Steering GSK forward

For one leader, it's personal

September 30, 2009 

Deirdre Connelly, president of North American pharmaceuticals for GSK.

  • Age: 49

    Born: San Juan, Puerto Rico

    Home: Philadelphia area (she spends two to three days a weeks in the Triangle)

    Title: president, North American pharmaceutics for GlaxoSmithKline

    Education: Bachelor's in economics and marketing from Lycoming College in Pennsylvania in 1983, graduated from Harvard University's Advanced Management Program in 2000

    Experience: Joined Eli Lilly as a sales representative in 1983, promoted to general manager for Eli Lilly Puerto Rico in 1995, and became president of Eli Lilly's U.S. operations in 2005

    Family: the fifth of nine children, Connelly is single but with a significant other, and has no children

    Hobbies: reading, including books by Spanish authors, and spending time with family and friends

    Other: On the board of Macy's, the department-store chain. Ranked one of the 50 most powerful women in business by Fortune Magazine the past four years.

As one of GlaxoSmithKline's top executives, Deirdre Connelly knows personally the importance of developing new medicines.

Her father, an Irish American who taught his Puerto Rican daughter to pray in English, suffered from lupus for 16 years and died from the debilitating disease in 1994. Now a big part of Connelly's job as head of North American pharmaceuticals is to help the British company's scientists find new drugs, including a promising lupus treatment.

"This is a company that is investing so many resources in finding these innovative products ... products that will answer diseases we haven't had solutions for," she said. "Everything we do here at GSK needs to result in patients' lives getting better."

Connelly, 49, oversees GSK's Triangle operations and nearly 5,000 employees at its North American headquarters in RTP and a drug manufacturing plant in Zebulon.

She spoke by phone with staff writer Alan M. Wolf from Philadelphia, where she spends about half her week at GSK's other large U.S. campus. It was her first extended interview since she joined GSK in February after spending 25 years with rival Eli Lilly. Here are some highlights of that discussion:

On her schedule: Connelly typically rises at 5 a.m. She spends two to three days a week in RTP, depending on what's on her agenda, and the balance of that in Philadelphia, sometimes in London.

Much of her time is spent with the company's marketing and sales staff. But she also co-chairs a forum at GSK that regularly reviews new prospects being researched.

"Scientists at GSK are very collaborative," she said. "They understand they need to present their work in a way those of us who aren't scientists can understand."

On promising new products: GSK recently released results on a new treatment for lupus, which is still being tested. "Obviously, I'm not a physician, but it's exciting because it comes to answer a horrible disease," she said. "I'm choking up; I didn't expect to get emotional here. I lost my dad to that disease. It's very debilitating. It's your body thinking that your organs are being invaded.

"We have not had a new medicine for that disease in 50 years. Dad was treated with prednisone [a steroid used to treat many autoimmune diseases]. It was a solution at the time, but it has its consequences. Patients that suffered from that disease will have a solution, that's very exciting to me."

GSK also is working on several new cancer drugs and on new vaccines.

On jobs: Connelly declined to comment on whether there will be more layoffs at GSK, which has eliminated hundreds of local workers as part of a broader effort to cut costs.

"Our objective is to become an organization that respects the talent and pipeline we have at GSK," she said. "We may reinvest in new areas, perhaps reduce in some other areas. ... If in the past, we had five to six people walking into an office, we may have less people walking into that office."

On the importance of transparency: GSK has started publishing results from its clinical drug trials and will soon begin disclosing payments to physicians who are helping test new treatments. The moves are partly in response to critics, and pressure from lawmakers, that the drug industry hasn't done enough to report that information.

"When you go to a haunted house, it's scary until you put the lights on and then you see it's not that scary," she said. "That's what we're doing. GSK is leading in being transparent."

On health-care reform: GSK supports health-care reform, but wants to make sure new regulations don't hamper innovation and competition by trying to control drug prices.

A key part of Connelly's job is meeting with lawmakers, especially those in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, to discuss GSK's priorities.

Reform is "sorely needed," she said. "We have to be able to have new medicines continue to be developed and be brought into the marketplace. We can be part of the solution. We want to be part of that solution. We are committed to being part of that solution."

On why she joined GSK: Connelly said she was excited about GSK's strategy of diversification, of investing in emerging markets and "bringing medicines to people who don't have access to them."

CEO Andrew Witty has pledged that GSK will charge much less for drugs it sells in developing countries.

"We're helping those that need help," she said. "What is it they say in English? Putting our money where our mouth is. Those are the things that make a difference. You see the values being acted on. That whole package became very attractive to me."

On language: Connelly was born in Puerto Rico and Spanish was her first language. But her father didn't speak Spanish so she learned English at an early age.

"Somebody asked me the other day, what language do you count in, and what language do you use when you pray? Because that's the language you think in," she said. "I pray in English, because Daddy taught me to pray. I count in Spanish because my mother taught me to count. I'm not sure how I think. Sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English."

On being a powerful business woman: Fortune magazine recently ranked Connelly as No. 37 on its annual list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in business. But as one of nine children, "any time my name appears in a magazine as some kind of powerful person, my brothers and sisters make sure I realize I'm fifth out of nine, so it doesn't get to my head," she said. "Recognition also reminds us we have to do the best we can, and pursue excellence in our jobs."

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