Why former Mayor Peterson is stepping down from drugmaker Eli Lilly

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Bart Peterson still listens to his political instincts. They helped him get elected mayor of Indianapolis twice.

Now, it appears those instincts are behind his surprise announcement last week to step down from Indianapolis-based drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co., where he worked for more than seven years as senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications.

The drugmaker said Thursday that Peterson would leave the company March 31 “to pursue personal business interests,” but offered no details.

In an interview with IBJ, Peterson said he had been thinking for months of leaving Lilly and exploring the next chapter in his careersomething perhaps with less international travel and more time to get involved in Indianapolis causes.

But two big events in recent months made Peterson think the time was ripe for stepping aside.

One was the election of Donald Trump as president. During his campaign and afterward, Trump repeatedly attacked the drug industry and high drug prices, saying the industry was “getting away with murder.”

In his address to Congress last week, Trump declared it was time to “bring down the artificially high price of drugs … immediately.”

Dealing with such statements was a challenge that would fall to Peterson. At Lilly, he is responsible for overseeing federal affairs and lobbying, along with public policy, corporate communications, community relations, patient advocacy and corporate responsibility.

But there's a wrinkle: Trump is a Republican, and Peterson, well, is not. “Obviously, I’m a Democrat,” Peterson said. “For me, it made sense to change. It’s sort of a natural thing to do when you have a brand-new government in Washington.”

He added: “The U.S. is the most important market that Lilly has, and the most important market for the global pharmaceutical industry. It’s the beginning of a whole new set of issues and challenges when a new administration comes in. And so the political element of it was probably not the biggest consideration [to leave Lilly], but for me, at least, it was some consideration.”

The other big change was closer to home. John Lechleiter, CEO of Lilly since 2008, announced last fall he would retire in January. Lechleiter hired Peterson in 2009 and the two worked closely together.

Lilly’s new CEO, Dave Ricks, deserved to form his own team, Peterson said.

“It’s sort of a tradition that a new CEO selects a person for this jobeither somebody that they know or somebody that fits a particular profile they are looking for,” Peterson said.

Indeed, Lilly has seen a string of changes since Ricks took over two months ago. In January, Alex Azar, president of Lilly USA, said he was leaving the company to pursue other career opportunities. Lilly also announced that Christi Shaw was rejoining Lilly to lead the Bio-Medicines division, which Ricks had led before his promotion.

Peterson said it was his decision to step down. The company said in a press release last week that it was conducting a search for Peterson’s replacement.

So what is next for Peterson, who at 58 still could work for another decade or more? In past years, he worked as an attorney at Ice Miller LLP and was a top aide to former Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh. He also served as president of The Precedent Cos.—the commercial real estate firm founded by his late father—for four years before becoming mayor in 1999.

Peterson said he has all but ruled out another run for office. Nor does he expect to “get involved in a major enterprise or running something.”

“My definite plan is to have no definite plans,” he said, adding he will keep his eyes open for ways to get more involved in volunteering and low-key business opportunities.

“What I’m really trying to say is I’m not looking for a job,” Peterson said, “and I won’t take a job for some time to come.”

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