Former Indianapolis Mayor Basrt Peterson gave up his for-profit and philanthropic work in urban redevelopment to join
Eli Lilly and Co. as its senior vice president of communications and community affairs. It’s a job once held by Gov. Mitch
Daniels. On June 15, Peterson took charge of a team of 440 people, a budget of $200 million and, most important, getting out
Lilly’s message in the hot-burning debate over health care reform. Below is an edited version of IBJ’s conversation with
What was it about this job that captured your attention?
PETERSON: When you grow up in Indianapolis … Lilly really is in your blood
or in your DNA, however you want to put it. I got a chance as mayor to see a little bit behind the scenes
of how it all works, from a scientific perspective but also from a business perspective. So my admiration
for the company, which was strong by virtue of being a lifelong Indianapolis resident, really increased
How did the conversations with Lilly start?
PETERSON: It started with a call from [Lilly CEO] John Lechleiter, telling me about this job and asking if
I might have an interest in discussing it. It started a process that involved a number of interviews
over a few weeks. It was about six weeks before the job was announced.
IBJ: You had been in the business world before and got into politics. It seems
like you’ve now combined the two-business and government-by being over the government affairs of Lilly.
Was that something you were intending to do?
PETERSON: If you look back at my life, I have a very strong interest in public policy. And there’s more than
one way to do it. I enjoyed my time in government very much, as a staff person and then ultimately as
chief of staff to Gov. Bayh. I enjoyed being mayor tremendously. But you can serve in other ways. And
you can satisfy your desire to be involved in important public matters in different ways.
There’s not much more important for our country
today, as an issue of public policy, than health care reform. And while this job is more than just the
health care reform debate in the U.S. in 2009, nonetheless, to have the opportunity to be at the forefront
of that, for a company that I deeply believe in and admire, and for a cause that’s important to me, is something
that I feel good about.
IBJ: What are the key points of the pitch that you and your team will make in the health care debate?
PETERSON: I won’t say anything
about consensus or not in Washington, D.C.-that can change in an hour-but so many Americans share [the
goal] that we need to make high-quality health care available to all Americans, that we as a country can do better
in terms of providing access and improving the quality of health care. That’s a value that the company strongly believes in.
The most important part of the message is the
importance of preserving innovation. A lot of the health care debate has been about, how do we cover
the uninsured, how do we reduce the costs of health care? These are very important issues, obviously.
But we don’t want to just take today’s health care system, today’s level of care, and make it available to everybody. We want
it to get better and better. A big part of that’s going to come from the biopharmaceutical industry, and Lilly is at the forefront
of the biopharmaceutical industry.
IBJ: You’re not Lilly’s lobbyist, but you now oversee the company’s lobbyists. Will your new job take to
you Washington, or will you quarterback mostly from Indianapolis?
PETERSON: We have a great team in Washington. I want to be as helpful to them
in their work as I can possibly be. So I do anticipate being in Washington a fair amount over the next
several months. I’m anxious to do that. I’ll be working with our government relations professionals in
supporting their work. Both at their request and as we develop plans here in the company, I’ll also be
doing some public appearances.
IBJ: What’s your biggest challenge coming into this job?
PETERSON: It’s both an advantage and disadvantage that I don’t come from the
pharmaceutical industry. It is a complex industry. We had a number of conversations about how I could
bring a non-pharmaceutical perspective, which is the positive. But the flip side of that is, there’s
a steep learning curve for me, which I’m ascending right now. And enjoying it, by the way. If you have
a passion for what you do-and I have a real passion for this-you want to plow through the most challenging materials,
and stay up late hours reading through briefing books, and have endless conversations about the topic with people from all
across the company.
Why is not having a pharmaceutical background good in this situation?
PETERSON: It’s always good to have a different perspective represented at the
table. When I was mayor, if I had important decisions to make, I would sometimes just pick up the phone
and call somebody who I knew didn’t know all of the details, all the ins and outs of what I was working
on. And I would just say, "I’m going to make this decision. You’re going to be impacted by this.
How does it look from your side?" Hopefully, since I didn’t grow up in this industry, I’ll always be able to bring
a little bit of the perspective of somebody who has benefited from pharmaceuticals [and] who has a pretty good business sense
and historically a layman’s understanding of a lot of the issues that the industry is dealing with and that health care reform
is bringing to the fore right now.
IBJ: Does that outsider’s perspective help especially in your role, which is overseeing all the company’s communications?
PETERSON: Communications does
include communications to experts in the field. But an awful lot of the communications I’m going to be
personally involved in involve communicating with people who aren’t experts in the pharmaceutical industry. And I know
what they’re thinking.