This old house

It hardly seems possible, but there is a for-sale sign at Merck — or, at least, on the company’s Canadian headquarters. Here’s your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire the landmark million-square-foot complex, which, in the not-so-poetic words of the real estate listing, is “an outstanding asset strategically located along the Trans-Canada Highway, in the heart of the much sought after West Island sector of Montreal.”

It might be expected that someone would grow sentimental, contemplating the symbolism of the Merck complex, which opened in 1969 (Montreal, still in the afterglow of Terre des Hommes/Man and His World) and underwent a continuous series of expansions, right up until 2005 (North America, still in the aftershock of 9/11.) That makes two, or maybe three generations that looked upon 16711 Trans-Canada Highway, Kirkland, as a point of personal, or civic, or provincial, or national pride: the planned suburban centre where Merck’s predecessor, the Charles E. Frosst Company, relocated, away from their crowded original premises at 3571 rue Saint-Antoine, then known as Craig Street.

A Charles Frosst Dingbat, enduring beloved symbol of Merck's predecessor company

Sixteen-Thousand, Seven-Hundred and Eleven Trans-Canada Highway, the green-field site where therapies were invented that brought relief to people all over the world. The place where thousands came to work as recent university graduates, flirted across the spectrometers, pinned pictures of their children to cubicle walls, ate 7 a.m. breakfasts in the cafeteria, complained about their bosses, made lifelong friendships, stayed behind their desks during countless snowstorms, wrapped up late meetings at Le Manoir, slipped away to vote in elections and referenda, accepted condolences after burying their parents, raised funds for Centreaide, frequently found better jobs at other companies, but continued to take pride in having worked for Merck on Route Transcanadienne.

Through that period, 1969 to 2005, great Montreal personalities came and went — Trudeau, Lévesque, Drapeau; Gilles Villeneuve, Richler, Penfield, others. All were impermanent, along with the Olympics, the Seagram empire, this hotel, that bistro, the downtown department stores, a big concert, a great holiday, some little pub you heard about where a character named Auf der Maur drank. Everything came and went — except for 16711 Trans-Canada Highway, which each day attended to its own affairs, while, outside the facilities, man and his world thrashed around randomly.

But, too obviously, box-loads of nostalgia are not listed among the inventory of what the listing describes as “this exceptional industrial asset, situated on 53.8 acres, features approximately 300,000 s.f. of Class A and B office space, 414,000 s.f. Research, Pharmaceutical Research & Development, Pharmaceutical Manufacturing & Packaging Facilities and a Distribution Centre.” When you take stock of the bricks and mortar, you realize that real estate is a much more hard-hearted game than pharmaceuticals, and it has been years since the drug business stopped pretending to be tender.

Out on Pill Hill in the West Island, Merck had a next-door neighbor, also in the Life Sciences industry. The man in charge of the company across the parking lot had worked at Merck for a long time, and often found himself staring across the 1,248 parking spaces that separated the properties — that’s the actual count — into the windows of his former employer’s buildings. Once, toward the end of the year 2003, a visitor came into his corner office, and found him shaking his head. Gesturing across the way, he said, “Have you heard? They’ve cancelled the retirees’ annual Christmas party, as a cost-cutting move. Why would they do that? How much money will that save? The retirees spend the whole year looking forward to seeing the office again. The current employees look forward to seeing their old colleagues. Why would they cancel the Christmas party?”

The visitor cleared his throat, and mentally counted through all the available rationales. The first answer that came to mind was probably the correct one. The worldwide HQ, responding to Wall Street distress calls, put pressure on local management to make tough decisions and cut back on non-essential expenses. Symbolic decisions made under duress very often seem foolish in the next day’s light, and company management would surely not wish to be remembered for denying pensioners their annual cupcake and singalong. But the striking thing was the degree to which the boss of an unrelated company still seemed emotionally invested in that place across the parking lot.

It’s a natural impulse that people have, to stare past the hedges of the largest house in the neighborhood. Sixteen-Thousand, Seven-Hundred and Eleven Trans-Canada Highway was a constantly-expanding showplace, somewhere you would always spot construction cranes during periods when there were few to be seen in the rest of the island. Nurtured by the counter-cyclical economies of Big Pharma, the Merck complex became an insular city within an insular city.

But even the most focused manager eventually comes to learn what his neighbors already know: that all things change, that you can’t live on emblems, and that an impressive facade is not a sustainable measure of success. Perhaps the process of change begins when you ask, “Do we really need to throw a party for the retirees? I mean, we already pay for their pensions.” The next question might be, “Do we really need labs? Doesn’t Quintiles do that sort of thing?” And then someone might wonder, “Are there not places where we can cost-effectively outsource manufacturing?”

With that, you’ve arrived at the useful end of the integrated model that drove Big Pharma through most of the past century. What you’re left with, when you’ve concluded your investigations and analyses and made all the tough calls, is 53.8 acres worth of decommissioned real estate that someone is bound to refer to as a White Elephant, a term that Realtors do not intend as flattery. It’s a fact that other multinational drug companies, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Abbott among them, recently rationalized their Montreal-based operations and relocated in order to thrive. But there is special symbolism on Route Transcanadienne, where the snapping Quebec and Canadian and corporate flags made you think of the magnificent things that bright people can achieve when they are motivated.

No need to turn portentous. The bright people will reassemble, the breakthroughs will continue, and there will be more remarkable achievements ahead — but, right now, where is the harm in taking a few seconds to think about buildings and structures, and all the hopes and dreams they contained?

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