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Accounting & Financial Reporting

Merck’s SVP on balancing the books with the patient’s needs

Posted by on 06 May 2024
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Rita Karachun, SVP and former global controller at Merck & Co. reflects on her lifelong career in accounting and the benefits that come with loving what you do.

Rita Karachun is retiring May 2024. With a 30-odd year career in accounting, and 17 of those in pharma, Karachun shared with Informa Connect’s Life Sciences Accounting and Reporting Congress editorial team her industry observations and career journey. At the Congress, Karachun received its Trailblazer Award for Lifetime Achievement.

A self-described “accounting geek,” Karachun said, “[Controller] is an amazing role. I still pinch myself, years later, that I have been blessed to have spent as much time as I have at Merck, but also – more importantly – in this role.” She admits it is hard to walk away from the job she loves so much, as well as the company and the people. “It's hard to make that decision to say OK now, but this time I'm ready, but it is a little bit harder when you love what you do.”

Karachun, the youngest of three children born to immigrant parents, grew up in New Jersey. Her Irish parents came to this country 75 years ago with an eighth-grade education and a farm life. Karachun’s brother entered college for accounting and she thought to take high school accounting and liked it. While she didn’t really love going to school, she did love studying accounting, , but at this time roughly 54% of high school graduates were attending college, and men were outpacing women by a small margin.

“I asked my mother if I should go to college, and she said, ‘education is never wasted.’” With the support of her parents, Karachun got her degree a and started a job in public accounting and moving to a role at AT&T. She also got her certified public accountant (CPA) qualification. After her years in telecom, she made the more intentional choice of wanting to stay and live in New Jersey. The pharmaceutical industry seemed a good place for that.

Accounting is chock full of rules, with a foundation that works across all industries. As Karachun says, “Accounting is the language of business.” She says there are rules and guidelines that must be followed, and as such, a certain answer is always in the cards. But, “financial implications are not always black and white.” Once her CFO said to the finance team: “Sometimes your answer has to be no, but you should say ‘no, but’ … a no, but here’s what we can do.” She explained they were tasked to be good business partners, who thought through the issues and provided the support that all executives needed to make decisions.

And in pharma and life sciences, those issues come with significant decisions that affect not only the bottom line, but the availability of medicines that can help people.

Phones to pharma

Karachun encountered the passion of pharma early on when she joined Schering-Plough, and then Merck after the merger between the two companies. “What was really interesting to me was how well the people in the company, even outside of the commercial role, really understood the products. They understood the drugs. They understood what they did. They understood the mechanism of action,” said Karachun. Not to imply that people in telecom didn’t love their products, she said, but those products were simpler—a service to a business or consumer. “With pharmaceuticals, it was just how well versed the people who work across various disciplines are about the companies’ products.” She credits the life science industry for its mantra of saving and improving lives that enhances the experience and desire to know the products for people working in those companies.

For the finance and accounting roles that support pharma, when there is a transaction or product launch, you think about what is needed by the numbers, but “you do have to take that step back and say, what do we need to do to make sure the patient has what they need and are we getting the product to the patient in an appropriate way.”

That then requires the education of other teams to understand the impact, ramifications, or the causal effect of a certain structure. “We have to walk them through the path. If we structure a deal this way, or a launch this way, here’s what the financial implications are. We need to help the decision-makers understand the choices.”


One topic addressed at the Life Sciences Accounting and Reporting Congress, as well as being a cross-industry issue, is workforce diversity. Accounting and auditing as its own function (without factoring in life sciences), has the following features:

  • Students earning a bachelor's degree in accounting in 2021-2022 was 47,000, down 7.8% from the previous year. (However, the same organization noted that enrollment in 2023-2024 will be equal or higher.)
  • The gender ratio and racial-ethnic mix of graduates in 2021-2022 showed a 1% increase of Hispanic/Latino graduates.1
  • Overall, the accounting and auditing 2021 workforce in the United States comprised 72.2% were white, Asians represented 12%, Blacks 8.9% and 58.6% women, and 41.4% men.

Against this backdrop, Karachun noted that gender bias and diversity concerns were not at the height of discussion or awareness when she was starting out in the field. “Going back to my upbringing,” said Karachun, “my parents didn’t think I should be different or was different because I was a woman. The chores that my brother, my sister and I all had were the same chores. My brother had to wash dishes, and I mowed the lawn. My father taught me how to change my oil, tune up my car, rotate the tires, and I did those things.”

While Karachun cannot pinpoint a time where she experienced specific gender bias, she does now remember being the only woman or one of two women at a table. However, at the time, she didn’t think to herself: “Huh, isn't this interesting? I'm the only woman at the table.”

In the reflection, she mentions confidence as more of a barrier than actual bias. “If I wasn’t 100% certain about something, I probably wouldn't speak up about it. But not because I was a woman. I think confidence is something you build up over time with experience. So I don't think I didn't speak up because I was the only woman,” she explained. “As I progressed through my career, what I began to appreciate and understand is men and women are just different. I probably appreciated that more later in my career because early in your career you're just trying to be successful.”

Karachun believes the key to ensuring diversity is self awareness and education on unconscious bias. The key is to ensure that when you are hiring someone, you are not defaulting to connecting more easily with someone and making choices because you feel more comfortable with the person. At the Life Sciences Finance and Accounting Congress, she noted the conversation around students or newcomers to the field saying, “I don't see anyone who looks like me.” Karachun said that may be true, but hopes it does not become the barrier for keeping individuals out of the accounting field.

“Someone has to be the first in that role. We should focus on helping to ensure that people see a broad range of different personalities, experiences, genders, ethnicities … all the things that help companies make better informed decisions or have more productive discussions by having different points of view.”

Leaving your comfort zone

Karachun notes that challenging yourself to go outside of your comfort zone comes at many points or opportunities in one’s career. She remembers at AT&T Capital, she went into an Investor Relations role from a role where she was the subject matter expert. This move to an area she knew nothing about made her uncomfortable and she remained uncomfortable for almost a year.

But in the end, she loved the role. “It was a great experience and I think it made me better at any role I did after that, including the controller role here at Merck.” She encourages others to consider roles that broaden their view, and to talk to others and get advice on what skills they may be missing.

Other advice to all professionals—new or seasoned—is to make connections. Networking can be formal or informal mentoring within your company or reaching out to others outside your company to have introductory discussions about their role, and yours. Connections to people inside your industry, other industries, and events related to your field are great opportunities. Brokering these connections is one of Karachun’s favorite things to do in her career.

Now that she’s ready to turn the page, Karachun is exploring board opportunities and looking forward to living her life. She emphasized again how much she loves accounting and life sciences. “It's such an important profession from that perspective of ethics and integrity and the impact it has on a company in terms of making sure that their financial reputation is pristine through accounting, financial statements, or information in a press release,” she said. To life sciences, she adds, “We shouldn't have to convince anyone that life sciences has a great mission.”

Lisa Henderson is the VP, Editorial for Informa Connect Life Sciences.

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