The Transformational Leadership Series
Bedford is pleased to offer this unique series of profiles on business leaders who are making a positive impact on their organizations and industries. The goal is to provide a platform to share their stories so you can learn, be inspired and follow suit.
A Leader from Within: Revera President & CEO Tom Wellner
By Howard Pezim and Darren Raycroft
Tom Wellner is the man at the top of the org chart, but he almost innately leads from within. “I believe in humility,” says the President and CEO of Revera Inc. “I am passionate and optimistic and enjoy inspiring the best in people and watching them succeed.” Tom’s track record of strategic excellence speaks for itself. He has been a collaborative and compassionate leader for public and private life sciences companies in Canada and Europe, consistently producing excellent results.
Today at Revera, 30,000 employees and 55,000 seniors in more than 500 properties are his responsibility. The same set of down to earth principles, hard work ethic and intractable optimism that grounded him as a young boy in Canada’s smallest province, still guide him each day as a CEO. “I respect people,” Tom says. “I love deals where both sides win.”
We sat with Tom and spoke about his career and the secrets to leadership success.
Tell us about your childhood and how it continues to shape who you are?
Prince Edward Island is a great place to grow up. I still get together with childhood friends I have had since I was three. I was very active in sports, including rep level hockey and soccer. Playing sports helps you learn about teams; what your responsibilities are to the team and respect for everyone’s role. You learn where you can add value and that has stayed with me throughout my life.
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My mother’s side of the family were involved in various businesses from lobster canneries to car dealerships. My grandfather on my dad’s side opened up a jewellery story in Charlottetown in 1876. My dad ran a business that sourced specialized manufacturing and construction materials, as well as a marine construction company. He used to take me with him to do inventory when I was a kid, where I was affectionately referred to as the “warehouse foreman.”
At 13, I earned a scholarship to the Rothesay Netherwood School in New Brunswick and that was a transformative life experience for me. I was shy and introverted, but I wanted to confront my fears. I was super quiet the first few months, but playing soccer and hockey got me noticed and from that point onwards, the high school experience really shaped me. Learning to live away from home in a house with other kids was a unique experience. The headmaster, my history teacher and hockey coach, all had a profound influence on me.
You worked at Eli Lilly for 20 years. What was it like in your early days with the company and how did you advance your career?
I started off in sales, which was excellent training. You learn to understand the customer intimately, develop selling skills and learn the transactional part of the business. I had top sales results as a sales rep and that got me ‘noticed on the radar screen’. I progressed to be the director of marketing and sales for Canada, which was a great basis from which to build.
Discuss your promotion overseas and the key developments this had on your skills and leadership capabilities?
Being in my mid-30s at the time, I was the youngest member of Eli Lilly’s European Management Team when I had the opportunity to be the head of marketing and sales for European operations in London. We had seven product launches in the first four years in 20 markets. I had a team of 24 marketing staff and we worked smart and tight to ensure the marketing plans were targeted at the local geographies. I learned how to lead, develop and coach my team and work through influence across a multitude of different cultures.
You were promoted to Country President and GM in Germany. Talk about this major career move, the culture change and the most important lessons you gained.
It was certainly a major change to go from managing a few dozen people, to having 1,000 employees. But my natural style of being more collective, having an ‘ask’ rather than ‘tell’ approach, I think was refreshing for my German colleagues who were not used to that style. It was a bit of a Rubik’s cube discovering how to live and work in Germany, but once you figure it out, it’s a lovely country and place to work. I was running an $800 million business and that on its own was a huge career development, especially learning the inner workings of owning a large P&L.
After several years in Europe, you returned to Canada to be a President & CEO for the first time. How did this new role prepare you for subsequent roles as a CEO?
As President and CEO of Therapure Biopharma, I walked into a company funded by private equity with 13 employees, no revenue and weekly board meetings that were intense to say the least. It was nothing like my Lilly years and candidly, a bit of culture shock for me. But I learned quickly and after three years, we had 120 people and 25 customers. Before I left, I signed a long-term contract with the French Blood Network, which positioned us to take the company to the next level.
