Keeping it Simple

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-10-01-2022, Volume 42, Issue 10

Bristol Myers Squibb commercial head Chris Boerner believes a straightforward formula is the best formula in advancing innovation and developing talent in today’s complex healthcare climate—an approach he roots in authenticity and “not over engineering,” whether tackling business or culture.

Chris Boerner, as executive vice president and chief commercialization officer at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), leads commercial strategy and execution for the large pharma company across all geographies. Naturally, it’s a complex position in an even more complex and highly regulated industry—a role that holds a great deal of weight and responsibility, both internally (BMS is ranked No. 82 on 2022’s Fortune 500 list) and externally. But Boerner likes to keep his focus simple, he tells Pharm Exec. Admirably, and something he makes crystal clear when faced with questions regarding strategy, policy, and the evolving influences in healthcare, Boerner never loses sight of the most important stakeholder—the patient.

When asked, for example, about the changing face of healthcare and the shift to digital during COVID-19, or the rapid increase in physicians leaving private practice and joining the ranks of hospitals and health systems, he responds comprehensively and thoughtfully, always bringing it back to the same important goal. “There will always be cycles of change and a great deal of complexity in this industry, but what truly matters is how we effectively communicate our science and ensure that our products are getting in the hands of the patients with speed in order to transform their lives through our innovation,” says Boerner. “Where we run into trouble, not just as a company, but frankly, as an industry, is when we overcomplicate how we go about doing our business and make that complexity the problem of our customers.”

This people-first ethos is what ultimately has guided Boerner’s career. But how did he get to where he is today? “I often get asked this question, and I’d say that I’m kind of a case study for not over engineering your career path, being open to new opportunities, and not being afraid to stretch yourself and step out of your comfort zone,” he tells Pharm Exec. “Most importantly, having a consistent thirst for learning because so many choices I made in my career were driven by an intense curiosity. When I look back on it, I probably wouldn’t have ever predicted I’d end up here, but seeing all the steps along the way, it makes sense.”

A fortuitous route

Boerner was a part of the first generation of his family to go to college—Washington University in St. Louis—where he majored in history and economics. At the time, he had absolutely no interest in science. After college, Boerner had hopes of becoming an academic, so he sought to get a PhD at the Haas School of Business in Berkeley, Calif. While there, he became fascinated by the study of innovation, and more specifically, innovation in healthcare. He wanted to understand why some pharma companies were better than others at developing new drugs. “It’s actually a really interesting irony—what led me down this path was an article I read about Bristol Myers Squibb and how good the company was at the time at developing oncology drugs,” says Boerner. “And I began wondering what factors make it good. Is it having the right people with experience in that space? Is it the drugs themselves?”

Reading that article and contemplating those fundamental questions in the late 1990s served as the jumping-off point for his career. The more Boerner learned, the more fascinated he became with the drivers of successful product development, which led him to McKinsey & Company as a consultant for biopharma companies, among other industries. It didn’t take long to figure out that he didn’t just want to study or consult about the industry, he wanted to be a part of it.

In 2002, Boerner joined Genentech as associate director, oncology market planning. At the time, the biotech giant was a more science-driven company, so he had to absorb a great deal of those aspects as quickly as possible. Boerner also discovered that it was important to dedicate time to understand pieces of the product value chain that were not necessarily part of his day-to-day, but grew his practical knowledge of the industry as a whole and how it operates. He spent eight years at Genentech advancing through various marketing roles focused on strategy, development, and commercialization for Avastin (bevacizumab), the blockbuster blood vessel growth inhibitor now used off-label to treat certain advanced-stage or metastatic breast cancers. From there, Boerner spent four years at Seattle Genetics serving as senior and then executive vice president of commercial, as well as vice president of marketing,before joining BMS in the beginning of 2015 as president and head of US commercial.

It was a full circle moment of sorts for Boerner. Many years after reading the BMS article, the one that seemed to chart his course, he was now part of the company—an attractive landing spot, he says, due to BMS’ commitment to invest in a range of unmet disease areas.

“If you look at the history, that’s what BMS has done in HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease, and, of course, in oncology, where we introduced the first immuno-oncology (IO) drug with Yervoy (ipilimumab)—and we’re still a leader in that space. In fact, we’re the only company with three IO mechanisms on the market,” he tells Pharm Exec. “I wanted to work for a company that not only had that history, but also had that commitment on a forward-looking basis.”

BMS, whose portfolio also targets hematology, cardiovascular disease, and immunology, among other areas, is one of the biggest industry players in R&D, ranking fifth in 2021 R&D spend, investing $9.5 billion, as reported in Pharm Exec’s June “Pharma 50” feature. Breyanzi, a drug used to treat adults with certain types of large B-cell lymphoma, and Abecma, the first CAR-T cell therapy for relapsed or refractory multiple myeloma patients who have received at least four prior lines of therapy, are two success stories introduced in 2021. But the future is what Boerner is most excited about. He notes BMS is in the process of launching nine new therapies, five of which are first-in-class. “We’re at the beginning of bringing the next wave of innovative medicines to the market,” he says.

