Alumni John Young

Course studied: Master of Business Administration (MBA)

Position at time of writing: Special Advisor to the CEO, Pfizer Inc.; Former Group President, Chief Business Officer. 

Interesting fact: Became a New York Giants fan while working in the Immunology Lab at Strathclyde - courtesy of my bench partner who was a Washington fan. The Giants beat the Denver Broncos 39-20 in the Super Bowl in Jan 1987.

Tell us about your background?

I was born in rural Dumfriesshire, attended a small village Primary School of around 30 pupils, and then Secondary School at Lockerbie Academy. I was always drawn to the sciences, and was accepted to study Biology at Glasgow University. My father became ill and died during my second year and I missed a lot of time travelling back to Dumfries to visit him in hospital and consequently had to repeat a year. I was fortunate to meet my future wife, Anne, while studying at Glasgow.

After Graduation, I secured a role on a research course in Professor Bill Stimson’s Immunology Lab at Strathclyde. While the year showed me that being a bench scientist was not my future calling, I loved the excitement of the still relatively new and developing subject of Immunology and the foundational knowledge I gained in that year proved very helpful to me in in my latter roles at Pfizer, working very closely with Dr Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s head of R&D and Chairing our Research Portfolio Committee deciding which research programs to progress and which to halt.

I joined Pfizer as a Trainee in 1987 straight from my Immunology Lab. In 1991, a year after starting my first management role, I decided to do an MBA and applied to study part-time at Strathclyde Business School, completing my MBA in 1994, just after the birth of our first child.

A couple of years later, we moved from Glasgow, first to the south of England as I had opportunities to develop into more senior commercial roles in the Pfizer UK organization (during which time we had two further children…twin daughters), then for three years to Australia where I ran Pfizer’s business in Australia/New Zealand. Following this, we returned to the UK where I was Pfizer UK Managing Director, and then Regional President for Europe, then in 2012 I was asked to move to the US to join Pfizer’s Executive Leadership team, leading first our Primary Care business, then Pfizer Essential Health which was a predominantly Emerging Market centred business, and latterly, Pfizer Innovative Health - our research based business which is still the core of Pfizer today.

My last role at Pfizer has been serving as Chief Business Officer, responsible for Strategy, business development, pricing/access/reimbursement, and Chairing our BD and Research Portfolio Committees.

In this role, I was privileged to have been able to play a role in the development of our Covid-19 vaccine and Anti-viral medicine, along with literally thousands of unsung heroes across the organization.

I will retire from Pfizer, after almost 35 years of service later in 2022.

Congratulations on your distinguished career at Pfizer. Can you give us an insight in to the challenges of recent years and sense of achievement following the successful development and delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine?

The biggest challenge for any organization – especially one which is 170 years old – is firstly what businesses do you want to be in, and secondly, how do you “win” in those businesses. On the first question, since 2019, Pfizer has refocused to become a more innovative, science driven company, informed by our purpose; Breakthroughs That Change Patients' Lives. Strategically this means the separation of great businesses including our Consumer Health business to form a JV with GSK and our Upjohn business which combined with Mylan to form Viatris. This shrank the core of the company but made us much more focused on scientific innovation. In my role as Chief Business Officer, I helped develop the strategy for the company as well as oversee its execution. Importantly, having made these moves, we then focused on strengthening the innovative science in each of our core therapeutic areas by accelerating the most promising internal programs and developing new external partnerships in others. This included Pfizer’s partnership with BioNTech to develop an mRNA vaccine for seasonal Flu, from which we applied learnings to develop our COVID-19 vaccine, COMIRNITY™ in less than 9 months.

In summary my key learnings are: Be ruthlessly honest about where you have world-leading scientific capability and where you don’t, and build around the areas where you do. Secondly, be bold in seeking out breakthrough science that aligns with your purpose.

You studied your MBA at Strathclyde – how did this support your subsequent career path?

My MBA gave me great experience in Finance and Accounting which was exceptionally valuable in running a big profit & loss and making portfolio valuation decisions. The Marketing modules were incredibly helpful earlier in my career, and the HR modules gave me great food for thought about how to help create a culture where people feel genuinely valued and can learn, grow, and achieve their potential – something that has always been extremely important to me.

What one piece of advice would you give to current students?

Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. While all my career to date has been spent with one company, on many occasions I have had choices to make with my wife and family about taking new roles I maybe didn’t feel ready for, or taking an assignment away from the safety and comfort of home in another country. I have always learned and grown in ways I would never have done if I had stayed “comfortable”.

Any final points or words of wisdom?

We all perform best when we do something we are passionate about – in my case, seeking to apply innovative science that can make a real difference to human disease. It is never too early to really ask yourself “what I am I genuinely passionate about” and then set about following your passion!