Peterson has passion for health care and new Lilly position

June 29, 2009

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 Peterson.

IBJ: 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 significantly.

IBJ: 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.

IBJ: 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.

Does that outsider's perspective help especially in your role, which is overseeing all the company's communications?

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.

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