So what are we up to now, Day Three of Greater Merck? The merger with Schering-Plough went through earlier this week, and you won't get any more numbers by searching the stock tickers for SGP.
I find that weird, since I started my career there in the late 1980s/early 1990s. But while I was there, it seemed like there were mergers and rumors of mergers every few weeks. That's no doubt a hindsight-enhanced picture I have, but it's safe to say that I heard about S-P merging (or being purchased by) every single major player in the business during my years there. And it didn't happen (not then, at any rate).
My favorite moment came in about 1992 when a colleague came to my office one afternoon saying "It's us and Upjohn. Announced after the close of business on Friday. All of CNS is going to Kalamazoo". I hardly even looked up, uttering a one-word reply that compared this news flash to bovine waste.
"Why do you say that?", he replied. "You don't think it could happen?" "Of course I thing it could happen", I said. "But I'll bet against any specific prediction of when and who. Got any money on you?" "Why don't you think this is the real thing?" he asked again, to which I replied "Because I don't think that any deal this size, set to be announced on Friday, could be so screwed up that you and I would know about it on Tuesday afternoon".
"Well, I kind of see your point there. . .", he began. And of course that particular deal never happened. But I'm sure that there were others that nearly did. That's one of the things that goes on in the background of this industry - there are a lot of tentative discussions and what-if ideas that get looked at briefly (or sometimes not so briefly) which people outside of upper management never hear about. This stuff generally starts to leak (if it does) once it gets closer to really happening, and for every one that happens, there are several that get thought about but never quite work.
Of course, I'm using "work" in the sense of "get completed", not in the sense of "works out in the long run to the benefit of everyone involved". I'm not convinced that many drug company mergers fall into that latter category at all, and that goes for the Merck/Schering-Plough one, too. There don't seem to be any dramatic announcements coming out of the deal so far, and that probably means that the changes (which are, and have to be, coming) will just be delayed while the company takes stock of what it now has, and what it now is.
But, as someone from another company was saying to me last night, the bigger you are, the harder it is to do that. It takes longer before you feel that there's enough information to make a good decision, which is probably why Pfizer's current rearrangements are taking so agonizingly long to make themselves clear. That same decision-making extends, I think, to drug discovery and development issues, which is one reason I don't like the whole mega-company idea to start with.
There's also the groupthink problem. Pfizer, for example, was able to convince itself that inhaled insulin was going to be a big winner, even as people outside the company wondered if that could be quite right. (And not only was it not a big seller, it was an unprecedented disaster). I don't believe that people get any smarter in large groups. Quite the contrary. All that "wisdom of crowds" stuff, as I understand it, is about consulting large numbers of individual thinkers, not getting them all into one room and having them agree on something. Especially if some of the people in the room can decide the salaries and promotions of the rest of the crowd.
I wish both the Merck people and the Schering-Plough people well, and the combined company good fortune, and that's not just because I find myself a stockholder of it. But I wish it hadn't come to this, and I wish it wouldn't keep coming to this, either.