- 1 year ago
When Sheryl Page walked out the door of GSK’s Melbourne office for the final time last month after 32 years with the company, none will miss seeing her more than her executive assistant of 18 years and long-time friend, Joyce Pritchard.
The two women worked together for so long, they often joke they spent more time together than with their husbands, so it is not surprising that adjusting to their new lives will take a little getting used to, but for Page – who headed up the company’s vaccines business for longer than most can remember – she is, for the time being, content doing nothing.
“People kept asking what I was going to do, and I said I want to do nothing. I don’t want a schedule. I don’t want to have to do something by a certain time. I know it will be short-lived, but for now, no deadlines, no PowerPoint presentations, and no getting ready for budgets,” she says with a laugh.
Looking back over her extensive career, Page has much to be proud of. She has mentored countless numbers of people who have gone on to enjoy their own successes, while she has protected Australians with a steady supply of vaccines that so many just take for granted.
“Every child in Australia that has been vaccinated is protected by a vaccine that I had a part in,” Page tells MedNews. But, she adds, this is not what she is most proud of in what was a long and illustrious career.
“That does make me very proud, but it is the people I’ve mentored and helped to develop, and in seeing where they have got to in their career – that is what I am most proud of.”
Just a girl from the bush
Born and raised on a sheep station near the mining town of Broken Hill in far northwest NSW, Page was sent to boarding school in Adelaide at the age of 10 and is as pragmatic and down-to-earth as one would expect of a woman raised in the outback and encouraged to fend for herself from such an early age.
She describes herself as fiercely independent and, brought up in a tough environment as the youngest of three girls, it is not surprising that Joyce Pritchard describes her former boss as being always calm under pressure, never flinching regardless of the curveballs thrown her way.
Upon finishing school, Page had little idea of what she wanted to do so followed her older sisters into nursing. Their father had instructed his daughters to “get your ticket”, meaning a job that would support them regardless of their circumstances, and to Page, nursing seemed as good an option as any.
Highly organised with a quick mind, Page rose quickly through the ranks and soon headed up the respiratory outpatients department and tuberculosis services at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. But after 12 years at the hospital, she realised there were few options in nursing for career progression so began to look for another path.
“I don’t think anybody comes out of school or university and thinks they will go into pharmaceuticals but reps came into the clinic and I thought what they did looked interesting. In all honesty, it wasn’t what I was looking for but there were very few places where nursing skills were recognised, so I thought I’d give it a shot.
“At first, it was quite different and very challenging and took a little while to get used to, and it took me nearly 12 months to decide it was what I really wanted to do.”
Page worked for three different companies in the early phase of her pharma career but as they eventually merged into what is now GSK, she can lay claim to being one of GSK’s longest-serving employees.
She recalls the early years as a rep on the road as wonderful and purposeful, despite the “gimmicks and giveaways” that were part of the job back in the 1990s. Her work ethic did not go unnoticed, and she was promoted from sales management into a marketing role in vaccines before heading up the company’s HIV portfolio.
She later moved into marketing management for Glaxo’s anti-infectives and central nervous system business, then back into vaccines – an area from which she never left.
Appointed GSK’s Director of Vaccines in 2006, Page dedicated the last 16 years of her life to ensuring Australians were as best protected as possible through vaccination and that the people she worked with reached their potential.
“It is a fantastic area to work in. Preventative health is a great thing in itself, but vaccines is such a dynamic business compared to other parts of the pharmaceutical industry,” she says. “There is the private market, dealing with government tenders, and a lot of issues management.
“Vaccines are a fragile product and not like stamping out a tablet. Making vaccines is a science and an art, yet making sure we’ve always got supply is critical. GSK is the largest supplier of vaccines to the National Immunisation Program, which is a big responsibility, particularly when it comes to the children.”
‘Look after the people and the business will follow’
Page’s ‘people first’ mantra is legendary in the halls of GSK, and she credits her nursing background for instilling in her a knack for identifying talented people and a love of helping them reach their true potential.
“I love working with people, developing people. I love seeing people grow. If you surround yourself with the right people and you develop them, then the business will follow,” she says.
“It’s always been about the people for me. If you try and drive the business without supporting the people, it won’t happen. It gives me a lot of pleasure to see people succeed because when they succeed, you succeed.”
Page says Covid threw up unexpected challenges, and while she was handed the company’s Covid therapeutic in Xevudy (sotrovimab) to manage, it was in managing her workforce where she was stretched.
“2020 was very difficult as it challenged us in a way we had never been challenged before,” she said. “That’s good because you learn different skills and it accelerated the whole technology piece, not just for GSK but for HCPs.
“It was difficult to deliver a business when vaccination was so important – but not all vaccines – whereas personally, I was working the longest hours I’d ever worked. Day after day, I just plonked myself in front of the computer and didn’t stop until nighttime.
“Both mentally and physically, it took its toll and gave me the opportunity to reflect and ask, what else is important to me in my life?”
Having had her two children in her late thirties, taking six months off the first time and three months the second and with her husband the primary caregiver, spending more time with her adult children was high on Page’s to-do list – along with doing nothing.
A legacy of a lifetime
While Pritchard is working with Page’s successor, vaccines business director Alex Dimitroff, Page has quickly adjusted to her new life of spending time with her loved ones and having more time for herself.
Having pioneered the role of the career woman who also had a family at a time when it was not the norm, Page’s achievements are indeed impressive. The fact she gave so much to so many others, even more so. In many ways, her description of vaccines as “an art and a science” also applies to her – a pragmatic businesswoman who quietly gave so much to others.
It was indeed an incredible journey and one she is not quite ready to leave completely, already agreeing to some consulting.
“I loved every minute of it,” she says with a sigh. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have done it for so long, but it is also nice to have some time to myself. Right now, I’m busy just doing nothing, and it’s fantastic.”