Ed Gudaitis Allergan VP and Country Manager, Canada, explains how embracing disruption is his secret to success. Interview by Howard Pezim and Darren Raycroft.
When business is thriving, a context Ed Gudaitis—Vice President and Country Manager, Canada at Allergan—has helped cultivate time and again throughout his career, the innovative biopharma leader invariably feels a sense of healthy paranoia. “If things are going well, then I feel it’s time to make the business better,” Ed relates. “Bring in new ideas, bring in some new talent, think outside the box – but don’t get too comfortable!”
Those insights in many ways encapsulate Ed’s personal and professional life. Howard Pezim and Darren Raycroft sat down with Ed to discuss his story. What follows is a fascinating look at a man on a mission to build his second billion-dollar company.
How did you decide to go into in Pharma?
Ed Gudaitis: Early on, I wanted to do something where I could be in charge because I saw that I had an ability to lead. I think that came in part from being the oldest son and from seeing my folks lead students from the front of the classroom. I also have an uncle who was an entrepreneur, a real salesman extraordinaire, who made an impression on me. As time evolved, I knew I wanted to be a leader in the business world and in particular, business in the field of life sciences.
After starting your career at Roche, what was it like to work at a small company, Genentech, in your formative years?
Genentech Canada was a true startup organization. It was very flat, with 35-40 people and because of that, I was exposed to just about everything, working cross-functionally, from clinical research and operations, to sales and marketing, to health economics. I began working at Genentech Canada as a finance and operations manager in Clinical Research and in a short time, I was empowered to managed a phase 3b multi-center study in Canada.
Roche ended up acquiring all of the ex-US affiliates of Genentech in 1995—so there I was back at Roche. That certainly meant I wasn’t going to be managing phase 3 studies anymore, but I do sincerely believe that the experience I gained at Genentech helped me leapfrog years into my career.
Those early career years often help us develop deeply rooted behaviors we carry throughout our career. Does that apply to you?
That is absolutely true in my case. At Genentech, it was typical to have five people around the table and say, “let’s get this done” and we did. That “whet my appetite” for big things. At a large organization like Roche, I learned to be humble, to work together with lots of people and when opportunities arose, I pushed myself to take them. These are behaviours that I try to practice each day.
Your early career developed rapidly, from health economics and market access, into commercial leadership. Were you ahead of your time, or did the organization see something special in you?
While I was working at Roche Canada, I knew I wasn’t going to be a market access person for my entire career. I wanted to get to an executive level and to do that, the commercial leadership piece was essential. So I asked about getting into commercial roles and our Canadian President was very supportive of me making a lateral career move. I understood this was not going to involve me moving straight up. I had to do well in a number of commercial roles, like being a senior product manager, and as a sales manager, so I learned quickly to get over the ego part of it. Because I had been so hands-on at Genentech, I liked the challenge. I believe today, people put too much focus on ensuring every step is progressive in level. In my opinion, sometimes the right step is lateral or down a level so that you can gain new experiences that will set you up for moving three spots forward later on in your career.
You spent 12 years at Roche. How integral was this to your career, specifically from a leadership perspective?
Roche is a great company. It’s thoughtful, financially disciplined, detail oriented and understands how to bring personalized medicine, diagnostics and pharma, together. It was also entrepreneurial – and at the time, when you were in charge of a business unit, you literally ran it like it was your business. I have taken all those lessons with me and it prepared me well for leading, making decisions and defining the process to move the business along.
Tell us about your thought process in deciding to leave Roche for Gilead?
When the Gilead Sciences Canada opportunity presented itself, I viewed it as a second chance to get involved in a smaller organization and really, how may times does a second chance come around?! It was like a second Genentech and even though I was going from a huge global enterprise back to a start-up, it was a no brainer for me.
It wasn’t easy. I was incredibly successful at Roche. I knew the people and the place inside out. But I saw Gilead as an opportunity to start-up something that could be really big.
How did you adapt your style and way of working to make the adjustment from Roche to a startup successful?
Roche had an infrastructure. I had a big team. The organization trusted me. On day one at Gilead, I worked at home with only a laptop and my cup of coffee. We did not have our eventual head office in place yet, the budget was due in two weeks and there were no forecasting models. It was a huge reality check.
