New Lilly CEO called analytical, 'incredibly warm'

December 24, 2007

Like most people, perhaps, John C. Lechleiter sees himself as a combination of his parents. He said he has his mother's "get on with it, get it done attitude" and his father's quality of being "very, very analytical."

His mother, Jeanne, wasn't much for small talk, Lechleiter said, while his father, John, was an auto dealer and a "big talker."

That's the yin and the yang Lechleiter will bring to his job as CEO of Eli Lilly and Co. He's known for getting things done and yet also being good at analysis and relating to people under him.

"He's an incredibly warm individual. He embraces anyone and everyone--even the shoeshine guy," said Tony Butler, a pharmaceutical analyst at Lehman Brothers in New York. "I've been in the car with him when he's answering messages and I hear him delegating responsibilities and leaving messages and making comments. And it's not comments like, 'Hey, a-hole, why didn't you do this?'"

Lilly's board voted unanimously Dec. 17 to name Lechleiter to succeed Sidney Taurel, who'll step down at the end of March. Taurel will remain chairman until the end of 2008.

Taurel chose Lechleiter more than two years ago to be his president, making Lechleiter the heir apparent to the CEO. But until Lilly announced his promotion Dec. 18, the company never had said when a handover would take place.

"He's also a man who can make tough decisions when needed and do it with a heart," Taurel said of Lechleiter.

Lechleiter, 54, has spent his entire career at Lilly since he earned a doctorate in organic chemistry from Harvard University. He is one of few scientists to be CEO of a major pharmaceutical company.

"I'm all for the person with the science background to be the CEO," said Rich Foran, vice president of research at Symons Capital Management in Pittsburgh, which owns Lilly shares. "To have someone that's CEO that's got a background in both science and business, it certainly can't hurt."

The Louisville native is the eldest of nine kids. He said he grew interested in science by doing science fair projects in school. He majored in chemistry at Xavier University in Cincinnati where a professor who worked at The Procter & Gamble Co. encouraged him to go to Harvard for graduate work.

Since joining Lilly in 1979, Lechleiter has spent most of his career managing the company's scientific process. Between 2001 and 2005, he played a direct role in shepherding nine new drugs to market.

"The fact that he has that background gives Lilly an extraordinary advantage because John's going to be able to understand those things," said Randall Tobias, who was Lilly's CEO from 1993 to 1998. Tobias added that, if at the time he left Lilly he had written on a card the name of the person he thought was most on the path to succeed Taurel, "John Lechleiter's name would be on the card."

Lechleiter and his wife, Sarah, have three grown children. They live in a condominium atop the downtown Conrad Indianapolis, and Lechleiter walks to work many days.

When Lechleiter learned a few months ago that he would succeed Taurel next year, "I walked on the canal and I thought great thoughts," he said, with a deep chuckle. "I was the mayor of my own little town."

Lechleiter does have definite ideas about how he will lead Lilly--he'll be taking his mom's get-down-to-business approach.

"We're not going to spend a lot of time rehashing our strategy," he said, but stressed that, "I'm not a status quo guy.

"I'll be emphasizing implementation and execution," he said. "I will certainly be trying to place within the company a greater call to action, to moving more quickly, to not only addressing some of the challenges we face but to realizing some of the opportunities, to move our pipeline forward faster, to be aggressive in licensing and acquiring new molecules."

When Lechleiter puts on his dad's analytical hat, he sees greater opportunity on the scientific front than ever before. He said researchers have made great strides since the late '70s, when Lilly discovered Prozac.

"It's the difference between at the time walking around in a dark room and trying to identify the objects by what they felt like and walking into a lit room and saying, 'Hmm, OK. I see how the lamp works. I see how the clock works.'"

When he considers the obstacles facing the company--including tougher U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards for drug approval, and health insurers' aggressive push for lower-cost and generic drugs--he adopts a bit of both his mom and dad.

"We're optimistic," he said. "On the other hand, we've got to be hardheaded."

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