“You Can Accomplish A Lot If You’re Innovative And Doing Something Meaningful” With John Thero
“Finally, make sure your people understand what good the work accomplishes. You can accomplish a lot if you’re innovative and doing something meaningful: people will rally behind you and work hard together. My teams and I work harder on something that we understand will make a difference. To accomplish our goals, to climb our mountains, we regularly work long hours on sometimes arduous jobs. We work better if we know that what we’re doing is going to help society.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing John Thero, President and CEO of Amarin Corporation, about his perspective on leadership, science, and patient care. John is a seasoned leader with more than two decades of experience in senior management, including 15 years growing life-science companies. Before joining Amarin in 2009, he helped guide ViaCell, Inc., to its successful sale as CFO, and led Abiomed, Inc., in multiple positions to transition successfully from a development-stage company into a commercial entity.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
My career has focused on working with emerging life sciences growth companies, and you might well ask, “Why do I do this?” It’s a passion that’s close to home. My family has a history of heart disease, and that is a big influence on the professional path I’ve selected. I was very aware, because of personal experience, of issues that face patients with complications of heart disease. Addressing these medical obstacles as a professional opportunity is meaningful — more and more through the years.
In my early Amarin days, creating the foundation for a company transitioning from start-up mode to commercial focus, I took on the kind of challenge I like. When I joined, Amarin had 15 people on staff — we could fit in one office for group meetings. Now we are on track to end this year with 500 employees dedicated to cardiovascular care. Finding the right people, getting them to work together, and keeping our growing team focused on the important tasks that revolve around science, service and patient care are among my favorite things to do.
I’m a business growth guy who was named CEO. Building and executing on growth is something I’ve done throughout my career — and really enjoy doing. Amarin is fortunate to have wonderful employees and investors. On one hand we are leading a new paradigm in cardiovascular health management, while on the other hand we are following the data. New drug development requires time and money. While the centerpiece of what we are working on will be made clearer later this year when we complete our first-of-its-kind clinical study, today we are helping patients based on the results of our prior clinical studies. We’ve grown from $129 million in sales in 2016 to nearly $180 million in 2017, all the while championing a $300 million commitment for a landmark clinical study that has taken six years and involves more than 8,000 patients. It’s something that has never been done before in this health category and, if successful, could result in a major breakthrough in preventative cardiovascular care. Taking on such a large study is typically in the nature of bigger companies, but this matters to patients — so we’re doing it. And the reason that we can, what’s so inspirational to me, is that our people and investors see the value in this call-to-action. We’ve got the right people, they’re very motivated, and hopefully, we will save lives and lower healthcare costs through this effort.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
A few stories spring to mind, as humor can provide good balance to daily challenges. A story that comes to mind is from my second week after I joined Amarin. At the time, the majority of Amarin’s operations were in Dublin, Ireland. I took a trip there to meet with the team and become more familiar with the company and its people. I’m the kind of person who suffers from jetlag, so that evening, I decided to use my extra energy to get some work done. As people went home over the course of the evening, I just kept on working, and when I decided to power down and head over to my hotel for the evening, I was the last employee out of the building. But, when I got to the front gate I had a problem. It was locked.
I could have called people, but figured it would be a little embarrassing. In the end, I decided to climb over the fence. It actually wasn’t that easy, and when I was halfway over I got a little hung up, and I thought, “What if a police officer should come by right now? How in the world would I explain THIS?” I’m not even sure they would have believed I was on my way OUT of the building.
So how exactly does your company help people?
Amarin seeks to address the burden of cardiovascular disease — still the biggest killer of men and women in the world. We are a biopharmaceutical company focused on developing therapeutics to improve cardiovascular health. Our product development program leverages extensive team experience in lipid science and the potential benefits of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Vascepa® — our first FDA-approved product — is the result of that development program. It’s a prescription pure-EPA product that’s very affordable and is the first and only FDA-approved pure-EPA omega-3 for treating adult patients with very high triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood), as an adjunct to diet. We’re very proud of that.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Doing the “right” thing is a top priority for our company — and, I’m gratified to see, for many other leading companies and influencers across the business world. Blackrock CEO Larry Fink’s recent letter to the boards and executives of the companies in which he invests called for businesses to do a better job of creating social good. For us, the way to achieve this imperative has three parts.