With private equity and a start-up, you have to be extra accountable. I learned how to communicate with retail and institutional investors. I learned all about being up to speed on the company’s financials, making payroll, becoming cash-flow positive and the importance of raising valuable growth capital. I would say 70-80% of what I learned about being a CEO took place during my time with Therapure.
As President & CEO of CML Healthcare, you led an incredible transformation. Discuss the strategy you spearheaded and how it contributed to employee engagement and sustainable business growth?
Leading CML was all about doing what was strategically important. The core business – lab work and specialized diagnostic testing – had been a bit neglected before I arrived but quickly we were able to re-focus our efforts to strengthen the core operations. . We transformed the lab. We automated many parts of the business. We cleaned up the supply chain and distribution channels. We worked with unions and we got people excited about work, which was a key cultural change.
In any business, people get excited about making progress and they are motivated by work that is engaging. They need to feel proud of what they do. That’s what I feel I helped accomplish at CML and I’m really proud of that.
The strategy resulted in the company being in excellent shape. Testing and diagnostics was strong again. We also acquired a naturopathic lab, connecting directly to the consumer, which I always like to do. And the people had a sense of stability and felt respected.
“In any business, people get excited about making progress and they are motivated by work that is engaging. They need to feel proud of what they do. That’s what I feel I helped accomplish at CML and I’m really proud of that.”
You’ve been President & CEO at Revera for more than four years. Talk about the changes and growth/development of the organization in your time here.
Revera is a ‘people serving people business,’ and we make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. That is very important to me, and was part of what drew me here, and that hasn’t changed.
When I first joined Revera, the company had four lines of business – we now focus on two. We strategically divested our home health and US skilled nursing businesses to allow us to grow in privately paid retirement living and to maintain and renew our long term care operations. We’ve expanded our network of partnerships and have moved from being strictly an owner operator to being an owner, operator and investor in the senior living sector. And we have expanded into new markets in the US and UK.
Since joining the company, we have invested significantly in bringing innovation to the senior living sector. We’ve established an Innovators in Agingfund of $20 million, designed to support new technologies and services that will enhance the aging experience. Revera has also taken a strong advocacy position against Ageism.
How do you describe the Revera culture?
The culture is rooted in our values of respect, integrity, compassion and excellence. We place an emphasis on being customer focused, regardless of your role. I changed the way we referred to our head office—we call it the support office now—because I want all our employees to understand their role in support of our core business. We are also building a culture focused on innovation. We hold employee innovation competitions where we challenge our teams to develop innovative products and solutions that improve the aging experience. The winning idea is rolled out across our retirement residences and long-term care homes. Revera is collaborative and team based and there is a strong cultural focus on personal development and growth.
“Revera is a ‘people serving people business,’ and we make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. That is very important to me, and was part of what drew me here, and that hasn’t changed.”
What do you believe in as a leader? What do you expect out of the people that work for you, and is there anything that is sacrosanct?
As a leader, I get better results when I give people/teams, an opportunity to really achieve something amazing. We have many cross functional teams where people of differing skills, abilities and knowledge come together and brainstorm new ideas and solutions to challenges. I believe strongly in recognition; it can be very powerful, so we celebrate hard work and achievements and really inspire people/teams to be the best they can be.
I live our values and I expect our people to do the same. Moreover, I believe we all need to take it to the next step and call each other on behaviours that are contrary to this – this is my #1 non-negotiable. I encourage our team to challenge themselves to continuously learn, grow and develop. My expectation is that our people put the customer at the centre of everything they do.
About the Authors
Howard Pezim is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Bedford. For over 27 years, Howard has inspired leaders to choose his clients’ corporations for their careers. Howard’s particular areas of specialization include Life Sciences, Retail, Consumer Products, and Financial Services.
Darren Raycroft brings many years of executive search and strategic consulting experience as a Partner with the Bedford Consulting Group, where he has completed 220+ executive search engagements. His search and consulting work has been focused on clients in the Life Sciences, Manufacturing/Distribution, Private Equity and Consumer Products verticals in Canada, the United States, Europe and Japan.