My International Career at Merck Group

I have been with Merck for about 20 years, covering several countries and spanning two continents. The main reason why I have been able to stay with Merck for so long is firstly because my personal values coincide well with the Values of Merck and the ways that Merck treats and develops its people. But also, because I have been fortunate to have a variety of experiences within Merck, not having to look for them outside. I have had amazing experiences with lots of learning, development and excitement along the way.

My career with Merck started in Aug 2001 in South Africa, when I left my job teaching Natural Sciences at a high school in my hometown. I joined Merck South Africa as a Medical Representative. I remember thinking at the time that educating doctors about the benefits that Merck products hold for them and their patients were not much different than educating the students in my previous role.

I have been blessed in my career with Merck, being lucky to work for accomplished managers, that not only wanted to achieve the sales targets, but were willing to develop and invest in people. This was the case for both my direct manager, Simon Berg, with whom I still have contact today and the General Manager at the time. I enjoyed my time as a representative immensely, interacting with healthcare practitioners and learning about selling, segmentation and targeting, marketing etc. I did rather well as a sales representative; the fact that my personality loves chasing targets and finding different ways to deliver results definitely helped me.

Soon there was an opportunity when Merck was looking for a Training Manager, and with my teaching background, I was fortunate to be promoted. It was rewarding to delve into the depth of knowledge about the disease areas, at that stage it was Cardiovascular and Diabetes as focus areas, but also to teach soft skills and be able to invest in people and develop their skills and capabilities. This is something that remains dear to my heart to this day. I still see myself as a developer of people and their careers, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see somebody succeed and excel. I learned that different types of people can deliver significant results in different ways. I loved my 3 years as a Training Manager.

During that time, Merck South Africa was expanding into the neighbouring countries, and I was asked to assist, which eventually led to my next role as Export Manager. I was part of the team that set up businesses in Namibia, Botswana, Mauritius, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. I have always been a discoverer at heart and the opportunity to go into unworked areas and develop a business from scratch was exhilarating. I learned a lot about the fact that exceptional results rely on making sure that you have the right people onboard.

We soon realized that to succeed in Africa, we needed a bigger portfolio of products that suited the specificity of the market, and three years after starting as Export Manager, I was offered the opportunity of License and Business Development (L&BD). Again, this was a very exciting time for me and offered many learning and development opportunities. I was meeting all the GMs from other multinational companies in South Africa, to see if there were products in their portfolio that would fit perfectly into the Merck offering. I travelled to Merck India and Merck Pakistan to look for products that we could register and bring into Africa. That was also the time when we started registering ‘second brands’ of our originator products, to have an alternative to offer between the originator and the generic. So, I was also part of the team that brought ‘clones’ of our own products to the market, interesting times indeed. Business Development is however the type of position where you follow a lot of leads that takes a lot of work, tons of business cases and scenarios, and often it leads to nothing, usually when the case does not make financial sense or there is a breakdown in negotiations etc.

The learning about formulating business cases, understanding P&Ls and appreciating the Net Present Value of projects was extremely important and significant to me. I felt that L&BD was quite a lonely position, and I have an affinity for people.

Three years later I was promoted to National Sales Manager. In this role I was much closer to people and managing the sales teams of South Africa as well as the Southern neighbouring countries. Through this I learned more about achieving results through other people, rather than trying to do it all by yourself. It gave me ample opportunities to empower and develop people, as previously mentioned, which provides me with a lot of energy. It was during this time that the Intercontinental (ITC) region ran a development program called the GMMP, Growth Market Management Program by KOÇ University in Istanbul. I was grateful to be selected to attend and I got exposure to regional managers, colleagues as well as great education. The GMMP culminated in participants presenting a simulation scenario to the heads of ITC and Europe regions. This was an amazing learning experience. While busy with the development program, I was offered the ad interim General Manager role in Kenya for the East Africa region.