One of those is Camzyos (mavacamten), launched in April, for the treatment of adults with symptomatic obstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). It is the first drug to specifically target the source of obstructive HCM, a disease that affects an estimated 600,000 to 1.5 million Americans, or 1 in 500 people. Deucravacitinib, one of the main pipeline assets discovered and developed by BMS’ own internal R&D team, was approved in the US last month. Branded as Sotyktu, the treatment targets moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis and is being developed in several other indications, including psoriatic arthritis and lupus.

Enjoying the ride

Boerner’s enthusiasm isn’t just limited to helping advance commercial pathways for new drugs. A peruse of his LinkedIn posts and photos reveals his passion for cycling, including heartfelt messages about BMS’ annual US Coast 2 Coast 4 Cancer (C2C4C) ride, held in September. The C2C4C tradition started in 2014 when a group of BMS oncology employees, largely in the sales organization, were compelled to do more to support cancer research, many closely affected by the disease. The riders volunteer their personal time to raise funds for cancer research and train for five months for their approximately 225-mile segment over a three-day period. (The total route is nearly 3,000 miles from Cannon Beach, Ore., to Long Branch, NJ). BMS initially partnered with Stand Up to Cancer around the event, and now works with The V Foundation. In its inaugural ride, BMS’ support included providing all the equipment and training, Boerner says, as well as a commitment to match up to $500,000 of the amount raised.

“I’ve done [the ride] since I joined the company in 2015, and it is one of the most impactful things personally and professionally that I get the pleasure to do every year,” he says. “You get to see employees—who aren’t professional riders—train for months on end, in their own personal time in honor of individuals who have had cancer… and some ride for themselves, having been previously diagnosed with cancer.”

C2C4C has grown into a global event, expanding to Europe in 2016, followed by Japan in 2021, and Latin America this year. Boerner is participating in the rides in Europe and Japan this year. Since the program’s inception, the rides have raised about $12.1 million for cancer research worldwide.

Culture is key

Boerner points to company and team culture as a major influence on his leadership style. He views his leadership role as something that’s very straightforward. His job is to hire and develop the most diverse talent that he can find in the industry and set the vision of BMS’ commercial and medical organizations, creating a climate and culture where that talent can be successful. “Oftentimes, companies fixate on tools or financial resources,” says Boerner. “I think equally and maybe more important is the culture—is your organization one that fosters innovation and eliminates unnecessary complexity? Does it encourage people to speak up and bring their best selves to work? Does it set the right tone around ethics?” Being accountable in addressing such questions, and living out those values, across company levels, is critical, he adds. “One of the things that I’ve learned is that cultures aren’t static. They’re constantly evolving, and hopefully they are improving,” says Boerner.

When it comes to tapping diverse talent sources externally, Boerner believes, “It’s not a ‘nice to have,’ it’s table stakes. The problems in healthcare are probably among the most complex and challenging that we face as a society; it is important for us to bring the best and most diverse minds to the table to try to solve those problems.” One example is BMS’ longtime relationship with the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA), a connection Boerner has played a key role in during his tenure (he was named this year’s HBA Honorable Mentor and is an HBA Advisory Board member). For the last four years, he has served as the executive sponsor of the Bristol Myers Squibb Network of Women (B-NOW), an internal employee resource group charged with making sure the company empowers and develops women to help achieve business objectives, including evaluating policies that affect women, such as employee leave policies. On the more treatment-focused front, Boerner notes the company is injecting similar perspectives, such as thinking about how women make decisions on cancer treatment, and how to effectively engage female cancer patients and caregivers, for instance.

Motivated to mentor

In accepting the HBA Honorable Mentor award in June, Boerner wanted to make a point about subtle moments in everyday interactions with employees juxtaposed with the big wins. Both are important to the culture of a company, he says, and how employees feel when they show up for work. “We as an industry have really made a lot of great progress on some of the big objectives that we have associated with diversity and inclusion and achieving gender parity,” Boerner remarked during his presentation “And while we can’t declare victory, we absolutely need to celebrate progress there. But at the same time, I don’t think we can let these macro-level accomplishments overshadow the impact of the more day-to-day, critically important moments that really do have a big impact on employees.” He cited examples such as scheduling calls or meetings in the evening when people should be focused on the “life” portion of their work-life balance, or letting men talk over women as those moments that stall progress.

Boerner credits several mentors that inspired him along his career journey, ones, he says, were willing to put their own reputations on the line by creating situations for him to learn and grow outside of his comfort zone—situations that held real weight. He recalls one mentor telling him, “Never forget that there’s real value in walking the halls and talking to more junior colleagues. It’s 10 minutes of your day, for them it’s dinner conversation.” In selecting Boerner as Honorable Mentor, HBA solicited information from past colleagues, and then shared the feedback with him. Boerner says it consisted largely of things he didn’t remember doing, the small, day-to day interactions that he wasn’t aware of but left positive impressions. One associate stressed the importance of always being an authentic leader: “If you’re hiring the right people, they’re going to know if you’re being upfront and candid with them and looking out for their best interests.” He says he keeps these insights and lessons tucked away, using them to help shape how he engages as a mentor—all toward doing his part to advance the mission of the organization in delivering new products across multiple therapeutic areas.

“I genuinely believe that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish when we come together as a team, focusing on our science and the opportunity it offers to meaningfully change the lives of patients,” he says. “I look forward to our next wave of innovation and delivering it to even more patients across the globe.”

Fran Pollaro is Pharm Exec's Senior Editor. He can be reached at
fpollaro@mjhlifesciences.com.