In the July 2017, Life Science Leader magazine we will be publishing the article — Balancing Biopharma’s Bright Future Against Its Tarnished Image — 6 Retired CEOs Share Insights For Today’s Industry Leaders. The story features six former CEOs: Mike Bonney (Cubist); Hank McKinnell, Ph.D., (Pfizer); Francois Nader, M.D., (NPS Pharmaceuticals); David Pyott (Allergan); Stephen Sherwin, M.D., (Cell Genesys); and Henri Termeer (Genzyme). As each of these executive was gracious enough to give us an hour of their time, we encountered a slight problem — too many great insights to be included within all the pages of a print publication. This is not the first time we have encountered such a problem, and one of the main reasons we created a special online section — Beyond The Printed page. If you like what you read and want to become a subscriber —that way you can read the upcoming feature with these six industry icons — you can do so here. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this free bonus content.
Life Science Leader: What would you do differently if given the opportunity to be a CEO today?
Mike Bonney: Take more risk earlier. By ‘earlier’ I mean the immaturity of the company, and there are certain assumptions associated with that. I’d put risk in a couple of buckets. For example, I’d be more assertive about building a portfolio beyond the lead candidate. My last two companies were really one-product companies. Second, I’d move more quickly to develop a management team where the levels of trust are deeper than standard. Your ability as a CEO to operate and see the world differently improves dramatically when you have confidence in what is motivating the people around you. This goes beyond a skillset and the experiences they bring. For example, what really drives them? Why do they want to be successful? If that aligns with your own view, I think you set the organization on a course to do far more than it would do otherwise with equally competent but perhaps not as well-aligned executives.
Hank McKinnell: For starters, I might say, no to such an opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very rewarding job. But it is an exceptionally difficult job, and nobody understands that until they become a CEO. I had the opportunity in a much smaller company where I was serving on the board. We ran into some problems with our chairman and CEO, and everybody around the board table looked at me and said, “You’re the only person here who has run a pharmaceutical company, and we’d like to make you the chairman CEO.” So I became the chairman CEO of Optimer, a small pharmaceutical company with one product in the market. About a year later, we sold it to Cubist for about $1.24 billion. That was an interesting experience during which I was reminded of something I learned while at Pfizer — in preparing the drug for the market, be sure to also prepare the market for the drug. That is something all CEOs should remember. The focus on meeting an unmet medical need and the education of patients and physicians is just as important to the success of a new drug as all of the discovery and development work that preceded a regulatory approval. Be as diligent about preparing the market as you are about preparing the drug for approval.
Francois Nader: At NPS we were a very much a values-driven company, and everyone in our organization had a very clear understanding of what we stood for. I would encourage others to do the same. When I’m invited to speak, or when I’m asked to advise, I say, ‘What do you stand for, as a company?’ For me, values are extremely important. A close second is having a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities, as well as a clear delineation of the end goal. No team can be successful if the goal they’re working toward is not crystal clear and understood by everyone in the organization. No team can be successful if folks do not know what their role, responsibility, and accountability is within the organization. And while one might think these are clearly understood when your company is small, I’ve seen this become diluted as companies grow. It’s a completely different ballgame when you manage a company of five versus 5,000. You have to constantly keep an eye on, evaluate, and evolve who is accountable for what within the organization. CEOs also need to focus on compliance and quality assurance. You can’t worry about those issues later because problems tend to happen at the worst possible moment. You can’t cut corners in our industry. To launch your product you need to be able to manufacture and produce it in a reproducible, consistent, and quality-wise way. Last but not least, you need to continually keep your eye on the competition. It might sound silly and obvious, but I’m seeing way too many companies think that their breakthrough is so novel that they won’t have any competition. And while there might not be someone today, there is a high possibility there will be someone tomorrow, as things evolve very quickly in our industry.
David Pyott: It depends on the opportunity. If Big Pharma, I would really be working on how to reduce bureaucracy to encourage risk-taking, as that has the benefit of reducing costs, increasing speed, and hopefully, better decision making. Even at Allergan, which was a decidedly midsize company, we encountered such challenges. I recall having breakfast meetings with middle management, and they would always ask me what my greatest concern was. To this I’d reply, ‘The enemy from within (i.e., creeping bureaucracy).’ As companies get bigger, it’s natural to put in more layers and more reviews with an outcome of making everything overcomplicated. I like flat and simple, and that is what I’d strive for.
Stephen Sherwin: When I look back on the three companies I cofounded after leaving Genentech (i.e., Cell Genesys, Abgenix, and Ceregene), all were technology-based companies. Cell Genesys worked on cell-based cancer immunotherapies. Abgenix was an antibody company, and Ceregene was a gene-therapy company. Where they differed was in their timing in terms of market receptivity. In the mid-1990s, Cell Genesys was developing CAR-T cell technology, and we did the first trials of CAR-T cells in patients with HIV infection and cancer. Unfortunately, we were 20 years ahead of market receptivity to gene and cell therapy. In contrast, Abgenix developed antibody technology and was acquired in the mid-2000s by Amgen, and Amgen continues to sell products from that technology today. The difference between these two companies was the extent to which the technologies they were working on were really ready for development and commercialization. What I would try to do differently would be to better time technology development so that it could not only be implemented medically, but have commercial success as well. Understanding how applicable a technology in a biotech startup is to the real world of medicine and the markets is a challenge, and experience can teach you a lot.
Henri Termeer: I don’t know if you noticed it, but I’m very excited about this chapter in my life. I was the CEO of Genzyme for 28 years, during which it went from a few people to somewhere around 12,000. But being successful takes a lot of hard work — 24/7. We had many great moments and challenges, and through it all we ended up getting acquired for what was a very good value at the time, especially for the shareholders. I have no regrets, and the company seems to be doing very well for Sanofi under the leadership of the person I groomed to be CEO. And while those were very gratifying experiences, my current experiences, while different, are very fulfilling. One of the unique things about Genzyme was how many people who worked there and left to start their own biotechs. I am told that there are over 40 new biotechs whose leaders came out of Genzyme after the transaction with Sanofi. So not only do I think I would not do anything different if given the chance to be a CEO again, I don’t think I’d take such an opportunity.