Working Hard to ‘Win’ With Hungary


Matt Zeller (left) and Robin Marshall.

Photo by Marianna Sárközy / BBJ

Matt Zeller, the country president for Novartis Hungary and the Europe Central Cluster, was a shortlisted nominee for the Expat CEO of the Year award. We asked him about that and the plans for the company here.

BBJ: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Expat CEO of the Year award. What are your recollections from the evening?

Matt Zeller: What an amazing evening! The food was wonderful, the setting was elegant, people were kind and gracious. It was fun to spend the evening reconnecting with friends and starting new relationships with people who share similar passions. You could feel a tangible excitement throughout the evening that, even though there are challenges in Hungary, professionals across various sectors and companies are excited and optimistic about the future.

BBJ: What do you think the fact that you were shortlisted means to your team?

MZ: Just being shortlisted meant a great deal to me, to my family, to Novartis, and, I hope to the health sector in general. My family and I took a risk coming to Budapest, and this recognition is one symbol that the risk was worth it: that my three years here have made a positive impact on patients. Hungary is not an easy market to work in, but during my years here, I’ve met so many people who are passionate about the same goal: improving the health and lives of Hungarians. Change is possible. If we work together, I remain optimistic about the future because, in the end, nothing is more important than our health, and Hungarians need our help. I hope that my being shortlisted means that the community sees this aim as the right one, and hopefully, while I’m here, I’ve helped Hungary to make positive steps in that direction.

BBJ:  You worked for the Boston Consulting Group before joining Novartis eight and a half years ago. How do you compare and contrast the role of a consultant with that of a company insider?

MZ: Working as a consultant early in my career was incredibly valuable because of the breadth of experience I was able to gain in a condensed period. I would have never been able to replicate the complexities of experience, responsibilities, and roles while working within a company. When rotating to work with a new company, region, challenge, and team every two to three months, I was constantly learning and seeing companies and problems from new angles. The pace of delivery and learning was intense and worthwhile, but after a few years, I realized I was missing seeing the actual execution of my proposed strategies and having the continuity and ability to build something for the longer term.

BBJ: What are Novartis Hungary’s plans for the remainder of 2023 and the medium term?

MZ: From a Novartis perspective, we are mostly focused on bringing our breakthrough innovations to the Hungarian market and on helping make sure those medications are not only available but that they reach patients with unmet medical needs. From a broader sector perspective, a significant focus this year is making sure that the many medications that are waiting for national reimbursement can secure access in 2023. I know the economic and political pressure make that difficult, but this has been a key focus of my work since I got here, and I hope the “unlock” will happen in 2023. I fully believe that investments in the latest therapies will help keep the Hungarian population active and working and position the country for long-term success.

BBJ: You briefly had a career as a professional baseball player before a career-ending ankle injury cut it short. Did you transfer a sports mentality to your business career, and if so, how is this manifested?

MZ: Two outlooks that have translated to my business career the most are: the joy of competing, and the rewarding feelings of being a part of a great team. It takes dedication, commitment, and hard work to achieve results at the highest level, both in sports and in business. I experience such joyful and prideful moments at seeing those efforts result in “wins.” Only now, when I “win,” it’s a win for my colleagues, and it’s a “win” for patients with unmet needs. There’s still a part of me that works hard to learn and improve and be the best version of myself for my career but also for my teams. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you have the best products, best equipment, or best office; it’s who you work with every day and the impacts you have on one another.

BBJ: Finally, do you have a word for our Expat CEO 2023 winner, Veronika Spanarova of Citi, and the other shortlisted nominee, Andreas Szakácsi, of Claas Hungária?

MZ: It was an honor to be nominated alongside Mrs. Spanarova and Mr. Szakácsi, and it was a pleasure to spend the evening with them both. I wish them nothing but success in their fields and collectively to elevate the Hungarian market.

Regional R&D Center for Budapest

Novartis is planning to set up a new R&D center in Budapest, which will coordinate clinical research in a dozen countries around the globe. The Swiss company, which develops, manufactures, and distributes innovative medicines, has been a major player in Hungarian clinical research for decades and is one of the country’s largest investors. “Innovation is key to building sustainable healthcare systems in Europe. With this in mind, it is a particularly exciting opportunity for us to place greater emphasis on clinical trials in Hungary as part of our efforts to improve patient access to advanced therapies," Haseeb Ahmad, president of Novartis Europe, said. "This investment has been made possible by the Hungarian government’s ambition to make the country a leader in innovation in Europe. We look forward to continuing our partnership with Hungary and working with the country’s top researchers,” he added.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of May 19, 2023.

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