Like any industry, transition and change in biopharmaceuticals is driven by the collective will of individuals. The CEO is
the embodiment of that basic human element, with the mandate to command significant resources in pursuit of what—at least
in the past—has been a relatively consistent objective: to maintain the company's basic "license to operate" while delivering
superior returns to shareholders. Today, however, CEOs must connect the dots around an open canvas with a lot of white space.
There is no playbook to score success. Added to the mix are a huge number of intangibles, ranging from deep confusion around
defining the customer base; proliferating alternative sources of information; restive employees; and expectations to respond
to a widening social agenda that extends beyond generating profits, under the standard business model.
(GETTY IMAGES / EVGENY TERENTEV)
The best way to gauge the climate for business leadership in this era of change is to start with a newcomer to the top of
the "C-suite"—and not simply in terms of the position of the office but in the size and heft of the organization that person
represents. Steve Collis, CEO of AmerisourceBergen, fills both slots, having assumed his post on July 1 at the top of a company
that delivers a fifth of all the pharmaceuticals consumed in the US, with revenues of more than $78 billion—bigger than the
biggest of Big Pharma. Editor-in-Chief William Looney sat down with Collis at company headquarters last month to review his
philosophy on leadership and where he plans to bring the company in the year ahead.
William Looney: As a newcomer to the top of the C-suite, how has your background helped you prepare for the CEO role? Did you plan it as
the ultimate destination in your career path, or has luck and circumstance played more of a role in your transition?
Steve Collis: I believe that personal background does shape your professional prospects. The connection is inescapable. I am South African
by birth and an American citizen by choice. In South Africa, where I spent my formative years, I had the advantage of a good
education, training as a chartered accountant, and the opportunity to apply these skills early as a military service conscript,
where I filled a gap and specialized in ethics and governance work designed to root out fraudulent use of public funds. Among
other tasks, I investigated Air Force military personnel engaged in Ponzi schemes or loan sharking activities against other
recruits. I did not plan for that. The experience taught me the importance of transparency in managing complex information
flows along with the impact of integrity, honesty, and fairness in projecting your "personal brand" to others; once you lose
those good character attributes you never get them back. This is a critical lesson I have carried forward to guide my career
here in the US.
WL: Was your designation as CEO the most transformative passage in your career?
SC: No. I'd say categorically the key transformative event was the day the specialty product business I launched after great
struggle for our predecessor company hit $1 million a month in revenue and turned its first profit. It was a true startup
operation, where I started literally with nothing—few staff and only a very modest financial commitment—and gradually built
it to what it is today: a $16 billion business. Another thing I am proud of is becoming a US citizen. This country has been
open and welcoming to an immigrant like me; it is a land of opportunity. I came to AmerisourceBergen as a South African with
an accent and no credentials from the best schools, yet I could succeed nonetheless. Despite its current problems, the US
has a key advantage globally because it is an open society where success is largely based on merit. People with strong skills
and a work ethic still want to come here.