For years I wrote regularly for Bristol-Myers Squibb’s internal communications website Intouch. Here is a profile I wrote of senior Bristol-Myers Squibb executive Mike Seeley. It appeared on the site in 2008.
An Enduring Passion: Mike Seeley’s 38 Years as a Bristol-Myers Squibb Employee
Mike Seeley, senior vice president, Europe, and General Manager, France, has worked for Bristol-Myers Squibb for 38 years in seven different countries. He has never held a job in another company. He joined what as then Bristol-Myers fresh out of commercial school in the U.K.
Seeley says the secret to his longevity lies in the company’s ability to keep generating new and more interesting opportunities while at the same time retaining a consistently dependable context for that work to take place.
“I think one of the things that makes moving eight times in an organization possible is the consistent standards that I’ve felt in the company,” Seeley says. “I’ve been able to take a certain amount of risk in moving around in the company because I have confidence that there’s a company behind me that knows how to maintain a standard.”
Seeley’s varied experiences have served him well. “When Mike joined the EMEA team, he brought with him his diversity of experience and perspective from his leadership roles in the company,” says Beatrice Cazala, president, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Asia-Pacific. “His knowledge of the company and his management style led to the successful integration of our current EMEA model. He was able to quickly adapt to the challenges and gain consensus from some of the newer leaders on the team to help drive our strategy forward.
Mike is a key pillar of my leadership team,” Cazala adds.
I think it’s because he’s a thoughtful, objective and yet authoritative leader,” Veitch continues. “Mike’s always in control, careful and considerate, possessing good sound judgment. He never panics. He’s not a man who speaks to excess but when he speaks, he really makes sense.”
Over his career, Seeley says he has come to prize developing people more than any other responsibility. “As a manager, talent development is one of the key things I do every day,” he explains. “When I look back at the end of the year and assess my own performance, if I can’t identify a pretty good list of people who have developed and earned promotions or development opportunities or have been trained and taken on new roles, I don’t think I’ve done my job.
I don’t remember whether I made my budget in 1985, but I do remember a senior leader who may have given me a break or an opportunity or guidance or a lesson. That, I can remember. And I’m inspired by that,” Seeley continues. “Aside from that, I ask myself, ‘Who should be running this company in 10, 15, 20 years time?’ ‘Do we have the ability to identify the skills and behaviors needed to progress to a senior level?’ I try to step back and look at the people I work with as future senior leaders of the company.”
Clearly Mike Seeley must have seemed like one of those.
Seeley was born and grew up in Zimbabwe and moved to London where he attended the London School of Business. He started out at the company doing statistical and financial analysis. In his view, his first significant role came when he moved to the “operational” part of the business, becoming an export manager for Austria and Central Europe; it was, of course, during the time much of that region was still communist.
I had the role of representing the company in some of those countries, as well as selling bulk pharmaceuticals. This goes way back — before Technical Operations, as it exists today” Seeley recalls. “It was my first job where I was really out in front of customers. I had a budget and I had performance standards that I had to meet. It developed from there. I’ve had operational roles ever since.”
Over the next two and a half decades, he continued to work in the region in a variety of roles, becoming increasingly versed in its economic and social structure. Seeley was promoted to vice president with responsibility for Central Europe and Israel in 1998. Three years later, he moved to Prague and the following year he was appointed vice president and general manager, Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
Between 1976 and 2004, the year when 10 countries entered the European Union [EU], I really got to know them,” he recalls. “I had a perspective on them and on some of their regulatory systems and economic issues. I also knew some of the issues our company was going have to deal with.”
So, in 2001, Seeley was well prepared when the company began preparing for the growth of the EU. “We formed a cross functional task force that managed all the pre-regulatory process, working with the regulatory group in Brussels and so on, getting our organization set up for a different operating environment,” he remembers.
There was no big bang,” he says. “We were absolutely prepared. When May first, 2004, came along and the EU grew to 25 member countries, there was no disruption at any of our businesses. All the regulatory work was done; all the operations required for work in the EU environment were set up. It was a completely smooth transition.”
In 2004, Seeley was appointed vice president, EU Markets, with responsibility for a complex region of countries, including Austria, Belgium, Central Europe, Ireland, Greece, The Netherlands, Scandinavia and Switzerland.
This was a region that was in “steady state” mode, according to Giovanni Caforio, now senior vice president, Bristol-Myers Squibb U.S. Oncology, who at the time was in charge of European Marketing.
Seeley could reasonably have managed it as it was. But there were issues apparent to Seeley and his new colleagues. Many of the businesses in the various countries were focused on mature products that were not in line with current company priorities.
We were not focusing our resources, our energy, our money or our people on the business of the future,” says Emmanuel Blin, now vice president, Commercial Operations for France, but at the time, a member of Seeley’s EU staff. “We were focused on maintaining the business of the past. And so, these countries were less and less aligned with the corporation. We faced huge supply issues on the mature portfolio, for example. People were less and less motivated. Management became restless because we knew that we had to prepare for the future, but we were maintaining old products.”
A Plan for Growth
So Seeley met with members of his leadership team to take a long look at the region’s business. The plan they developed called for all of the company’s resources in the region to be focused only on new products; the mature products were to be outsourced to distributors. It also called on the company to simply leave certain countries where business did not rise to a critical mass. If the plan worked, it was likely to be a very significant change but one which would net the company substantial savings while at the same time re-enfranchising the organization. After presenting it to management and winning approval, Seeley, empowered his managers to implement it.