First: how do we treat people internally? We serve a community made up of our own people first, and we want to make sure that we respect each other and that we are a meritocracy. I want people looking at us from the outside to say — without qualification — that we simply have great people.
Second: looking out at the wider community, the biggest contribution we make is working toward preventing heart disease. This can have a tremendous impact on society. Heart disease affects everyone, it’s pervasive and expansive: more than 800,000 deaths — one out of every three in America — is due to heart disease. We have a very straightforward mission for doing good in that we are working to produce a drug that will save lives. Vascepa is a pragmatic therapy, well tolerated, easily administered and approved by our nation’s top authority for drugs — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And it’s affordable, within reach of any patient. We are pleased that Vascepa is currently being used to help more than 150,000 patients and look forward to the results later this year of the cardiovascular outcomes study we commenced in 2011, the results of which could have a major impact on improving medical care for millions of people. Such positive results could produce major positive social impact.
Third: we believe that it’s vital to be part of the broader community of care seeking to improve people’s lives. Recently, I was privileged to chair the American Heart Association’s Heart and Stroke Gala in New York City — a premier event that mobilizes people from industry and healthcare in order to raise awareness and essential funds for research. Heart disease requires a collaborative effort to find information and care solutions.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
I really like challenges, so if I were told all the answers in advance, it would have taken away some of the fun! But here are five pieces of wisdom I’ve gleaned along the way:
First, find the right people! For me, the biggest lesson is that, as CEO, you had better like working with people, because that’s the job. And I do! I really enjoy working with people, I love developing teams and overcoming new challenges — challenges of growth and creativity, which each require different tactics and strategies. Overcoming them is great fun and very motivating.
Now that you’ve got them, treat people well. I knew this before I was CEO, but I can’t emphasize this enough. Through regular communications and clear expectations, you build trust, and that’s the beginning of great working relationships. Motivated people work hard, but there needs to be work-life balance; that’s also important to success. Treating people well, respecting them and building trust, also grants you the ability to pull together people with different backgrounds — and what each can contribute is diverse and critically important to your shared success.
Don’t take on too much!! There is a high risk in working on several things at the same time — when you find something that looks like it will work — give it adequate focus. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Making good progress on one project is much better than making marginal progress on a ton of different things.
Make sure that core values are well understood. I’ve learned that I want core values to be lived in the business process and communicated clearly. Integrity, communication, quality and teamwork are extremely valuable and all matter. Also, critically important, are ethics and transparency. Open communications develop teams and trust and keep folks motivated through difficult times and growth.
Finally, make sure your people understand what good the work accomplishes. You can accomplish a lot if you’re innovative and doing something meaningful: people will rally behind you and work hard together. My teams and I work harder on something that we understand will make a difference. To accomplish our goals, to climb our mountains, we regularly work long hours on sometimes arduous jobs. We work better if we know that what we’re doing is going to help society. Here, we’re proud to be addressing a huge and acute need — one person in the US dies every 38 seconds from heart disease. We are working in the area of greatest need in the most important area of healthcare: more than $1 trillion will be spent on cardiovascular care by 2035, and yet, there hasn’t been a major breakthrough in preventative cardiovascular care in 20 years. We face a major epidemic. To beat it, we need to get the right people and show them the importance of the work. We can advance something that is innovative and makes a difference. By working together to benefit tens of millions, we are all inspired to be part of a first-of-a-kind innovative product.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Well, I don’t know if you could introduce me! If I could meet anyone past, present or future, I’d have to pick Mozart. He was fun and irreverent, and more importantly, he was a brilliant innovator who changed the course of music. That kind of power to change the world through ideas appeals to me on a visceral and very personal level, and Mozart embodies that ability.