I spoke to Eli Lilly's highest-ranking board member, John Lechleiter, moments before he received his second honorary doctorate at University College Cork (UCC) late last month.
The fifty-eight year old, whose remuneration Business Week estimates to be in the region of $16m per annum, said that Ireland's turbulent economic history had not dented his company's enthusiasm for its Kinsale-based operating plant, and seemed extremely keen to emphasize that the talent which the pharmaceutical goliath had been able to attract in Ireland more than made up for any bumps and creases that will undoubtedly crop us along the long and windy road towards Ireland's distant economic recovery.
“We have been able to get some of the very best people here, graduates to come and work for us, and I think that one reason is that after nearly thirty years of experience operating in Ireland they can see how many of the people who joined us in the 80s and 90s have had flourishing and successful careers with us,” the pharma head, who counts an earned PhD from Harvard among his growing collection of honorary degrees, said ahead of the conferring ceremony.
Citing the quality of young graduates beginning fledgling careers at the firm as the “most decisive factor” behind Lilly's decision, thirty years ago, to make substantial investments in the South of Ireland region, Lechleiter added that the company's fulfillment of a promise to create starting opportunities for those fresh out of college and graduate school had been a point of pride for top brass at the international pharmaceutical firm.
“I'd like to think that we [Eli Lilly] really do what we say we're going to do in terms of creating opportunities for people to go and be successful with us,” the pharma boss said.
Lechleiter, who assumed the top post at 'Lilly' in 2005, reiterated that the quality of newly hired graduates remained a compelling reason for the company to favour operating in Ireland over the temptation to offshore to economies with cheaper wage-bases, while brushing asides concerns raised by a number of Irish Cabinet Ministers recently that diminishing enrollment figures in 'hard' disciplines such as sciences, engineering, and maths, would mean that the skills situation could swing from over-supply to deficit just five years down the pipeline.
“This [the skills shortage] is an issue we're debating in the US as well at the moment,” Lechleiter admitted, “but we still remain confident that there'll be enough high quality graduates to meet our manpower needs here into the foreseeable future.”
The chief executive told Conor Keane, business editor at the Irish Examiner, that the company was 'very pleased' with the $500m investment it had made to its manufacturing facility at Dunderrow, Kinsale, while announcing that the plant would now serve as the primarily launch site for all new pharmaceuticals in the company's production line.
Where bullish and full of praise for the products of Irish universities, however, Lechleiter seemed somewhat more concerned about government's stance towards the pharmaceutical industry, highlighting in particular the struggle between the company and health regulators to secure reimbursement for R&D costs incurred in bringing new medicines to market.
“Ireland's attractiveness for the kind of investment that our industry makes is also going to be connected with our ability to have our products reimbursed and to have the products that all of our people work on here available to people in Ireland now.”
“Right now we're at a bit of an impasse as we try to get back to negotiations with the government to ensure that that can happen,” he said.
Lechleiter, a medical chief executive with a noted passion for innovation and bringing breakthrough treatment strategies into the hands of the patient, said that his company would look forward to working with the Irish government to find ways that the medical system as a whole could benefit from the research and innovation being carried out at the company's worldwide operations.
“Medicines in and themselves are often necessary but seldom sufficient,” the CEO said, reiterating his oft-quoted belief that medical systems should be as integrated and holistic as possible.
“So where we've had an understanding in what's the best way to treat people with, say, diabetes – an area we're very involved in - we've tried to share and use that knowledge to help improve health delivery where we can and where it's appropriate in countries where there are other pathways of doing that,” he said.
“We've had some experience working here within the Irish medical system to try to see what systems of care for people with neuropsychiatric disease like schizophrenia can be improved and then to demonstrate how does our message work within that systems.”
“Because that's what everybody wants that it's only part of total care.”