HBA Woman of the Year: J&J’s Denice Torres

Apr 16, 2015
Volume 34, Issue 4

At her Catholic high school graduation, Denice Torres sat near the back of the auditorium, separated from peers who received high academic honors. The Indiana native must have struck an image: sandy-brown hair, athletic build, light hazel eyes, and a demeanor bristling with ambition. As she listened to speakers onstage in the spotlight, Torres remembers thinking, We'll see. There's more waiting for me. That refrain from her 18-year-old self still echoes in her mind today.

Modest roots

Growing up in the grimy steelmaking citadel of Gary, the middle child of a Polish mother and Hispanic father, Torres quickly learned nothing would be handed to her. In an upbringing she describes as lower-middle class, fear mixed with hard work kept Torres, her older sister, and younger brother, focused on the world beyond their neighborhood. A huge industrial plant sprawled through the lot across from her family's three-bedroom house, while abutting their property stood the Careful Car Wash.


Denice Torres, president of Johnson & Johnson's McNeil Consumer Healthcare division, celebrates with her team. (Photos: John Halpern)

Torres' father, Joe, worked in the US Steel mills. After retiring, he became president of Gary's public school system, the first Hispanic person to do so, which, she points out, was no easy achievement at the time. After raising three children, Torres' mother, Joan, wanted to do something for herself. Torres compares her mother to Maude Findlay, the namesake character of a Norman Lear television sitcom from the 1970s, who was an outspoken liberal and women's rights advocate.

Joan got a job performing non-clinical tasks at the local hospital in Gary while earning her nursing degree at night. After graduation, she became one of the first certified school nurse practitioners in Indiana, another milestone for the Torres family. Joan spent a career serving disadvantaged kids in Gary's inner city schools. Besides her mother, Torres remembers her maternal grandmother, Genevieve, as a strong female role model. With only an eighth-grade education, Genevieve climbed the ranks to become assistant manager of a local bank.

Both parents instilled in Torres a sense of duty and service to community. Even with a strict focus on education, humor imbued the Torres family. Torres remembers mariachi music blaring at her paternal grandmother's house, where fresh tortillas were often fried on the griddle. At her maternal uncle's house, she heard accordion music and family stories. Dancing happened spontaneously and often.

Within this upbringing, sports played a major role for the young Torres. "There was no Harvard Business Review at that time, and so my strong female role models were women in sports," she says. By the time she was a junior in high school, she'd set her sights on a basketball scholarship and possible coaching career. Torres also continued to test her stand-up comic skills on the toughest audience—her family.

Making light

Humor has often been the refrain in her role as president of Johnson & Johnson's McNeil Consumer Healthcare division in Fort Washington, PA. "I'm very funny, I have to say," Torres says, in her characteristic deadpan manner. In high school, Torres was voted most athletic and funniest.

She earned a basketball scholarship to play at Saint Joseph's College in Rensselaer and played freshman year before blowing out her knee. She then transferred to Ball State University in Muncie. But Torres is grateful for the way things played out because it set her on a fast-moving path toward success.

With extra time in her schedule, she enrolled in a psychology course and immediately fell for the subject. She changed majors and began soaking up lessons on human behavior and emotion she would use decades later in managing people and teams.

During her junior year of college, Torres visited a VA mental hospital as part of a class project. "It was the first time I was exposed to extreme mental illness," she says. Torres enjoyed figuring out how people respond in different situations, but a career as a psychologist did not kindle her passion. Since she was brought up to value education and hard work, she turned to a career that required both: law.

"I still remember opening that letter from Indiana University's Maurer School of Law," she says. The university awarded her a full scholarship. The analytical aspects of law captivated Torres and some of her most memorable academic studies happened while working together with her peers.

After graduation, she joined a Michigan law firm specializing in worker's compensation and medical malpractice. Over time, Torres realized that "the nature of law, and being a lawyer, means inherent conflict." For the former point guard basketball player, who valued playing and winning as teams, the individualistic environment in law did not feel like the best fit. At the same time, Torres noticed her favorite cases involved those with medical issues or components. She tucked this revelation away.

Stretch—even if it hurts

By this time, Torres was in her late 20s, and felt uneasy that she had not settled into a career. "But I also realized how much being uncomfortable can prompt us to do positive things. Without discomfort—and listening to that discomfort—in our lives, we tend not to change," Torres says.

Torres decided to answer a newspaper job advertisement as an account executive for a marketing and advertising agency. Even without marketing experience, the firm hired her immediately. "From Day One, I saw this group of creative, passionate, perfectionist people, working together as a team to give the best customer service, and I thought, 'This is me,'" Torres says. In her spare time she read copious amounts of marketing and research books and articles.

But something was still missing. Torres wanted her credentials to match her passion. She applied for University of Michigan's MBA program—one of the most competitive in the country at the time—and got in. As a 28-year-old business school student, Torres knew she'd found her niche.

