What I've Learned

Former Wyeth CEO Robert Essner Shares the Secrets to His Long Career

Essner and his wife, Anne, now split their time between their Lido Shores home and an apartment in New York.

By Susan Burns January 25, 2018 Published in the February 2018 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Robert Essner in his Lido Shores home.

Image: Barbara Banks

Robert Essner, 70, spent more than 30 years as a top executive in the pharmaceutical industry, eventually rising to chairman of the board and CEO of Wyeth (now part of Pfizer). When he retired in 2008, he and his wife, Anne, made their way to Sarasota and now split their time between their Lido Shores home and an apartment in New York. Impressed by the potential global impact of Mote Marine Laboratory’s research, Essner spearheaded the lab’s ambitious fund raiser, Oceans of Opportunity, which raised $52 million by the time it concluded at the end of 2016. He now chairs Mote’s board. Essner also is an executive in residence and adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, the lead director of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company and sits on the board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and is a trustee of the Children’s Health Fund.

“I was born in New York City, but when I was 9, my father, who was a businessman, moved the family to Akron, Ohio, for another opportunity. The second half of his career was in recycling materials, such as scrap plastics.”

“My mother was a college professor—she trained speech therapists. She’s 96 today and still has devoted students. She instilled curiosity in me about all kinds of things. It helped as I went into the business world, especially in a science-based industry like pharmaceuticals. I had majored in ancient history when I was in college and graduate school, but I always wanted to understand how things work.”

“My career was so unusual. I have a master’s in ancient history and know Latin, Greek, French and German. I didn’t finish my Ph.D. because I had a wife and child and needed to make a living. I liked [history] and I still keep up with it. I just finished a biography of Hannibal.” 

“My first real job was with a pharmaceutical company in marketing research. My objective was to figure out what doctors want. What sort of medicine? Why do they prescribe certain ones? It was a lot of surveys and market testing. I was interviewed by someone who asked every person, ‘Tell me what you were like in high school.’ No one’s prepared for that. People don’t know what they were like. They project what they want to be. I told him the truth. I was a smart kid, academically oriented. I wasn’t the most popular, but I was diligent and a good kid. The interview lasted two hours. By the time we were done, he knew me inside and out. He was that good. He put people at ease.”

“I don’t think I came into my first job well qualified to be a leader or even an executive. Intellectually, I was strong, but I had to change how I projected myself and motivated people. If you want to lead people, you can’t just give them facts and figures. You have to speak to hearts and guts.”

“When I hired people, I always asked something that could challenge them. I wanted to make them uncomfortable. Their reaction was predictive to how they would fit our culture. If, after I challenged them, they said, 'Oh, yes, I’m sorry. I’m wrong,' or got defensive, I knew that would be a problem. The successful ones would say, ‘I see why you might be thinking that. Here’s why I’m approaching it this way.’ They could deal with a challenge, refocus your objection and bring people around to their side.”

“I hired people who were very different from one another, not just ethnically or by religion or gender, but who saw the world in different ways. I also wanted people who were better than what I was good at. I was a good generalist. I could conduct the orchestra. But I wanted someone who could run the science. We had a research budget of $3 billion a year and 5,000 people in the research group. I wanted people who could mix it up without giving offense. They came to trust each other because they were hearing the truth.”

“Developing new drugs was the biggest challenge. In this industry, you live and die by your research pipelines. It’s hard for people to grasp, but almost everything you start fails. If you start 100 projects and a couple are successful, that’s great. If you’re going to be successful you can’t do anything to increase the probability that you will fail. At the same time, you also have to take risks. It’s counterintuitive. You have to apply full force, a lot of money and a lot of time and then recognize the probability of failure.”

“I retired at 60—my dad had retired at that age, and frankly, it was the best time he ever had. I had developed a great successor at Wyeth and I wanted him to have the chance to be CEO. I knew I wanted to teach. I had taught at Ohio State. But one of the people I worked with told me, ‘Millions of people are going to ask you do something. Take some time to figure it out.’ A lot of my friends thought when they retired that they had a ‘use by’ date. So a lot of people sign up for a lot of different things and they are unhappy with their choices. I took my time.”

“I’m on the Carlyle group [one of the world’s largest private equity and investment firms], and I’ve been on a number of corporate boards and private equity boards. I had a long fascination with the Children’s Health Fund and got involved in 1991. They do a great job in giving health care to children in 20 cities around the U.S.”

“When I was CEO at Wyeth, I was working long hours. I went from the garage of my house to the garage of my office building. I didn’t see the sun very much and didn’t notice the weather. But the winter after I retired was miserable in New Jersey. I told Anne, let’s look for some place to go for some relief. We flew to Tampa, got a car, drove around and saw friends. We had an instant feeling that Sarasota was what we wanted. I was on the board of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and involved in opera and music. All of that was here. We don’t do the snowbird thing. We spend more than half the year here. We have an apartment in New York City and just go when we want.”

“Mote is not recognized in Sarasota for what it really is. It is remarkably successful. The fund raiser wasn’t an easy start. Mote had never raised that kind of money. We started to understand [that]Mote had a better reputation outside of Sarasota. And, the aquarium, as cute as it was, was a mask. People thought Mote was the aquarium. We didn’t ask people for money right away. We got lots of people to come and see the science infrastructure on City Island, in the Florida Keys and other parts of the Mote world. It was not difficult to get them engaged. People in Sarasota live on the water, love fishing, love the animals. The water is important to them. What I contributed was a strong sense of process. We became donor-driven, not event-driven.”

“Mote has ambitious plans to expand its science on City Island. The money was raised to hire scientists, post docs and build out labs and space, which means that the aquarium has to find another place. We would like to have a world-class aquarium that reflects what Mote really is. We’ll be announcing something this year.”

“I try not to be introspective [about giving life advice] and don’t look back. I once gave my youngest daughter some advice: ‘Don’t go into retail.’ She’s now an executive vice president at Saks [in New York]. So much for my advice.” 

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