One of those managers was Blin himself. “Mike understands what complexity means so he’s very good at managing complexity and change,” Blin says, looking back. “He’s able to make decisions from one country to another. And he’s able to move the BMS business within those changes. In the EU reorganization, I was in charge of basically executing and implementing a very specific shift in the company’s strategy in the region that was decided by Mike.”
The result, Seeley says, was not only as successful as hoped — $26 million in savings — but employees like Blin were given “defining career moments” in the bargain.
Because of that reorganization and because of his earlier strong support for a transformation in EMEA — moving the European countries toward a system of pan-European brand managers based in Paris — Veitch says Seeley was a key influence in the company’s current European configuration.
The region today looks fundamentally different than it did when Seeley started working in it. “The change in the European business model is due, in part, to Mike’s leadership style and collaborative skills gained from managing so many countries in the region,” Veitch says.
A Strong Defender
Setting up the European marketing team required a significant reallocation of resources between countries and the EMEA regional organization. “From the very beginning,” says Caforio, who was part of the team. “Mike was one of the strongest defenders of the new model. And given his seniority, his credibility and his overall impact, it succeeded.”
In 2007, Seeley was named vice president, Europe and General Manager, France. He is the first non-Frenchman ever to hold the position. As a signal to his new compatriots that he understood the significance of that change, he has spoken nothing but French from the minute he started the job. It is a move that has been very well received.<
Mike is a gentleman,” says Benoit Gallet, vice president, Corporate and Business Communications, Bristol-Myers Squibb France. “Everybody has been impressed by his willingness to speak only French in France. His human approach is very strong.”
Of course, that gesture will only get him so far. The company’s business in France is the second largest market in the company’s portfolio after the U.S. (Bristol-Myers Squibb is number 10 in France, number 13 in the world). The French business faces significant access issues from a government that despite its conservative leadership is still presiding over a socialized reimbursement system which is still looking to find ways to save money. A case in point: a government program called ACBUS which focuses specifically on replacing prescriptions for Plavix (clopidogrel bisulfate) with prescriptions for aspirin.
When I joined the French operations my immediate priority was to stabilize the organization, and refocus on the period of growth we felt was in front of us by building on the very successful launches of Sprycel [dasatinib], Baraclude [entecavir] and Reyataz [atazanavir],” Seeley says.
Impact of New Role
Since assuming his new role, Bristol-Myers Squibb France sales grew by 6 percent in 2007, excluding pravastatin, which has been severely impacted by generics and is on track for overall growth of 8 percent in 2008. Leading products include: Plavix, Aprovel, Reyataz, Sustiva, Sprycel, Abilify (aripiprazole), Orencia (abatacept), Baraclude and Efferalgan.
Meanwhile market access, in Seeley’s view, will continue to be an issue not just in France but in the entire pharmaceutical industry. “I think we as an industry need to focus on access, for existing products and for new indications,” he says. “The whole focus of access is more and more at the top of the agenda for us. The industry needs to go beyond market penetration at a physician level and address the needs of other stakeholders: regional budget holders, the payers, the different stakeholders in government and in the scientific community who make decisions on prescriptions. It goes beyond the prescribing doctor today. We need to be working out a platform for how that’s going to evolve over the next five to 10 years. It isn’t going to get any easier, so we need to become more skillful at managing it.”
Seeley and his team are already creating a new model and on the specifics for France.
We had a number of work streams going on during 2007, as part of a strategic plan is and as part of our ongoing commercialization model improvement,” he says. “We have the European national governments but we also have the EU impact, which is getting more and more organized on a central basis. So we’re looking at all of these. We’re looking at models we have in place to deal with that in order to move us from this head-to-head battle with the external environment towards becoming more of an equal stakeholder in the health care sector. An industry that finds it increasingly difficult to see its customers and is at war with payers is hardly a sustainable model.”
Given his track record, Veitch says Seeley is the ideal person for that and the other challenges the French business faces. “Mike is the perfect person to steer project teams. He keeps his focus on the goal, engaging all points of view and meets the team objective ensuring that the varied viewpoints are represented,” he says.
Seeley says the traits he values most in other people are transparency, honesty and perseverance. “What I can tell you is that the only way to get Mike’s trust is to be fully transparent and honest,” Blin confirms. “There is no other way. This is go/no go kind of stuff for him. Once you get his trust, you get it. But the need to be honest and transparent remains.”
Mike looks for the same qualities in people that he possesses,” adds Veitch. “He is someone you can trust.”
As to perseverance, Blin says there are few people who measure up to Seeley himself once he settles on a plan. “He has an iron will. Once he has an agenda, he never gives up.”
Most people who know Seeley say that some of the most important of his characteristics are deceptively absent from one’s first impression.
For example, Seeley is an avid art collector, and specializes in collecting pieces by young, central European artists (not unlike developing talent). He has recently been taking golf lessons with his son (one of two teenaged children with his American-born wife) who he confesses is much better at the game than he is. He says he reads as much as he can. The last book he read was “Rainbow’s End,” a biography about Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the civil war there in the 1970s. He says Lamberto Andreotti teases him because he and his family are the only people he knows who would travel from Paris to New Jersey for vacation. Seeley is also known for his sense of humor.
He is a serious leader full of passion for the business. Still, after 38 years? “Mike has a passion for helping the company succeed, for innovation and for enthusiasm, he thinks positively and creatively and he has energy to spare,” Veitch says. “He’s still got that fire in his belly, a hunger to learn new things and take on new roles.”
As Caforio tells it: “If all of the people who have been with us for five years had Mike’s enthusiasm, just think of where we could be as a company.”
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