Susanne Schaffert’s over 20-year stint at Novartis culminated with her presidency of the Swiss giant’s global oncology division, but when the company underwent a major restructure in 2022, she found herself out of a job.  Now, after joining the boards of several biotechs, including Galapagos, Schaffert returns to big pharma, joining the Merck Group’s Board of Partners.


I was always one of very few senior women–and only men sat on the executive boards

Susanne Schaffert


A Trailblazing Leader

Winner of the 2014 “Women Worth Watching” award, selected by Fortune as one of 2020’s most powerful women internationally and named in 2021 among the “Fiercest Women in Life Sciences” by Fierce Pharma, Schaffert has a long track record as a trailblazing leader in the pharma industry. A German national with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, she took on a career in pharmaceuticals “to have a bigger impact,” joining Novartis in 1995.

After gaining insights as a field representative, her career in management began when she became Head of Oncology for Novartis Germany, where she increased sales by more than 100 percent. She went on to lead the area for Northern and Central Europe, was instrumental in the Novartis-GSK Oncology integration and also served on the Board of Directors of the two companies’ joint venture until early 2018.

An interesting shift in Schaffert’s career came when she became Head of Novartis’ Investor Relations for three years, after which she went back to Oncology as general manager of Europe.  And after an experience as president of Novartis-owned Advanced Accelerator Applications (AAA), she became president of the Swiss big pharma’s global oncology business unit in 2019, leading no less than 10,000 associates across 85 countries with a portfolio of 25 drugs.

In her global leadership role Schaffert championed diversity, kicking off the Novartis second-generation Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association ambassador group.


Refocus and restructure

A turning point came for the executive in 2022 when Novartis announced that it would be undergoing a major restructuring. To centre the company more on innovation and increase efficiency, Novartis merged its pharmaceutical and oncology divisions into one Innovative Medicines business unit.

This structural transformation, which would soon lead to the spin-off of Sandoz, elbowed several top executives out of their positions, including Susanne Schaffert, who suddenly no longer had an oncology unit to lead.

Schaffert’s business expertise and experience brought her onto the boards of a number of biotechs, including Rubius Therapeutics, ARTBIO, and Galapagos, as well as aseptic filling and packaging firm Vetter Pharma and Incyte, led by fellow Novartis Oncology alumni Hervé Hoppenot.

Most executive boards are dominated by men, Schaffert was the exception to this rule. “I was always one of very few senior women–and only men sat on the executive boards,” she said about her board member roles that stem back to her days at Novartis. “In this regard I was quite a pioneer.”


Back to Big Pharma

Back to big pharma, Schaffert joined the Merck Group’s Board of Partners when the company elected its new board last month. Led by CEO and Chair of the Executive Board Belén Garijo, Merck has made major strides in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) and in gender parity, and with 38 percent of women in its leadership team in 2022.

After a transitional 2023 when a decline in the firm’s semiconductor materials market impacted its electronics business and the falling demand for COVID-19-related products affected its life sciences division, the company aims to bounce back in 2024. “We are expecting to leave the transition year 2023 behind, returning to growth in 2024,” CEO Belen Garijo.

Schaffert hopes to support this growth. “I am very excited to join Merck Group’s Board of Partners,” she asserted in a LinkedIn post. “I am looking forward to contributing my experience and expertise to the future success of this company.”


Photo Source: Vetter Pharma