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About Udit: Chief Executive Officer of MilliporeSigma, the $7.5 billion Life Science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. After becoming CEO of MilliporeSigma in 2014, Udit and his team developed and executed a growth strategy that included the 2015 acquisition of chemicals and technology giant Sigma-Aldrich — the largest acquisition in the history of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany and the largest to date in the life science industry.
At HubWeek’s 2019 Fall Festival, Udit sat down with Linda Henry, HubWeek Co-founder and Managing Director of Boston Globe Media Partners, and Adi Ignatius, Editor in Chief of Harvard Business Review.
Lindsay Gearheart: Could you talk a little about your background and how you found your way to MilliporeSigma?
Udit Batra: I am a chemical engineer, and if I were to take a step back, I could not have designed a better job for myself. Before I joined the legacy company, EMD Millipore, 5 1⁄2 years ago, I had spent most of my career in the pharmaceutical industry – which was great preparation for leading a global life science tools and equipment business. I began my career in the lab, so I have first-hand experience with many of our products. This really gives me closeness to our customers, which helped us set a new direction with a focus on customer first, as we put into motion the acquisition of Sigma-Aldrich.
While America is my home, I consider myself a global citizen. I was born in India. I grew up in four different countries. I was in Nigeria for a year, the UK and came to the US when I was 15. I have worked in Germany, Switzerland, Japan and Australia. So I have had the good fortune to be global. This global view, coupled with my journey across various technical disciplines, R&D, strategy consulting, pharma, and general management have really helped me relate to different people and appreciate the value of diversity.
LG: You drove the $17 billion acquisition of Sigma-Aldrich just a few years ago in 2015, and now MilliporeSigma is recognized as top global life science business. What did you learn through that process, and what do you wish you’d known when you started?
UB: In any such transformation, you have to use both logic and love. That has been our approach. Logic is really being clear about your targets — financial targets and how you achieve them. We have been close to the top of the industry in sales growth and have had a profit margin well ahead of competitors for the last five years. But you also need to have the ability to sustain that performance, and that comes from love. Let me describe what that means — it means describing our strategy in simple terms to our colleagues. We used a technique called “learning maps” to make sure that everybody understood and engaged in the strategy, and if they did not and they had other ideas, we would refine the strategy.
Love is about purpose. It is about why you do what you do. And our purpose is to solve the toughest problems in life science in collaboration with the global scientific community. It is a purpose that allows all of us to find a little bit of commonality with it. And love is about having great colleagues who you love being around.
Both logic and love have to be balanced, and I would say that is what has allowed us to generate sustainable growth. I have no doubt the performance could go on for a long time provided we balance the two things.
If I were to pick one thing that I wish I had been much more ruthless about … I talked about strategy and vision, and the logic part also includes that, once you define the vision, define the strategy, and a bulk of colleagues have spent a lot of time coming up with a direction, anybody who’s not on that train where the destination is selected should get off — or you help them off. People who are half in, half out, really diminish the effectiveness of the rest of the organization because a lot of time is spent in convincing them, or they’re not really supportive. I wish I had been much more decisive on that front and very early on. Apart from that, I feel that we’ve had very good luck, and we have terrific colleagues who are dedicated to our success.
LG: Given that the parent company, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany recently celebrated its 350-year-old anniversary, how do you stay nimble and keep innovating in the ever-changing science and tech industries?
UB: The parent company is now 351 years old, and it is owned by the Merck family. MilliporeSigma is just about five years old. Millipore was a U.S. corporation that was set up in 1954 in Watertown, Massachusetts. Sigma-Aldrich, which is the other half of the company, was headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri and was formed in 1935. The two came together in 2014.
What keeps us nimble is that we make sure that innovation is alive and well. There are probably three components to this. So when I talk about the success of the business, I talk about the growth that we are seeing, a large portion of which comes from products that we have created in the company – that is organic growth. The productivity from our labs has increased threefold in the last five years. If I were to pick three reasons why, I would say number one, we believe in the power of entropy or disorder, and disorder creates more ideas. We have 12 different business units and each has its own R&D department. We do not try to combine them to create a common structure.
Second, we believe in the primacy of the problem statement, because hierarchy has a way of stymying creativity. Five years ago, we formed an Innovation Board (which I chaired until six months ago) as a committee where R&D heads come together once a month to focus on technical problems without regard to hierarchy — competent people getting together in a common space discussing problems can really lead to terrific solutions.
We are also entrepreneurs. In fact, we started an experiment about three years ago, setting up three start-ups in our company. By that I mean we took a set of colleagues who were specialists in a certain area like gene editing and gene therapy and brought them together. We said, “In order for you to behave like a startup, you have to have a mini-CEO.” So we appointed a mini- CEO. We said, “You have to sign up for a plan.” So they made a plan and they signed up for it and had milestones. And third, “You must be governed with a board.” So we created an external board that would govern them. Once a quarter they would meet these teams, and they have been hugely successful.
