How to Run Your Biotech Like the Kraft Family Runs the New England Patriots

June 19, 2018

Pharmaceutical Executive

Jonathan Kraft shares his family's secrets on what it takes to lead a successful organization, while also creating lasting brand power.

Whether you are running a lean biotech that’s just transitioned out of the academic world, a legacy pharmaceutical company, or multi-billion-dollar sports franchise, the business skills you need to be successful are similar.

According to Jonathan Kraft, the president of The Kraft Group and the New England Patriots, it all really comes down to two things: relationships and thinking about ways of differentiating yourself from the competition.

Speaking at the BIO International Convention in Boston in early June, Kraft started out by telling a story about his family’s commodities business and selling corrugated boxes.

“It’s hard to innovate in the commodities business,” he said. “But, one thing we have always, always done is to make sure we have the best customer service in the commodities business. If you really, really focus on your customers, their problems, and how you can help solve them, you can really differentiate yourself.”

They brought that same thought process to the New England Patriots when they purchased the debt-ridden, losing team in 1990s.

“We wanted to create long-standing relationships,” he said. “We wanted to create a brand equity you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

To do that they not only took their time and thought about long-term goals, but they thought about the value they could bring to the partners they would be working with.

“Twenty-five years ago, people would just have relationships in season,” Kraft said. “We thought of a model centered around how we could help consumer products year-round with our power-our logos, promotions, etc. We started to think about it much more as a customer service to the sponsors … the ways we could embed people in their organization who knew everything we could offer them.”

Kraft said when they started this business model they had 10 partners. Although, through acquisitions and name changes, some of them might be known as something else right now, all 10 partners are still with them today.

Managing talent

If you think you have issues managing your employees, try managing a roster full of high-profile football players and coach, like Rob Gronkowski, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady, who theoretically might have more media mentions in one day during the season, than your pharmaceutical company does in its lifetime. Then, add in all the staff that makes the entire operation function, everyone from the sales people who sell sponsorships at Gillette Stadium to the scouts who are deciding draft picks.

Kraft, who referred to himself as “lucky” when it comes to his employees, said on the operations side of the business they have a lot of longevity. The shortest duration of the employment, in some areas of the business is 10, or 15 years-something that is very unique in today’s business culture.

“They understand how we like to operate, what’s important to us culturally, and then we let them go,” he said. “We trust them, we respect them, and they know to come to us when they need help or want to bounce ideas off us.”

When asked about how to build a good team, especially when it comes to a team that has a high-turnover, such as a football team, Kraft had this advice:

“It’s not always about having the best talent. It’s about the best value wrapped in the best character, who can create a positive locker room and a coachable team. You preserve the culture when you do have turnover. There is always a core group of guys you’re building around. You invest in them, long term. Not only are they an especially good football player, they are people with very strong character who work hard and know how to put the team first … We aren’t collecting talent, we are building a team.”

Healthcare challenges

The business of science and healthcare is an important one for Kraft and his family. So much so, that they put their name behind it and launched the Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator at Harvard Business School.  The Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator was established in 2016 with a $20 million endowment from the Robert and Myra Kraft Family Foundation, Inc. The accelerator recognizes the need for leadership in order to realize the potential of precision medicine. Their mission is to develop open-acess models for the entire cancer ecosystem to follow.  

For years, Kraft said, the commercial and academic sides of life sciences have been working in silos. They want to break down those silos and foster a place where the brightest minds from business and science can come together and advance the field.

When it comes to healthcare and innovation, “we have to do more,” he said.

“In most other counties the government is doing more and more,” Kraft said. “Here in the U.S. we are doing less and less. The states are so strapped financially, so it’s very hard.”

Outside influences

Just like the life sciences industry, usually healthcare and pharma companies to be specific, professional sports are regular targets of the media and critics who like to play Monday morning quarterback.

Kraft knows this all too well. But, he doesn’t pay much attention to it, and thinks most people running a business shouldn’t either.

“We appreciate people do care [enough that they want to give opinions], but you always have to think about what, in the long-term, is in the best interest of the team, or company, … don’t’ let it, in any way impact the decision of how you are running your business.”