Insightful Career Choice Vol. 53 No. 10 Recognizing the potential, Wyeth’s new head of human resources leads corporate change.


By Oct 1, 2008

When Denise Peppard was studying for her master’s degree in business administration at the University of Michigan more than 20 years ago, she decided to pursue a career in human resource management. Professors, colleagues and even family members were dismayed by her career choice. One told her that “no self-respecting person chooses to go into HR.”

“The typical response was ‘You don’t want to do that, you really should go into finance,’ ” she says with a slight chuckle. “But I saw an incredible opportunity for a businessperson to be hugely successful in the HR function.”

Peppard realized that potential when she became senior vice president of HR for Wyeth last January. Human resources “is a critical business function,” she says. “I saw an incredible need, I saw a business value and I care about people, so I know that I made the right choice.”

Peppard’s business skills served her well, and she was recognized as a rising star when she began working for Wyeth in 1999 as vice president of human resources for North America pharmaceutical sales and marketing.

“Denise has provided outstanding leadership to Wyeth’s pharmaceutical organization and the company’s HR function,” says Bernard Poussot, chairman and chief executive officer for Wyeth, with headquarters in Madison, N.J. “She focused her efforts on facilitating positive change in our pharmaceutical business and has redefined the role of human resources through an increased business orientation.”

Peppard praises Poussot’s leadership, calling him a great mentor who empowers her as a member of the senior leadership team. The CEO keeps a close watch on how Wyeth’s HR function operates, and that has made her a better executive, she adds.

According to Peppard, Poussot’s leadership has been crucial in focusing the direction of her career—and Wyeth’s human resources function.

Productivity Metrics

“HR people have a tough time quantifying what we do. So, one of the issues we have faced has to do with a technology change and implementing a new HR information system. So, the question has been how do we measure the effect of this new system?” Peppard asks. “Bernard has pushed me on this and has made me quantify the results by realizing that this system” affects time and productivity of all managers, not just the HR function.

The system clearly improves manager productivity, according to Peppard, because managers spend less time on administration and have more time to respond and make business decisions.

“By forcing us to look at this as a management productivity issue, we now have the company’s commercial organization, finance, HR and IS [information systems] all working together on this justification,” says Peppard. “It is no longer just an HR issue; it’s become a business issue.”

Change Manager

Corporate and cultural change at Wyeth has served as Peppard’s focal point. She began her present job in the midst of a large-scale corporate restructuring program called Project Impact. Peppard began implementing the project while serving as the head of HR for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals—the largest division, employing approximately 92 percent of Wyeth’s nearly 50,000 employees worldwide.

Denise Peppard

Education: 1984, master’s of business administration; 1979, bachelor’s degree in business administration, both from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Current job: 2008, senior vice president, human resources, Wyeth, Madison, N.J.

Career: 2007-08, vice president, corporate human resources, Wyeth, Madison, N.J.; 2001-07, senior vice president, human resources, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Madison, N.J.; 2000-01, vice president, human resources, North America headquarters and human resources shared services, Wyeth; 1999-2000, vice president, human resources, North America pharmaceutical sales and marketing, Wyeth; 1997-99, vice president, management and organizational development, Liberty Financial Co., Boston; 1992-97, vice president, human resources, CytoTherapeutics Inc., Lincoln, R.I.; 1990-92, senior manager, organizational development and training, Parke-Davis, Ann Arbor, Mich.; 1984-90, manager, management and organizational development, Data General, Westborough, Mass.

Personal: Age 51; married to husband, Joseph; two children. Diversions: Reading, gardening, biking. Connections:; (973) 660-5000.

“The change we’re experiencing is throughout the pharma industry right now. You can look at it as an opportunity,” Peppard says, “because it’s good change. It’s the kind of change that we should be doing and will ultimately make Wyeth a better company.”

Project Impact goals include:

  • Streamlining Wyeth’s operations.
  • Exploring opportunities for alliances for research and development.
  • Reducing production costs.

One of the first steps in implementing this restructuring plan was a series of jobs cuts. Just as Peppard began her new job, Wyeth officials announced that the company would reduce its workforce by 10 percent during the next five years. In March, the company laid off 1,200 sales representatives in a cost-cutting move. The job cuts came after Wyeth’s patent expired on its popular Protonix acid-relief medication and the company began facing stiffer competition from manufacturers of generic drugs.

Yet Project Impact appears to meet the intended short-term result: Compared with 2007, Wyeth’s revenue and earnings have grown approximately 6 percent in 2008. The company reported revenue of $11.65 billion for the first six months of 2008.

“If there’s one thing to regret in this change process, [it’s] that we began with a short-term cost reduction associated with Protonix production and the sales force,” says Peppard. “I don’t think everyone in the company has quite grasped that this effort is not just about job reductions and that it is actually about changing the way we work.”

For examples, Peppard points to ideas such as using fewer manufacturing facilities and possibly using more third-party suppliers. Research and development partnerships with other pharmaceutical companies represent other avenues for Wyeth leaders to ponder.

“We really have to restructure the way the people are working, and that’s a massive, massive change,” Peppard says during an interview at Wyeth’s headquarters. It sits in an atypical office complex called Giralda Farms. The pastoral setting among green rolling hills makes one realize how New Jersey earned its nickname, “The Garden State.”

Peppard sees the changes within Wyeth and the pharmaceutical industry as the natural response to shifts in the global market. In the past year and for the first time ever, Wyeth’s international sales surpassed the company’s U.S. sales. Nearly half of Wyeth’s employees now work outside the United States.

As pharmaceutical companies evolve, “there’s no crisis here. These are decisions that will make this company better.”

Still, the workforce reductions ultimately impact individuals, and Peppard admits that making decisions that affect the livelihoods of people proves to be the toughest part of her job.

“These are not decisions that are taken lightly,” Peppard says. Wyeth leaders “take great care with decisions to cut jobs and make sure that each affected individual is treated with care and dignity. Even though it’s a business decision, ultimately it comes down to a personal level, and that’s the really tough part.”

Peppard says her role in the process can make Wyeth a better and stronger company and can ensure that the company takes care of its workforce. People who work for other companies tell her “they want to come to work here because Wyeth has a strong reputation for its HR practices and as a company that cares.” And in a competitive market for talent, that’s a wonderful advantage to have. It’s an advantage that clearly shows the impact and added value human resources provide to an organization—and should prove that graduate student Peppard made an insightful career choice.

The author is senior writer for HR Magazine.


Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network

Join Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect