Intelligent Machines

Judy Lewent, SM '72

Capital-structure call symbolizes business savvy

Buried on page two of Judy Lewent’s CV is a line noting that as CFO of Merck, she implemented a capital structure designed to support long-term growth while steeling the company against risk.

One can learn a lot about Lewent by unpacking that reference.

The capital structure she pioneered was a conservative and, in hindsight, brilliant decision to finance Merck’s growth largely from internal cash flow rather than riskier external funding sources. In formulating the strategy, Lewent considered the risks already built into the pharmaceutical industry–the low probability of success in research endeavors, the market uncertainty, and the finite product life cycle–and concluded that inviting more risk would be foolish.

“Everything came full circle in making that decision,” she says. She drew on the principles she had learned at the Sloan School, which were welcomed by the scientific- and research-minded staff at Merck, and she sought advice from her MIT mentors, Nobel laureates Bob Merton, PhD ‘70, and Myron Scholes.

Lewent’s judiciousness and confidence spring from her upbringing, she says. Women, treated as equals in her family, expected to receive rigorous educations. Growing up in Manhattan reinforced her family’s principles, imbuing her with a sense of independence and individualism. She attended the all-girls Hunter College High School, which she says “fostered and supported women in their self-actualization.”

After high school, Lewent attended Goucher College and then went immediately on to Sloan. She worked at four companies before finally settling on Merck in 1980, and she remained there for nearly 28 years.

“The vital role of research and development for the betterment of global health is one of the most noble causes,” says Lewent. “To be anywhere near it is very fulfilling.”

Her Merck positions included director of acquisitions and capital analysis, senior vice president, and ultimately, executive vice president and chief financial officer. She retired in 2007–or graduated, as she prefers to put it–and since then has served in an advisory capacity for a number of established and startup biotech companies.

She and her husband, Mark Shapiro, a retired investment banker, split their time between Manhattan and suburban New Jersey.

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