. You help science to progress through R&D and you help society by filling a basic need, which is good health – health is our most important capital.”
Now responsible for 1,200 employees across the region including in Australia, de Muralt is working his way around numerous countries, meeting teams as well as customers as he says the latter can teach him both what the company is doing well and where it can improve.
One of his challenges is the broad diversity of the region, de Muralt pointing to how prevalence of disease and affordability vary greatly with countries like Indonesia having a high unmet need in hypothyroidism, for example, with a diagnostic rate of less than three per cent compared with Australia where it is up to 80 per cent.
Merck has a drug that treats hypothyroidism, but the challenge is identifying the patients who will benefit, particularly in less developed healthcare systems.
“As a company, we are very dedicated to human progress,” he says. “We are proud of our portfolio because it helps us create, improve and prolong life, however, it is not just about providing a drug but working with governments on programs that will allow us to find those who will benefit then making sure our medicine is provided at an affordable price.
“We try to tackle the public health issues each country is facing in line with the portfolio that we have to offer. As a company, we try and distinguish ourselves by going into countries where we see challenges and help them think about their healthcare ecosystem and what could be done, then potentially provide solutions.
“I don’t think there is a conflict between making a profit and contributing to a purpose and helping society. Driving innovation is about ensuring a good reward because if you don’t generate a profit, you cannot reinvest and create more innovation.
“For those countries that have more resources, they need to look at healthcare and access to medicine as an investment, but unfortunately, too many countries look at it as a cost and a burden rather than something that will help society.
“If they want their economy to go well, they need healthy people. If they only look at the cost of the drug it might look expensive, but what they don’t take into account is the cost to society of not having access to that drug.
“Our industry is advocating for speed of access to innovation and at the same time, reward for innovation.”
Focus on unleashing potential
In moving from a Managing Director in Japan to head of APAC, de Muralt is now focused on upskilling Merck’s 1,200 employees in the region so they are engaged and on purpose.
“I enjoy having conversations with my teams around our purpose and the fact that we need to have inclusion, whatever your role, whatever your market, whatever your country, and transparency because I think people can handle tough choices if they know why they are being made,” he said.
“People can be very engaged if you lead them right, and this to me is key. My purpose is helping to unleash the potential of people and to see them grow and develop in their careers.
“It’s also about seeing the good side of people, acknowledging their ambition – whether it is growing their career or staying where they are, they need to become a better professional and a better person because this is also how we as a company are going to contribute best to society.
“When I was younger, I needed other people to help me understand the market and the patient journey, because this can change from one country to another, so I now expect to provide the same guidance to my teams.”
While his regional promotion has seen de Muralt move to Singapore, when the time comes for this well-travelled global executive to retire, he will return to Switzerland – but says Asia will always have its pull.
“Switzerland is where my family and my roots are, but I love this region and will always keep a close link with Asia,” he says. “Maybe I will help finance schools for children in the street to give them a future in Cambodia or Vietnam. I will always come back to this part of the world.”