Just like my hands-on days in the past, I pulled up excel spreadsheets, made a list of all the things that needed to be done and started hiring a senior team and building the business. We operated on a shoestring budget. We held staff meetings at Starbucks and I would even meet Key Opinion Leaders in airports. But it was a true leadership moment for me. Any doubts I had personally about the viability of the company, I had to keep buried down deep inside and just kept repeating the vision for the company with everyone. The moment your team can sense there is the slightest lack of belief on your part personally, is the moment you have lost them. I was very aware of this.
What were the key learnings and adaptations you made during your time in the U.S. with Gilead?
In today’s age, you need to do something outside of Canada to separate yourself from the pack. In the U.S., it was almost like starting over again. New team. Different corporate culture. Many more cooks in the kitchen than in Canada. For instance, the US HIV team that I was working in was as large as all of Roche Canada.
I had to learn how to bring in changes that would be accepted by the local team, which is learning from the front. It was up to me to demonstrate quickly that I had the capability to deliver. I also spent a lot of time listening and being aware of any perceptions- preconceived or otherwise- that might have related to me as a Canadian in the midst of an American team.
These kinds of changes and adaptations are what I like. If you’re too comfortable, it’s time for a change. If people are saying everything is good, I’m the type of guy who will go to check and see and then I’ll lead the launch of a big change initiative.
Not many Country GM’s can say they’ve led the development of an organization from essentially zero to $1 billion. What do you believe are the key intangibles that led the organization to scale up so quickly under your leadership?
To give some context of the success of Gilead in my time, we went from $3 million in 2005, to $200 million in 2010. In the next 18 months, we hit almost $1 billion in gross sales in Canada.
How did we do this? One big factor was listening to what our customers wanted. Our scientists were at the forefront developing great medicines like Atripla (in partnership with BMS) for HIV and Harvoni for Hepatitis C. Locally, we made sure that we were really close to our customers—listening to what they needed, acting on their advice and delivering on our commitments.
The other big factor was making sure that we had the right people on the team who could lead us through the various stages of our evolution. We needed people who could be entrepreneurs and who approach the business in a hands-on way in the early days of Gilead Canada. Later on, we needed people who could deal with complexity and scale and who could bring a more professional approach to the business. Having the right people in the right seats at the right time was critical.
Gilead did a lot of great things for patients. We helped a lot of people. And we made foundational changes to medicinal chemistry and technology.
You joined Allergan at a time of great change and challenges. How are you managing this?
There are definitely challenges at Allergan. People have gone through so much change over the past 3 years. But I see opportunities. We have 74 products in our portfolio in Canada. We have launched a project to transform our business. We have great, resilient people. I hold town halls and I verbalize that. I get to know the people in my organization and I explain to them that I understand what they are going through and give them credit for hanging in through the chaos.
I’m honest with them, that this will not be a perfect process and it will probably take two-and-a-half years to get things right during this period of transformation. My focus now is bringing everyone back to running the business. It’s about moving forward on our vision of being a dynamic growth powerhouse. We are focusing on our core businesses: Medical Aesthetics, Neurosciences, Psychiatry, Women’s Health, GI and Eye Care. We also are preparing to launch a very deep and exciting pipeline.
What is your vision for Allergan in Canada?
We are going to be the fastest growing and most dynamic health company in Canada by 2020. I envision a billion dollar, top tier company that’s a great place for employees to work, is doing tremendous things for patients, is fast moving and entrepreneurial and integrating new businesses constantly.
What is most exciting to you about working in the pharma industry?
It’s an industry where we have the ability to make tremendous impact on peoples’ lives. The things that we can accomplish in this industry, like curing hepatitis C, making HIV a chronic condition, curing certain cancers – to go to work and be immersed in all of these elements is amazing and I’m always excited to work on the next innovation. The industry has and will continue to go through a lot of change and for me, to be at the epicenter of that change, is absolutely exciting and fascinating.
What advice do you have for aspiring general managers in pharma?
The days of being a GM or CEO and operating at 10,000 feet don’t exist anymore. You need to be able to roll up your sleeves and get down to 10 inches. It’s about agility, being hands-on and caring not only about the outcome, but the people too.
People who want to be successful leaders now must have broader skill sets and at the end of the day, be just as comfortable in the boardroom, as working alongside their colleagues in the lab or out in front meeting with customers.