The head of Eli Lilly never expected to be leading the company when he took his first job in a lab, but he believed in his talents and adapted to changes to work his way to the top.
If the 2014 graduates of Franklin College dream big, look for the upside in tricky situations and maintain their personal standards, they too can achieve similar success, Eli Lilly president, chief executive officer and chairman of the board John C. Lechleiter said.
“What we are celebrating is not an end, but for you, a beginning,” Lechleiter said.
Lechleiter, the keynote speaker at Franklin College’s commencement Saturday, has worked for Eli Lilly since 1979, serving in more than a dozen different roles including research and development, regulatory affairs, product development and administration.
He has shown his ability to succeed in different roles and is proof of what a person can accomplish by taking the knowledge from a focused course of study and backing it with a broader liberal arts education, Franklin College President Jay Moseley said.
Lechleiter shared a little history and recent events at Eli Lilly, as well as personal stories about his own experience, with the nearly 175 graduates.
He told the graduates about George Walden, a 1917 Franklin College graduate who joined Eli Lilly and worked to find ways to better produce insulin, which had only recently become available for use as a drug. In his first few years out of school, Walden was able to create a new process that produced insulin that was purer and more potent than ever before.
Walden later worked on processes to mass-manufacture penicillin, leading to better treatment for thousands of diseases, Lechleiter said. Any student could be bound for that kind of success, as long as they believe in their skills and the education they’ve built to this point, he said.
“None of us can predict the future,” Lechleiter said. “But you can certainly choose to accept and acknowledge the gifts that are uniquely yours.”
Not being able to know what comes next requires each person to be flexible, adaptive and innovative, because plans go awry and problems come up without warning, he said.
While preparing for surgery on a shoulder injury after a ski trip, doctors found an inflamed artery in Lechleiter’s heart, requiring emergency surgery. The procedure kept him out of work for two months, requiring him to trust his co-workers at Eli Lilly to run the company.
The experience not only made Lechleiter better appreciate the skills of his co-workers, but also the love and appreciation of family and friends helping him through recovery, he said. It would be an opportunity he would have missed without a sudden, unexpected heart surgery.
“Things don’t always work as we might plan,” he said. “You must be prepared to seize the upside.”
Changing direction sometimes is necessary to continue succeeding, but doing so requires a person to follow their own set of beliefs.
In the day-to-day of running one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Lechleiter is bombarded with advice, comments and criticism from multiple people — from an Internet blogger spouting their thoughts to analysis by worldwide business and financial experts.
“The pressure to conform has never been so intense. ‘Lilly’s not going to make it.’ ‘Lilly needs to merge with another company.’ ‘Lilly needs to break itself up,’” he said.
Patents for Eli Lilly products have begun expiring in recent years, and those medicines are being replaced by generics. But the business the company loses will be replaced with new opportunities, such as a nearly released cancer drug, he said. New research and new ideas will continue to carry the company as they have since the late 19th century.
The education and skills Franklin College’s graduates have achieved is just the beginning, and it’s up to each student to use those tools to make their own impact, Lechleiter said. Students should also make sure to give back, whether by volunteering in the community, serving on a school board or coaching a youth soccer team.
“Much more now awaits,” Lechleiter said.