I remember that I arrived in Nairobi on the day that a General Internal Audit started, so the learning started immediately. It was wonderful to interact with even more different cultures and languages, and again I realized that even though we often seem completely different, with a mutual objectives we can unite together as a team and as people to deliver the objectives that we believe in. The six months I spent as ad interim General Manager was rewarding, although the time spent away from my family was challenging. This did however give me the time to discuss with my family, that should an opportunity abroad arise, we all go together or not at all.

My guidance to anybody that considers career advancement and are offered development opportunities is to openly discuss this with your family well in advance, since it often happens unexpectantly and quickly. This was the case with me when early in 2016, the Director entered my office and asked if I knew where Romania was. Soon I was on a plane to Bucharest for an interview for the General Manager position for Merck Romania and I was offered the position in April 2016. The bureaucratic process of getting a 3rd National, South African, registered and moved to Romania took a few months and I physically started my role in July 2016. Again, it was a great learning curve, different laws, people, cultures, language. But the team was focussed on performance and quickly we found that mutual goal that allowed us to pull together and function as One Team. My advice to anybody that goes through the immigration process is to make sure that you have a team of experts at your side, since there is always something else that needs to be provided, apostilled, legalised, etc.

I experienced that the move from one continent to another is harder on the family members, since as an employee you are immediately surrounded by colleagues that speak English and have a common goal. As soon as my daughter went to school, she found friends and life was easier for her to adapt. It is critical to ensure that your wife and children settle in well, take time to assist them and support them. The saying “Happy wife – happy life” definitely applies when completely uprooting your family and moving continents, cultures and languages.

My initial focus area in Romania was to take back our general medicine portfolio from the agents that had been handling it for the past 25 years. We had to develop everything, starting with getting internal approvals for business cases, searching for managers that would lead the team, searching for representatives, training the representatives, getting marketing materials in place, making sure that we actually had stock to sell, setting up contracts with wholesalers etc. It felt that all the previous roles that I had covered in Merck has magically aligned to make it possible to deliver this challenging but very rewarding task. The team not only delivered, but they almost doubled the sales of an existing business in the first year that Merck managed it. It really felt invigorating to be part of that team, and I realized that the way to be great is to surround yourself with great people and then allow them to develop.

I was in Romania for 4 years when an opportunity opened to in Croatia and Slovenia and I have been in this role since May 2020. What an experience to manage two countries and businesses through this COVID-19 period. We have so much learning about finding new ways of doing things, working remotely and fully trusting employees that they will deliver, irrespective if they are working from home or the office. The move this time was much easier for all members of the family, maybe because it was the second time around but especially because Merck provided a professional relocation company to assist with everything, from finding an apartment, handling the move and doing all the paperwork.

The major career benefit I find in moving between countries and continents is to realize that diversity really does provide one with more options and that leads to better results at the end of the day. Things are not necessarily “better or worse” in one country or the other, but merely “different”. The fact that after international exposure one has additional experience and hopefully additional options to bring better understanding. I am looking forward with expectation to my future years and what else I can learn and contribute towards this dedicated Merck team that I am apart of.

About the author

Schalk Opperman

Schalk Opperman

Merck Group, Managing Director & General Manager Croatia & Slovenia

Schalk Opperman, currently General Manager and Managing Director at Merck d.o.o. Croatia and Slovenia. He started his working career as a teacher of natural sciences before moving to Merck as a representative. He has been working at Merck for the past 20 years and whilst starting his career in South Africa, has had exposure to several African countries such as Namibia, Botswana, Mauritius, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in various roles and positions, as Training manager, Export manager, Licencing and Business development, National Sales manager and eventually General Manager. From South Africa he was posted to Eastern Europe and spent 4 years as General Manager of Merck Romania where he stayed in Bucharest. Recently he was promoted to manage two countries in Croatia and Slovenia, being based in Zagreb. Schalk has a wife and 15-year-old daughter that has made the journey through different continents with him. Adjusting to different languages and cultures are both exhilarating and challenging, but in the end very rewarding on personal and professional level.

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