Moving to Asia to MSD’s largest facility

Wild Geese: John Smith, associate vice-president of operations at MSD Singapore

Singapore has an enviable record when it comes to doing business. It has ranked first in countless surveys over the years for the openness of its economy. However, while many other nations look on with admiration at the success the country has achieved, it in turn is more than a little impressed by the way Ireland has become one of the leading locations for the pharma industry.

That's according to John Smith from Cavan, who now lives and works on the island state where he leads one of global healthcare group MSD's biggest manufacturing sites.

Having been with the company in Ireland since 1989 in a number of roles, he is a confirmed lifer and admits to knowing the firm inside out.

Nevertheless, he is willing to admit that despite having climbed the ranks over the years, moving abroad to work in Singapore was a whole other ball game.


“I had opportunities to work abroad with MSD, usually for periods of between one and four months at a time, but never for an extended period until heading out to Singapore in August 2013. With the roles I’d had at the company and its facilities in Ireland considered of major importance, there was plenty of travel overseas, but nothing like what I experienced in undertaking this move,” he says.

Smith started his MSD career at its Ballydine site in Co Tipperary, securing a graduate position as a technical operations engineer before his final exams.

From there, he held a number of positions and worked his way up so that in 2006, when a new $115 million research and development and manufacturing facility was announced for Ballydine, he was given responsibility for establishing the site and bringing a new team on board.

Following the 2009 $41 billion global merger between Merck and Schering Plough, Smith was appointed executive director of operations for the company's newly merged facility in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, where he managed about 300 people.

However, looking for a new challenge, Smith took the opportunity to relocate to Singapore with his wife and four young children, despite not knowing an awful lot about the country.

“It was a really big change for us because we didn’t know much about Singapore and had never visited there, but the move has gone really well, particularly from a personal point of view. Our children have all settled into their schools very quickly and there are quite a lot of other families here from elsewhere who have been very open and eager to make friends so it’s all gone smoothly.

“From a professional point of view,” he adds, “it has been very exciting. It’s a much larger operation here with a bigger variety of activities than I was used to in Ireland, so it’s been a great challenge and very rewarding so far.”

MSD’s Singaporean facility is the largest in the company’s global network by sales, producing 7 per cent of the group’s top 10 selling products, each one generating more than €1 billion in revenue each year.

As site lead, Smith is responsible for a workforce of about 800 people who together manufacture a wide range of drug products, sterile equipment, medical devices and active pharmaceutical ingredients.

“There are plenty of differences between doing business in Singapore and Ireland. In some ways it’s an easy country to move into because it is set up in such a way that it is very welcoming and has a stable working environment and standard business processes.

“One of the biggest differences is in terms of cultural norms. You have to think differently about how you interact with people because in Ireland it is very unicultural, whereas here I’m dealing with people from multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds, so you have to consider how you interact with others more than you might need to at home to ensure you can get your message across well.”

Smith says there is a lot of respect and admiration for Irish people in Singapore and that locals are impressed with this country’s ability to attract investment.

“My experience is that people are more welcoming when they hear that you’re from Ireland, both on a personal level and professionally, because within the pharma sector in particular, the country is well known.

“Ireland and Singapore are fierce rivals in terms of competing for foreign direct investment and we’re definitely seen by them as their biggest competition in the pharma space.

“They are keen to learn from us because the pharma industry in Ireland is considerably more mature than it is here and they are interested in knowing how we’ve achieved so much.”

While he is not sure how long the family will stay out in Singapore, Smith is expecting to stay for a few years more at the least. Where he goes after that is up in the air, although he is willing to consider a further stint overseas. Now though, he is happy to learn as much as he can from the place he currently calls home.

“The ability to live and work in Asia has been fantastic and we’ve all loved having the opportunity to travel a lot. What has surprised me most about Singapore is both how small it is and yet how successful.

“We often talk about how Ireland punches above its weight, but here is a country that’s considerably smaller and with a similar-sized population, but which is constrained by resources. It’s amazing to see what it has accomplished.”