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Merck’s Fernandez leads a blockbusting team

Arecibo plant produces top selling pharmaceuticals, only woman manager among 33 plants worldwide

by Lida Estela Ruano

November 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Daneris FernandezDaneris Fernandez, plant manager of Merck, Sharp & Dohme Quimica-Arecibo, is the only woman to hold that title among Merck’s 33 manufacturing plants and 15,000 employees worldwide.

And she heads the plant that produces three of Merck’s blockbuster drugs with annual sales of $5 billion and another drug for a Merck subsidiary, Astra, which earns $7 billion annually. The Arecibo plant supplies 100% of the U.S. market with two of the drugs, 95% with a third product and 60% for the Astra product. Two of the drugs are also supplied to the international market.

The popular Merck products produced in Arecibo are Viox, for acute pain, with annual sales of $2 billion, Zocor, to control cholesterol, which sells $2 billion a year, and Fosamax, for osteoporosis patients, at $1 billion in annual sales. Prilosec, for the treatment of gastric ulcers, enjoys annual sales of $7 billion, and 60% of the stateside supply comes from Arecibo, while it is manufactured for the international market as well. Arecibo-manufactured Viox is also sold internationally while 5% of Zocor is produced in the states. Other drugs made in Arecibo which supply 100% of the U.S. mainland market are Vasotec, for hypertension, Proscar, for prostate enlargement, and Propecia, for male baldness.

The chemical engineer graduate of the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez campus is a believer "that the sky’s the limit. I don’t take no for an answer, I don’t recognize barriers," she explained. Neither does she see any difference between a man and a woman in terms of intellect oR professional capabilities. When choosing staff, she judges solely on the person’s qualifications and does not give any consideration to whether it should be a man or a woman. Of the nine top staffers who report to her, four are women.

Fernandez has been plant manager of the 700-worker Arecibo plant for a year. Prior to that she was plant manager of the 1,100-employee Barceloneta plant. Her rise to the top job (Merck does not use the title general manager, so its highest position is plant manager) in 11 years working for Merck has been quick.

In her soft-spoken voice, the tall, green-eyed blonde Fernandez said normally plant managers stay in their positions anywhere from 5-to-10 years, "so they can see their job completed." In her case, she was relocated sooner to her current position allowing her to acquire broader knowledge of all manufacturing processes.

She said she is grateful to the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant for giving her the top management position to run the Barceloneta chemical plant (which also produces veterinary products), as well as the pharmaceutical plant in Arecibo. Both plants are large in terms of employees and very important for sales. The Barceloneta plant produces the basic, active materials that go into making drugs and so is highly regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Each plant presents its own challenges.

Her job as any local plant manager’s, would be made easier if every staff member understood the importance of remaining competitive. "Everyone, including the corporations, got used to having the 936 umbrella. [section 936 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, which offered hefty federal corporate income tax benefits, is being phased out and will end in 2006.] People really though it would never end." She explained that investors want a good return, which is why tax incentives such as 936 and 30A [which provides wage credit benefits and which the local government is lobbying the U.S. Congress to make permanent] are so important.

"The biggest challenge is to change the mentality from ‘we’ll do the best products they send them to us’ to ‘we must be the best each day so headquarters will send us new products’," she said. Fernandez, whose company is a local subsidiary of the U.S. parent company and therefore earns some tax credits via 936 while the rest is structured as a controlled foreign corporation, said one should view the possibility of obtaining Section 30A as frosting on a cake.

Another limitation she pinpointed is that Puerto Ricans find it difficult to work in a team, apparently because they have been taught since first grade to work individually. Fernandez is hopeful that more educational emphasis on team will help change that. She prides herself on developing her staff and assigning them where they will be most productive and happy. She also emphasizes that value-added performance of group will result in rewards, both financial and emotional, for everyone.

The excellence achieved through teamwork and motivation has resulted in two coveted chairman’s awards for Fernandez while at Barceloneta. In 1998 she won the best security performance and the environmental award. Although appreciative of the recognition, she said her biggest joy is when employees tell her they have met the goals. "They are so happy and proud and that’s the most important thing for me."

Fernandez and the other six neighboring plant managers are holding meetings with the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company (Pridco) to develop a five year infrastructure plan to address the needs of these plants. "We must help the government find alternatives. There is no five year infrastructure plan for the island but now the government will know what these seven plants need." The infrastructure plan to be ready by year’s end, will include everything from waste disposal to electricity and water. The Barceloneta plant produces 40% of its power through co-generation. "Infrastructure improvements will help us remain competitive."

For the mother of two, an 18-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter, meeting the demands of her job and her family requires a balance. Recognizing that of the 12 women who graduated with her, only half are practicing their profession while the rest have remained at home to raise a family. Fernandez said having an understanding husband is very important. Married to a fellow engineer, she confesses to being a workaholic, putting in eight to 10 hours every day. Weekends, however, are reserved for her family. "My staff helps me because when I leave I delegate full responsibility to them and they call me at home only if there is an emergency. This allows me to do homework with my daughter every night."

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