Kendall Kessler – Pfizer
Foresight and serendipity add up to a winning formula. So it would seem in suburban St. Louis where a Pfizer pharmaceutical plant is being expanded by 40,000 square feet just four years after its completion.
That facility in Chesterfield, Missouri, proved its worth while manufacturing and testing the quality of a COVID-19 vaccine with its German partner BioNTech, though nobody could have anticipated the need to respond to a pandemic when grounds broke in 2017. As to what signature medications the larger facility will develop, that could depend upon need.
At any rate, come the end of year, the upgrade should be complete. In the meantime, it’s business as usual for research and development while Kendall Kessler takes on the logistical challenges of enlarging and enhancing workspaces with minimal disturbance.
“The biggest challenge we have in remodeling and adding site capacity is potentially disrupting the science that’s ongoing,” he says. “A lot of dominoes must fall in place to avoid impact on other areas.”
A no-nonsense, to-the-point type who oversees Pfizer’s remodels here and at five other locales, Kessler will keep the dominoes falling accordingly. That means meticulously scheduling work and depending on supply chains to deliver. It’s collaborating with the folks in lab coats, for whom he has much regard—Kessler having been a scientist before accepting an executive role a dozen years ago and, since late 2021, overseeing business strategy and scientific operations.
“I had always been interested in the operational side of labs,” he says. “Through fixing instruments and optimizing laboratory layouts, I was able to improve efficiency and organization and eventually my role kept morphing with more complex operations responsibilities.”
A pandemic countered
His role certainly grew when Pfizer’s previous locale in Chesterfield became too small for a workforce that had expanded from 400 to 650 since 2014. The lease also expiring, Kessler oversaw scientific laboratory and workplace design of a new facility, one with nearly 300,000 square feet of space as well as an open floor plan and natural light to get creative juices flowing. How important that proved just months after the plant opened in 2019.
When COVID-19 hit the following March, Pfizer’s BioTherapeutics Pharmaceutical sciences group and partners focused almost entirely on countering it with BioNTech’s assistance. Much progress having been made with mRNA molecules, which carry the genetic information needed to make proteins, Kessler says he never doubted that the company would come through—and they did, garnering U.S. approval for the vaccine by December.
This being the most essential of projects, scientists duly reported for lab projects but often worked remotely on days they weren’t performing laboratory experiments or manufacturing the vaccine components. For the most part, office personnel functioned remotely.
Kessler lauds the facilities department for helping ensure safe work environments for scientists by wiping down surfaces, sanitizing desks, ensuring proper air flow, sourcing a surplus of cleaning solutions and taking whatever other redundant steps it deemed prudent.
The worst of the pandemic hopefully over, Kessler can direct the next expansion without quite so many concerns. As he explains, Pfizer’s Biotherapeutics pharmaceutical sciences is a vital link in the life cycle of a project, fitting between the research and commercialization of medications.
“When they need equipment, a rearranged lab or a new wing, they bring their concepts to me,” he says. “I help them vet what they need, provide options, and do what I can to help them succeed.”
Learned from the lab
Long before his current role, Kessler majored in chemistry at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1992, logging stints of a few years each at ARDL Inc., Diagraph Corp. and Monsanto. That last company brought him to where he is now, Monsanto merging with Pharmacia in 2000 and being bought by Pfizer three years later.
Around this time Kessler was enhancing his own credentials, earning a master’s in analytical chemistry from St. Louis University and ascending to senior principal scientist, a role he held from 2003 to 2010. Demanding as that was, he still earned an MBA at Washington University in St. Louis–Olin Business School.
One’s got to know science and business in his role, and Kessler’s responsibilities are almost equally divided between determining the organizational needs, setting facility strategies, managing capital and operational expenses and helping scientists to thrive.
“I created my own pathways, going back to school twice and doing a lot of soul-searching,” he says. “It takes a lot of work making sure our scientists have the tools and resources to be successful.”
He’s in the right place to support innovation, Greater St. Louis growing as a Midwest R&D hub. It’s long had much of that going in agriculture and now attracts young and veteran talent in the life sciences. The so-called Gateway to the West can also make for an agreeable and affordable lifestyle.
“The cost of living is lower here and a family can afford a house that might be beyond their means in other places,” says Kessler, who was born and raised just east of St. Louis in neighboring Illinois. “We also draw talent from local universities and industries. There’s much potential for us to grow here.”
A married father of three, two of whom attend Colorado State University and another at St. Louis Community College, Kessler doesn’t spend all his time at the Chesterfield operation. There’s always much pending at Pfizer’s other R&D facilities, particularly in Andover, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, and he’s generally on the road one week each month.
“I’ve a keen eye on how scientists work and want for them to concentrate in science,” he says. “Let me handle the rest of the process.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. III 2023 Edition here.
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