Broyhill “Leading Out Loud” Executive Lecture Series: Dr. Daniel Vasella, Chairman of Novartis AG

12.6.2011 Careers, General, Multimedia, School News

Wake Forest University Schools of Business welcomed the chairman of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies on December 1st as part of the Broyhill Leading Out Loud Executive Lecture Series. Dr. Daniel Vasella, M.D., chairman of Novartis AG, addressed the challenges and opportunities facing the global pharmaceutical industry and addressed the question: can businesses be caring?

Dean of Business Steve Reinemund introduced Vasella to an audience of students, faculty, staff and guests. Vasella serves on the board of directors of PepsiCo and Reinemund considers him a personal role model.

“Dan is one of the great human beings I have ever had the privilege of getting to know. He has a huge heart,” said Reinemund. “He has impacted lives all over the world with products he personally championed, and despite the worldwide reach of his work, he is never too busy to make a difference in one life.”

Vasella said the very purpose of Novartis AG and the pharmaceutical industry as a whole is to discover, develop and market safe and effective medicines to decrease mortality and improve the quality of lives.

“If we do it well and we do it better than others, we will be rewarded for it,” he said. “Earning money is a consequence, but not the primary objective. I think that is what confuses some people.”

As to the question of whether business can be good or bad, Vasella says “executives can be good and bad, but for business, I am not sure.”

He said businesses have multiple stakeholders such as customers, distributors, governments, employees, NGOs and communities. And their interests are often conflicting.

“Certainly, we never act in isolation. If you think about it, we act as being part of society,” said Vasella. Previous experiences, relationships and personalities impact those actions. “Think about the dilemma that creates for leaders of a company.”

Vasella said the pharmaceutical industry has successfully helped improve the lives of people, noting a reduction in the mortality rate of children with cancer and the growing life expectancy of the world’s population.

“Many diseases today can be treated when they could not be treated or were treated poorly in the past.”

The audience was captivated as Vasella showed a video of a patient with a nervous system disorder. The man had very limited control of his legs and arms and struggled to walk. After 15 months of drug therapy, the patient was seen on the video playing basketball and showing no obvious physical impairments.

“In our bodies we have a language system where different organs and cells are told to do certain things or to stop doing certain things. The communication is done through networks, proteins and small molecules.” Vasella explained that researchers find those pathways and identify points in the system to activate or block with medicines.

Vasella said in 2010, Novartis invested $1.5 Billion in offering free and reduced cost medicines and vaccines.

“For example, we didn’t make a buck on the malaria program, but a million lives have been saved since its launch, so that’s pretty o.k.”

On leadership, Vasella said that he looks at a company as a living organism and sees his role as a vital part of setting direction, getting commitment and ensuring execution. He cautions that business books may have good ideas, but many of the companies cited as “stars” on winning performance have had difficulty or even disappeared years later.

Vasella said competence, ambition and integrity are keys to success at Novartis.

“When I say competence, I am talking on two levels. On a technical level, knowing your stuff and on the second level, having competence with people, the ability to interact in a constructive way,” he said.

Vasella elicited some laughs from the audience by saying, “some people think the word ‘ambition’ is too strong, so now I will say intrinsic motivation.”

“We need to have the engine in ourselves. We cannot wait to be motivated by others,” he said.

Integrity is a must and Vasella asserts, “If you are ambitious and competent without integrity, you are very, very dangerous.” He said you must acknowledge that everyone can be seduced to a certain degree and one needs to be prudent about what is happing around them to avoid problems.

Norvatis AG was the Most Admired Pharmaceutical Company of 2011 in the yearly Fortune magazine survey, and the Financial Times named Vasella the most influential European business man of the past quarter century.
Vasella served as CEO and executive member of the company for 14 years following the merger that created Novartis in 1996. He was appointed Chairman in April 1999. Before the Novartis merger, Vasella was CEO of Sandoz Pharma Ltd. and a member of the Sandoz Group Executive Committee. He graduated with an M.D. from the University of Bern and completed executive training at the Harvard Business School.

Novartis operates in 140 countries, providing pharmaceuticals, generic medications, eye care products, consumer health products, vaccines and diagnostic tools.

Leading out Loud is a Wake Forest University Schools of Business lecture series created to educate and inspire business students through exposure to industry leaders shaping today’s business world. This series is made possible by the generous support of the Broyhill Family Foundation of Lenoir, NC. br>