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Pfizer’s CEO, a former veterinarian, used a high-risk strategy to make vaccine history

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Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla isn’t afraid of taking risks — and it’s paid off in big ways for the pharmaceutical and biotech giant.

When Bourla took over as Pfizer’s leader in 2019, he took a high-risk, high reward approach by betting heavily on cutting-edge science and the customer experience.

His strategy is paying off. After 16 years, Pfizer rejoined Fortune’s list of the Most Admired Companies, largely because of Bourla’s vision and the company’s historic COVID vaccine launch.

Bourla credits lessons from his parents surviving a Nazi occupation and his background in science as major drivers of his success.

His story is inspiring, with lessons that many can apply to their careers.

Background

Bourla was born to parents who survived the Nazi occupation of Thessalonika, Greece, the ancient city where he was born. His parents emphasized an important lesson: to live a positive life in the present, even if the past is dark.

His path to CEO was unconventional, but would be crucial to his success in the long term.

After graduating from the Veterinary School of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki where he studied veterinary medicine and received a Ph.D. in biotechnology of reproduction, he began his career as a vet.

In 1993, Bourla joined Pfizer as the technical director of the animal health division. He moved to New York in 2001 to serve as group marketing director for the US. Five years later, he became the area president of animal health for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Finding a sweet spot with consumer health at Pfizer

In 2014, Bourla was promoted to head of the global vaccines, oncology, and consumer healthcare division.

He became group president of Pfizer Innovative Health in 2016 and served for a year, overseeing research and development in consumer healthcare, immunology, vaccines, and other sectors. During this time, he also created the Patient and Health Impact Group focused on making it easier for patients to use Pfizer’s platforms

Bourla continued to quickly rise up the ranks, and was promoted to chief operating officer in 2018. A year later, in 2019, he would be promoted to chief executive.

According to the Harvard Business Review, Bourla has focused on putting patients first in his two decades with Pfizer.

He emphasized the user experience, measuring success by the number of patients Pfizer served over sales numbers, and pushed the company to become more science-driven and innovative through a demanding leadership style that he attributes to his background in science and his Jewish heritage.

Smart decisions before COVID would pay off later

Shortly after he became CEO in 2019, Bourla restructured the company in a way that would prove beneficial when the COVID pandemic came months later.

He combined Upjohn, the off-patent drugs business known for producing Viagra, Chantix and Lipitor, and Mylan, a pharma firm, into a spin-off company called Viatris. This new company was 20% smaller, allowing it to innovate more quickly for patients and invest in science.

The move made Pfizer a smaller, innovative, science-driven biopharma company. While some analysts questioned Bourla’s high-risk, high-reward strategy at the time, he ultimately led the company to focus on cutting-edge innovation.

He also made other key shifts, divesting the consumer and off-patient product business and doubling down investing in research and development.

Making the impossible possible

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Bourla said he challenged everyone at Pfizer to “make the impossible possible” as the company raced to develop the COVID vaccine.

Bourla challenged his team to produce a safe vaccine in eight months, even though development would typically take up to 10 years. The end result would be produced in nine months, a historic achievement that beat the record of the mumps vaccine that took four years in the 1960s.

He also made vital shifts to reduce bureaucracy, like divesting the consumer and off-patient product business and doubling down investing in research and development. Bourla turned down US government funding early in the pandemic to avoid lengthy processes and speed up the vaccine’s launch.

The company’s partner BioNTech did receive funding from the German government, and Pfizer eventually signed a supply contract with the US. Soon after, Pfizer became the first vaccine to be authorized for use in the US and Europe

Bourla’s success as CEO helped human health and paid off on Wall Street.

When he took over, the company generated $41.2 billion in revenue. By 2021, that number doubled, reaching $81.3 billion. Pfizer’s market capitalization has also soared under his leadership, from $216.9 billion in 2019 to $331.5 billion in 2021.

Awards and accolades

In 2019, Bourla was awarded the “Preeminent Greek Leader” prize by the US ambassador to Greece, and last year, he was awarded the title of CEO of the Year by CNN Business.

Last month, he was named the 2022 Genesis Prize Laureate for his leadership during the pandemic and was awarded $1 million. Each year, this award is granted for commitment to Jewish values, professional achievements, and contributions to humanity. According to the foundation, Bourla received the largest number of votes as 200,000 people in 71 countries participated in an online campaign.

In addition to being CEO, he is also on the company’s board and The Pfizer Foundation.

Looking Ahead

Pfizer has continued the momentum gained during the pandemic.

Last year, the company approved a vaccine for children between the ages of 5 and 11. It also delivered Paxlovid, the first oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19, which the FDA approved in December. This pill can treat pediatric patients 12 and older and could reduce risks, complications, and hospitalizations.

Looking beyond the vaccine, Bourla and Pfizer are also focusing on other areas of science. Investing in innovation, research and development led to the company reporting an 8% growth in revenue for products besides the vaccine.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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