It was the shot heard around Indiana.
When David Ricks, chairman and CEO of Indianapolis-based drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co., stood up to address a lunch crowd at the Economic Club of Indiana in April, he didn’t deliver the bland, rah-rah corporate speech some might have expected.
Instead, he fired a broadside at the room full of business leaders.
When it comes to competing for high-tech jobs, he said, Indiana needed to do much better. The state was falling short in educational skills, the affordability of health care, green-energy policies, workforce development, and inclusion of minorities and immigrants.
In short, he said, Indiana is not flourishing. And that is a problem for everyone.
“When Indiana is thriving, Lilly can also thrive,” he said. “And without those preconditions, we’re going to struggle.”
Within days—perhaps even hours—Ricks’ speech was the talk of corporate suites and government offices. Some were wondering if the 145-year-old pharmaceutical giant was washing its hands of its hometown—at least when it came to future billion-dollar investments.
After all, in recent months, Lilly had announced several decisions to invest more than $3 billion in new factories and research laboratories outside of Indiana, in places like Massachusetts, North Carolina and Ireland.
“We get calls from lots of policymakers [in Indiana] about each one of these right after they happen,” Ricks said. “And I give them this speech that I gave you today.”
Some business leaders said Ricks’ message was a wake-up call about the need to make big improvements in schooling, health care and social policies.
After all, if Lilly planned to steer its huge investment dollars elsewhere permanently, that could cause a huge hole in the city’s economy. The company, with a sprawling headquarters campus downtown and a technical center just south of downtown, is one of Indiana’s largest and oldest companies, with about 11,000 workers across the state.
It was just the latest way Ricks has managed to shake up things inside and outside of his company since taking over as CEO in 2017.
He has reorganized the drugmaker several times in the past five years, trimming the headcount, striking up outside business partnerships, and speeding up the research and development of new drugs.
Under his watch, Lilly has launched at least eight drugs, and the stock has soared about 400%—much of it in anticipation of potential new drugs for obesity and Alzheimer’s disease—while the Standard & Poor’s 500 has climbed only 75%.
Meanwhile, if Ricks threw a scare into Indiana leaders over his comments at the Economic Club luncheon, his actions a month later probably settled their nerves a bit.
In May, Lilly announced it would invest $2.1 billion in two manufacturing sites that will anchor a new innovation district in Boone County.
The company said the project will create up to 500 jobs in central Indiana, along with up to 1,500 temporary construction jobs. The planned facilities will increase Lilly’s manufacturing capacity for active ingredients and new kinds of drugs, such as genetic medicines, seen as a promising way to deliver treatments for a wide range of diseases.
It marked the first time in more than three decades that Lilly would build a plant on undeveloped land
“For nearly 150 years, Lilly’s operations in Indiana and our continued commitments in the state have enabled us to develop and deliver innovative and life-changing medicines for patients,” Ricks said. “This investment furthers our commitment to Indiana while also fulfilling our purpose of making life better for millions of people.”•
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