She applied for a summer internship with Eli Lilly's Indiana headquarters and was assigned to help promote the company's then brand-new drug Prozac (fluoxetine). Lilly offered her a job in product planning and development at the end of the internship. One year later, she became a sales representative for Prozac and Ceclor. She quickly learned how she could differentiate herself from all other sales reps who came through clinic doors (and who were not always welcomed). "I started making personal connections with the receptionists. Instead of being the Ceclor rep, I became the person with the cute niece who was just born," Torres says.

Connecting with Clark

Following her time on the sales front lines, she was promoted to market research manager within special projects. That is where she met Allen Clark, her first mentor and person who would have the biggest impact on her professional life. Clark directed Lilly's North American operations at the time and took Torres under his wing. The 37-year-old Torres was sometimes intimidated by the towering 6'3 Clark, who talked bluntly in his native Scottish brogue. "He was tough on me, but he believed in me," Torres says.

A turning point in her career arrived unceremoniously one afternoon just before Clark headed into a meeting to announce a new incoming director. "I remember he caught me in the hallway, pulled me aside, and said, 'I'm promoting you to director of marketing studies—now come stand next to me when I make the announcement,'" she recalls. Torres spent 18 months in that role and oversaw a reorganization of the department. In the process, she learned about re-engineering business processes and change management.

Satisfied with her work, Clark promoted Torres again, this time to direct the sales and marketing department of human growth hormone products. In her initial meetings, Torres stayed quiet on the sidelines. Clark stopped her one day in the office and sternly told her that she had been promoted so she would speak her mind and share ideas with the other directors at the table, who at the time were all male. "I felt free because he believed in me," Torres says.

Clark, like Torres, believed humor to be an important part of the workplace. He often injected chuckle-worthy mantras into conversation, such as, "When it's all said and done, there's more said than done," Torres remembers.

With her self-confidence flourishing, Clark then tasked Torres with turning around Lilly's failed osteoporosis prevention drug at the time. To set her team up for success, Torres compared the processes of revamping, marketing, and selling the drug with summiting a mountain. She realized metaphors like this could help a team stay goal-oriented and keep track of progress and what still needed to be done. From there Torres moved on to executive director of Lilly's global operations, primarily for Zyprexa (olanzapine), a franchise then worth $5 billion. She enjoyed the challenge of creating clinical and commercialization plans, but missed working with profit and loss on the business side. Underneath it all, Torres missed something else in her life, too: the self-acceptance required to be her authentic, whole person.

Climbing her mountain

Torres signed up for a seven-day Outward Bounds backpacking trip in California's Sierra Nevada. At the start of the expedition, she and others received fully-loaded 60-pound backpacks. Throughout the trip, they learned how to empty not only their physical packs, but also emotional baggage. "I was really hurting on that trip," Torres says. "I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the mountains and realized I had to find a way to be true to myself." A couple years later, Torres took the first steps of opening up to her colleagues. Before a communal work event, a colleague asked Torres if her partner, Kim, would also be attending. Torres explained that Kim had to work; it was one of the earliest times Torres talked openly in her professional environment about being gay.

Torres did not know that all of her toughness, hard work and grit would be rigorously tested in 2000 when her daughter, Sierra, was born. Sierra was born at 30 weeks of gestation—about two months too early. She weighed two pounds and 10 ounces. Torres and her partner endured a harrowing three weeks while Sierra stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit. "The person I am today has so much to do with what happened to me during that time period. It changed me forever," Torres says. "Either this was going to be the worst thing that had ever happened, or this thing of gratitude," she says. Bit by bit, doctors solemnly relayed grim updates to the parents. Sierra had cerebral palsy, hearing loss, and epilepsy. She would be confined to a wheelchair for life. "I just wanted to be this girl's mommy," Torres says. Finally, she took Sierra home. "I remember the first time I went to get diapers," Torres recalls. "I was strutting down the aisle like John Travolta because I could buy diapers for my girl."

When Torres returned to work, things had changed. Not everyone understood the need for her extended absence and the magnitude of what she had endured. "I developed this empathy for people going through challenges at work," she says. The experience taught her that a company is truly the sum of its people. "It is important to support people in their greatest time of need," Torres says.

First in the line of fire

In 2004, Torres hired on with Ortho McNeil Neurologics as vice president of marketing. She once again began her fast ascent through positions of increasingly demanding responsibility and leadership, and was brought in as president of J&J's McNeil Consumer Healthcare division in April 2011.

At the time, J&J was hurting from product recalls and would soon enter a consent decree with the FDA over its children's Tylenol, regular Tylenol and other OTC products. J&J pulled Tylenol products from the market at the first sign of trouble during this time, Torres points out. From a safety standpoint, it was the right thing to do, she says. Early in her career at McNeil, Torres decided she would put certain processes in place so that Tylenol would emerge a stronger and better brand and product. "If you look at previous situations, like the cyanide Tylenol scares of the 1980s, you can see that innovations like the first safety seals on products came from that time period."

Torres regularly evokes the J&J credo, which includes Do the right thing and Keep your promises. "When I came into this role four years ago, I realized that we had to get back to our roots," she says. "Our mission is to deliver premium healthcare solutions with an unparalleled healthcare experience."

