WorkWild Geese

Adapting to a life of precision, independence and the outdoors

Alice Reiner, a director at MSD, moved to Switzerland in 2020 with her husband and daughter

Endurance swimming is not for the faint-hearted. It takes mental and physical stamina and months of training. And that’s only the starting point. The swim itself is long and arduous. When Alice Reiner swam the English Channel in 2016, she was in the water for more than 13 hours with only brief pauses for liquid and nutrition breaks.

Asked why she took on such a challenge, Reiner pauses. “Sometimes I wonder why too but at the time I had just been made redundant and needed something to focus on,” she says. “I had always been a swimmer and played competitive water polo at college so I knew this was probably something I could do but never thought I would.”

Within a few months of losing her job, however, Reiner was hired by multinational pharma company MSD in Ireland. A frenetic period followed when she did little except work, sleep and train. “I’m not sure now how I did it but it was a very interesting process to go through – trying to find balance and essentially manage two full-time jobs,” says Reiner, who is from Galway.

“When you’re training, it’s 80 per cent physical and 20 per cent mental. When you’re doing the swim, it’s the opposite. You have to manage your mental state or it will start chipping away at your confidence telling you you’re too cold or too tired to continue. The majority of people who don’t complete an endurance swim are beaten by their minds not their bodies.”


Reiner, who is director of strategic initiatives and operations with MSD, lives near Zurich with her Swiss husband and young daughter. She travels three days a week as her remit covers Europe, Britain, Ireland and Canada.

Her job involves working with senior management teams to implement initiatives that will deliver transformation and growth for their part of the business in whatever form that takes.

“We support MSD operations across different countries, helping them scan the horizon for what is coming and sharing learning from their peers in other markets,” Reiner says. “We also help them build the capabilities they’re going to need to support their external environment and the patients we serve.”

Reiner has a science degree from the University of Galway and an MSc in clinical medicine from Trinity College Dublin. Her first job was with Servier Laboratories and she moved from there to Leo Pharma and then to MSD Ireland in 2014 as portfolio liaison manager. Two years later she relocated to Switzerland for a year and in 2017 moved to London as chief of staff for Britain and Ireland.

The couple and their toddler daughter returned to Switzerland in 2020 where the outdoor lifestyle really appeals to Reiner.

“If you want to meet somebody for a catch-up, you go for a hike, which I love, and when I’m working from home I can hop on my bike at lunchtime and go for a spin in lovely countryside. Swiss society is very active. My daughter started skiing when she was three and is already better than me.”

When Reiner first joined MSD in Ireland back in 2014, a second job offer was on the table in another sector but MSD’s reputation for employee career development sealed the deal. “The leaders I’ve worked with at home in Ireland have always been very positive in terms of encouraging me to develop my career internationally based on my skill set,” she says. “When the Swiss opportunity came up, the timing was perfect for me. I thought even if it doesn’t work out it’s only for 12 months and that will fly.

“One of the things I’ve learned about living and working in Switzerland is they take you very literally. This can be a good and a bad thing,” she adds. “It’s positive because they listen and do what you need them to do. But Irish people can be very sarcastic and informal, and our sarcasm doesn’t always land.

“We can also be a bit vague with expressions like ‘in a minute’, which it rarely is. They find this confusing and it highlights their precise approach, particularly when it comes to timekeeping. Everything is on time, there is no hanging around.”

When Reiner is not travelling, she usually works from home. “The culture at MSD is one of productivity, not hours spent at a desk. That resonates with me and beats the traditional 9-5 mentality hands down,” she says. “Because I’m away a lot and our daughter is young, my husband works a four-day week. We’re also lucky to have his mother nearby if we need support.

“I love Switzerland’s mix of languages and cultures. Our daughter is already fluent in English and German. When she starts school, she’ll be learning French. I also like that children are taught independence from a young age. Her kindergarten will be about 200 meters from our house – there is always a school within your area – but they expect her to walk there on her own. The schools do not allow parents to park and drop a child off.”

Tayto crisps and Barry’s Tea unfailingly crop up as the foodie things most missed by expats. Reiner misses them too but also has her own items to add to the list. “I miss purple Snacks and Kerrygold,” she says. “When anyone comes to visit, I get them to bring as many purple Snacks as they can carry, and I worry when my stock starts running out.”

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business