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Pfizer CEO on cracking COVID: ‘Companies that stay true to their purpose perform far better’

March 8, 2022, 10:52 AM UTC

Good morning.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla’s book Moonshot is out this morning, and it’s well worth reading for anyone running a large company. Bourla likes to talk about the power of science to solve problems, but the science behind Pfizer’s vaccine was developed by another company—BioNTech—and matched by a third—Moderna. What makes Moonshot a must-read is something else: how Bourla got his big, bureaucratic organization to rise to the challenge of the moment. Startups like BioNTech and Moderna are expected to be fast. Giant companies like Pfizer are not. Moonshot is the story of an unnatural act—making the elephant dance.

Anyone who has ever worked at a large company will easily spot points along the way where the effort could have bogged down in matrixed decision-making and standard-issue corporate risk avoidance. First among them was the decision to bet on mRNA technology, a risky and complicated option that involved partnering with an outside firm. Just getting the contract through legal would have eaten up a year at most companies—and, indeed, took nearly a year at Pfizer. But Bourla waived the rules and began work before the contract was completed. 

The need to store and transport the vaccine at extreme temperatures was another complexity that gave ample ammunition to internal naysayers. Making vast investments in manufacturing and distribution before the vaccine was proven undoubtedly caused fits for Finance. Yet Pfizer charged ahead. “Time is life,” Bourla told his team. “If we miss our budget for a year, no one will remember it the year after. If we miss the opportunity to do something for the world now, we will all remember it forever.” 

He writes:

“In all businesses, companies that stay true to their purpose perform far better than those that do not. When you align around purpose, you are sending very clear guidance to an organization with multiple layers. That clarity brings everyone much closer to what needs to be done and improves productivity. Now, take a situation like ours, where our purpose is to save lives—it’s a noble one. That adds passion that people rally around. This culture that we created gave us the appropriate mindset and allowed Pfizer to move with the agility and speed of a small biotech and bring to the world a breakthrough vaccine that is dramatically changing the lives of so many.”

The question for every executive who reads this book is whether Moonshot is an aberration, made possible by the unique circumstances of the moment, or holds lessons for other challenges—like tackling cancer or climate change. What’s needed in each case is not just a revolution in science and technology, but a revolution in management and culture. Bourla has shown the way; others should follow.

Also out this morning is American Express CEO Stephen Squeri’s annual letter. I saw an early copy, and found it notable for what it says about the company’s approach to the future of work—or what Squeri calls “Amex Flex.” 

He writes: “The majority of our colleagues in the U.S. have chosen a hybrid schedule, which means they will come into the office about two days per week, and work virtually for the rest, while more than 40% have opted to be fully virtual”—up from 20% before the pandemic. That’s a stark contrast to Squeri’s downtown Manhattan neighbor, Goldman Sachs, where CEO David Solomon has been outspoken about the importance of in-office work.

“David’s a good friend, but different businesses have different requirements,” Squeri told me last week. “I think this will work for us. For the last two years, arguably American Express has had its best run years…and no one has been in the office.”

You can read Squeri’s full letter here. More news below.

Alan Murray


Shutting off the gas

The energy markets are roiling again today after Russia on Monday threatened to halt the flow of gas to the European Union via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. That’s no small threat—roughly 40% of the EU’s gas comes from Russia, and any disruption risks sending inflation higher throughout the eurozone. On cue, natural gas prices hit a record-high overnight. The silver lining: Europe says it’s determined to wean itself off Russian gas imports by 80% this year. Here are four steps Europe could take to begin that process. Fortune

Wipe out!

2022 has been rough for tech bulls—to put it mildly. The tech-heavy Nasdaq fell 482 points yesterday, to close, officially, in bear territory. Earlier in the day, Germany’s DAX index spiraled into the land of the bears, too. Investors may get some relief today; U.S. futures are rebounding, following European stocks higher. Fortune

Moderna’s rich-poor divide

In 2020, the vaccine maker based in Cambridge, Mass., vowed never to enforce patent protections for its COVID-19 vaccine as long as there’s a global pandemic raging. Yesterday, it modified that position, saying it won’t play patent cop in the 92 lower-income countries that are part of the COVAX distribution program. For rich countries, however, it’s a different story. “I don’t understand why, once we’re in an endemic setting when there’s plenty of vaccine and there’s no issue to supply vaccines, why we should not get rewarded for the things we invented,” Moderna chief executive Stéphane Bancel said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. WSJ


Crypto brain drain

Wall Street investment pros, particularly those who missed out on the tech-boom a generation ago, are seeing a new reason for a big career change: crypto. The incredible volatility of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and the like are not swaying them. “It’s actually a career risk if I don’t move into the space,” one former FX research strategist tells Fortune’s Anne Sraders. Fortune

Work/life balance

“Our whole idea of balance is unrealistic, and no individual day or moment will ever truly be balanced,” writes Alyssa Jaffee, a partner at 7wire Ventures, in advising Fortune readers that women ought to rethink the work/life balance aspiration. Fortune

Could Russia really quit the internet?

Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media said on Monday there are no plans to disconnect the country from the global internet. But that hasn’t stopped digital experts to wonder whether some big moves are in the offing by the Putin government to set up a series of roadblocks to slow the free flow of information between Russia and the outside world. Fortune’s David Meyer explains what’s up. Fortune

Turning Red

Pixar, now 36 years young, will make studio history later this week with the release of Turning Red on streaming service Disney+. The film, about a Chinese-Canadian teen whose transition into adulthood involves morphing into a giant red panda—awkward!—is the first Pixar feature film to be solo-directed by a woman. The New York Times has a great story about Domee Shi, who started at Pixar in 2011 as an intern, and worked her way up to be the studio’s next hot film director. New York Times

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by Bernhard Warner.

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