Early on in her role at McNeil, in an unorthodox style typical for her, Torres visited pharmacies and drug stores to hang out in the OTC medications aisle to observe customers. She remembers watching an older couple compare bottles and flip labels back and forth. After some time, the couple finally went to check out. But, Torres says, they eventually came back to the aisle because they were still unsure. "That always stuck with me," Torres says. She often explains to her team what the average person in the U.S. earns per year and what the same person spends on healthcare. Even an OTC drug that costs $8 is a big purchase for many people, Torres points out. "We have to differentiate ourselves by making the experience as near-perfect for them as possible," she says. This starts with the packaging on the outside, the instructions inside the packaging, the pills, the bottle, and opening the bottle itself. "After a purchase, I want consumers to say, 'I didn't expect that—that delighted me,'" Torres says.

Test two: Tylenol

Tylenol is one of J&J's most recognizable brands, but also one that has had to endure multiple crisis communication situations and quality control challenges, starting with the initial cyanide poisonings in the 1980s. In 2012, McNeil recalled nearly 600,000 bottles of infant Tylenol due to uneven dosing that resulted in too much or too little active ingredients. In 2009, two years before Torres' arrival, McNeil recalled some Tylenol brands after a wood-treatment chemical showed up in the medicine, causing nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. During her first two years, Torres spent time restructuring and rebuilding "in the basement" with foundational aspects of the products. She worked on turning around processes and capabilities within the company. "This work is not sexy," Torres says. But the work cannot be shortchanged "because the strength of the foundation will be the strength of the house," Torres says.


Torres' leadership has been integral to the turnaround of Tylenol.

Alex Gorsky, J&J's CEO and chairman, has observed her financial acumen and bold leadership style for many years. "Denice takes a 360-degree view when it comes to assessing and making business decisions," Gorsky says, adding that the best leaders "bring unique perspectives, courage, and a tremendous amount of compassion for people. That's Denice."

As part of the Tylenol turnaround, Torres saw a need for more frequent communication throughout her team of nearly 1,000 directors, managers, and staff. So she started a twice-weekly group meeting called Fireside Chats in which she would meet with different departments. She also started a biweekly town hall meeting event in the building's auditorium open to all employees, who could share their thoughts and ideas, and hear priority updates from Torres. Torres visits the manufacturing plants on the McNeil campus herself. She asks the managers to take her on a "Points of Pain" tour so she can know what changes need to happen where and when.

"Denice will always tell the truth —she is all about straight talk," says Natasha Zuyev, vice president, consent decree, McNeil Consumer Healthcare. "She helped my team reach our goals by creating a collaborative and caring environment and prioritizing consent decree work above everything else."

Torres says she taps into psychology lessons by regularly checking in with her team to know where they stand on the emotional journey that parallels a product turnaround. She tells them what to expect during the next stage and how people might deal with frustrations. "Denice has led McNeil Consumer Healthcare through transformational change with exceptional results," says Peter Fasolo, vice president, global human resources, J&J. "She brings an unwavering commitment to authentic leadership and is a role model for proper work-life balance."

When asked if Tylenol products have made a complete recovery, Torres hesitates. "They are doing very well, but I would not say they have recovered completely," she says. The pediatric OTC share has significantly increased and will likely fully recover, she adds. J&J, in her mind, remains one of the strongest global pharmaceutical companies. Worldwide consumer sales were $14.5 billion in 2014, Torres points out. The company had global sales of $74.3 billion in 2014, an increase of 4% over the previous year, according to a J&J spokesperson.

Be yourself

If Torres had to name only one passion, it would be providing support for and advocating on behalf of women to take on more leadership roles in the healthcare industry. The message may be heard often, but it's true, women must be their authentic, total selves, she says. "I know what it was like when I was trying to be another person," Torres explains. She encourages employees to wear whatever they wish at work—whether it's jeans or a suit—because people must feel comfortable when they are working.

J&J does a tremendous job of hiring a diverse workforce and reflects the general population make-up better than most Fortune 100 companies, Torres says. But until more women are in leadership positions, the need for female executives must be prioritized and improved upon, she adds. Women must embrace the fact that they may feel insecure at times—but everyone is insecure, Torres explains. The notion that no one is perfect, and no one needs to be, should be communicated more often to women in the workplace, she adds. "Diversity is ideas, ideas are innovation, and innovation is what makes a company successful," Torres says.


Women in the Workplace: A View from Europe

"Denice's authenticity, transparency, and emphasis on fostering collaboration and mutual accountability for outcomes create an environment where people feel stretched and supported at the same time—and the business results follow," says Sandi Peterson, group worldwide chairman, J&J "She leads with energy and clarity of purpose in every situation and has a real talent for connecting with people at all levels of the organization. She has served as a mentor and a sponsor to many people at J&J, and has had a wonderful impact on many careers."

When she looks back on her career, Torres wants to leave a legacy marked by helping others be their very best self —from self-acceptance to self-celebration. "I am resolute in the belief that by being bold and helping others realize their potential, amazing things happen for everyone," she says.

Kathleen Raven is a freelance healthcare writer. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @inkkr.

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