To give you an example, we started one of them in the area of gene editing and cell therapy. We now have 20 patents in the area of CRISPR-Cas9. We basically believe that innovation is our lifeblood and we’ve been rather deliberate about making sure its disordered, making sure that the problem statement wins over hierarchy, and we do experiments in entrepreneurship.
LG: How does being part of the Greater Boston community influence the work MilliporeSigma does globally?
UB: What I am about to say might sound counterintuitive: We love being in Greater Boston, otherwise we would not have set up our life science center in Burlington. We have access to the great talent pool, the VCs, the hospitals and the great academic institutions, but what we find more useful rather than only recruiting from this area is bringing people into this ecosystem. We are a global company, with 1,700 employees but the bulk of the total number, 21,000, live and work outside the Boston area.
We like to bring our colleagues into Boston, into Kendall Square, set them up to have collaborations with local biotechs, AI companies, and academic institutions and have them experience the power of the diverse thinking that this community brings. Then we send them back to their home location with a piece of this magic.
Secondly, we have also worked with the Baker administration, especially to improve employability in certain communities. For instance, we have our single-use manufacturing site in Danvers, and we found it was very difficult to recruit qualified people and retain them. Many were immigrants, who possessed the right skills to work in a manufacturing facility, but knew little to no English. So we worked with the Baker administration to come up with an English language training program and today, these employees are among our most loyal. They are highly technically trained, we would not have been able to find such trained employees otherwise, and that has worked very well. So it is not just one solution; it is working creatively with state government, who has been very cooperative to increase employment in the area to mutual benefit.
LG: What is your leadership mantra, and how has your style changed in the last few years?
UB: You should ask the people who work for me about how they experience the style. All I can tell you is what I try to do. I have been part of three or four different types of transformations. I used to lead a business in Australia, which was also a turnaround, and I had the fortune to work with a great team to turn around our consumer health business for Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany and I have been leading this integration and transformation for this business. And in all three cases, I always start by listening and learning. I spend serious amounts of time really trying to understand what the base case is, what’s happening, what are the facts. I talk to our customers, our colleagues, I travel a lot, and I still maintain that to this day. Because one, I love it, because I love to learn about different things, and two, it’s really essential before making any decisions. Second, before deciding or executing a direction, one has to have clarity on design principles. What is okay, and what is not okay.
So for instance, when we were doing our integration with Sigma-Aldrich, we said, “We will make sure that our customer focus does not drop.” So what does that mean? That means we will not touch our sales team, supply chain team, and customer service team in round one of finding synergies. We said, “This is something that is sacrosanct.” We said, for instance, a non- negotiable is our brand. Our brand is rather untraditional for a science and technology company, people might have different views, but we said, “Sorry, views are fine, but that has what we are.” As you go through these few steps, you self select people who want to work with you and people who don’t want to work with you.
And the third is the execution has to be ruthless. Once you agree on a plan, you get going and you measure and you go and execute.
As for how it has changed, I would argue I spend a lot more time thinking about what is my decision and what is not my decision. I think one of the challenges of being a leader is that people ask you, and of course it’s a great honor to be asked, and if you choose to answer —you then take away the opportunity for somebody else to develop an idea. So usually when somebody is asking me a question, I say, “What do you think? Before I tell you what I think, you have to tell me what you think.”
And the second thing is to not to take myself too seriously. You make mistakes, you are human. You make mistakes at a global stage and you make mistakes publicly, but so what. As long as your intent is fine and you’re doing everything with the right discipline, it is okay.
LG: What advice do you have for the next generation of scientists who want to have a global impact on patient care?
UB: I can simply tell you what I tell my colleagues within MilliporeSigma: Focus on your competence, and that has the most important thing. If you’re asked to do finance, do finance well. If you’re asked to do marketing, do marketing well. Of course there is time for other things, but make sure you’re competent and disciplined in the things you’re asked to take on.
Second, spend time on self-awareness, reflecting on what your stressors are, what gives and takes away your energy so you put yourself in environments where you get energy and you work harder to gain energy from environments where you otherwise wouldn’t have it.
And the third is to develop compassion for different points of view. That only comes if you have self-awareness on the range of emotions you carry, because that then allows you to understand emotions in others. The third point is really critical. As I referenced earlier, the primacy of the problem statement remains. If you put three scientists together who come from different countries, have different genders and different ages, I bet you they will come up with different approaches to solve the problem. Isn’t that what you want? Diverse views and approaches lead to better solutions.
That is the advice I would give, I would ask people to make sure, first things first, invest in your competence, learn things properly, invest in your self-awareness, reflect, see what your stressors are and third, most importantly, once you’ve done the first two, have compassion to understand diversity.
LG: I love that, I feel like we do a lot of that at HubWeek, bringing together people from all different disciplines.
UB: It makes a huge difference, and I love HubWeek for that reason, because under one of these tents you have people from such different backgrounds. The panels that you had on ethics — you might not agree with what everybody says, but the fact that you have people stating one of those provocative views and you have different people listening and debating them, it gives you diverse points of view to solve the problems that we are all concerned about. We are all concerned about the ethics of gene editing and the ethics of artificial intelligence, and if you have smart people from different directions approaching it, then you come up with a better solution.
The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.