In her 17 years working at Merck, Moushmi Culver has pivoted between procurement, manufacturing and strategy roles at one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.
Interviewee: MOUSHMI CULVER – ASSOCIATE VICE PRESIDENT, R&D PROCUREMENT, MERCK
Until recently the leader of Merck’s Corporate Strategy Office for two years, she is now responsible for running a team of close to 70 professionals handling sourcing and procurement globally across Merck Research Laboratories, with an annual spend of approximately $2.4 billion.
Culverenjoys being in a role with such a combination of strategy and operational responsibility. “That’s the reason I came back to procurement,” she says. “First, to get closer to the R&D side of the business, because that’s where Merck’s core business is, and second, because of the type of understanding you get from being in a procurement role. I’m a person who likes a job with a combination of strategy and operations.”
Culver joined Merck’s Manufacturing Leadership Development Program, focused on manufacturing and business, in 2000, after completing a chemical engineering degree. She took on a procurement role in 2003, and then spent nearly a decade moving through global procurement, supporting multiple divisions across Merck and leading global teams supporting Indirect Services and R&D categories. She completed an MBA in 2008, while pregnant with the first of her two sons.
In 2013, she took a change in career path, and was appointed Executive Director of Strategic Business Consulting, and Chief of Staff for the Merck Manufacturing Division, where she supported the President of the manufacturing business, and the leadership team.
She says: “That was a great role – supporting many strategic decisions across the division, visiting all our manufacturing sites worldwide, and getting exposure to senior management.”
Then she moved into a role managing the Corporate Strategy Office: “I had the opportunity to work with the senior executive team to develop a long-term enterprise-level strategy, and present to the Board of Directors. We designed a strategy that is focused on R&D innovation,” says Culver. “Then I moved into my current role, where I’m close to R&D, and my group supports procurement and outsourcing activities for all of Merck Research Labs globally.”
Cutting through all her job titles – in corporate strategy, procurement and manufacturing – has been a desire to learn about different parts of the company, and build a broad strategic view. Increasingly, she sees procurement as a great function with opportunity: “The role of procurement has certainly changed,” she says. “It is now about impacting and executing the business strategy, rather than supporting it. We can help the business leverage external supplier partners that help with operational efficiency and innovation. I see that role as a valued business partner becoming more prevalent.”
Culver reports to Merck’s Chief Procurement Officer, Quentin Roach, and says: “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more CPOs moving into chief executive positions given the growing importance of procurement to the business. If you look at some of the newer CEOs, like Mary Barra at General Motors Company, they are progressing out of purchasing and supply chain to lead companies because procurement increasingly touches every part of our businesses.”
In her current role, Culver says: “The biggest challenge is ensuring we have high-quality supplier partners, because those suppliers are doing work representing Merck, and we need to make sure we select the right partners and then work with the business to manage those relationships.”
She adds, “The thing that keeps me awake at night is the sheer volume of work in our R&D organisation right now. We have a record number of clinical trials, and my group supports the procurement needs for all of them. We need to make sure we provide the right level of support and service levels to ensure there is no disruption to the continuous process of trials and innovation.”
Her role includes purchasing both goods and services from an ever-expanding network of third parties, and she says the key things she looks for from suppliers are assurance of supply, quality, service, cost, compliance and ability to innovate. The business priorities of a particular remit will define which of those is the most important in any given situation.
Managing third-party risk is a boardroom issue, she says: “The reputational risk to Merck of our suppliers following our overall business practices and ethics is something the Board reviews. The third-party risk piece has been a really important focus for us – making sure we have the right suppliers, because we are using more external partners.”
The changing role of procurement also creates challenges when it comes to recruitment. Culver talks about working closely with the business to determine priorities, then representing Merck externally during a robust evaluation of potential suppliers, and developing a deep understanding of the R&D strategy. Her team must also work closely with the finance department, to keep a keen eye on cost savings.
Culver says: “In the past, procurement professionals needed financial knowledge, process knowledge, and project management skills. Today you still need all of those, but you also need business acumen – an understanding of the industry and how the company works, and strong relationships within the business.”
She adds: “We teach all of our staff those values of commercial acumen, and the need to understand the broader requirements of the business. But it’s challenging when I interview for new recruits, because you have to have a combination of technical skills, a solid foundation in science, and the business acumen.”
In practice, her team’s recruitment strategy includes bringing on people from research laboratories that have strong technical knowledge, and teaching them about procurement, and bringing external people who have the procurement and business expertise. Another focus is hiring strong leaders with strong business credentials who have the ability to communicate well with internal stakeholders.
Culver says: “Specifically in the clinical trials procurement area it is very hard to find people with the right combination of skills. Often you have traditional procurement professionals, and they are not always willing to think differently about moving procurement from a support function to a trusted strategic partner. The skillset we need is changing.”
She commits her time to speaking internally and externally about the opportunities and her career experiences, participating internally at events for the Merck’s Women’s Network, Merck Millennials Network and the company’s Asia Pacific Association, as well as externally at R&D procurement industry events.
“I’m a very high-energy, passionate person who is motivated by the Merck Mission,” she says, “and I enjoy leading my team, motivating them, and keeping them engaged. I really think procurement teams have the ability to help companies move in the right strategic direction.”
She concludes, “People throughout my career have described my energy and commitment to what I do as contagious, and I’m really pleased to hear that I can have that positive impact on people I work with every day.