Bench to Boardroom

It was the summer of 1995 and there was a pervasive uneasiness across Genentech. There was great scientific work in progress, but employees were uncertain about the future direction of the company.

The board of directors had just asked the CEO to resign and the company was facing other challenges, including questions related to how the organization was marketing one of its medicines. An unclear financial future and a potential takeover loomed. Morale was low.

When employees came to work on July 10, flyers across the small campus announced a company-wide meeting. As the 2,800 employees assembled, co-founder Herb Boyer stood in front of the anxious audience to make an announcement: Art Levinson, the young, well-liked head of research and development—a biochemist by training who was probably more comfortable at the bench than in a boardroom—had been tapped for the role of president and CEO.

Not long after, Art told the LA Times, “This is nothing I aspired to, but being called upon, I wanted to help. Of course it’s a big job, but I’m excited about it.”

Employees were excited too. They knew Art well. They knew he was much more than a great scientist; they knew he could lead. “It was a time when people were a little gripe-y about things,” co-founder Herb Boyer recently recalled, “and Art, with his enthusiasm, changed the morale of the company.”

The promotion made international news, including the front page of The Wall Street Journal. But some financial analysts scratched their heads, questioning whether designating a 45-year-old science geek as CEO was a good move. Gary Kaminsky, a portfolio manager who was once one of Genentech’s biggest shareholders, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal saying, “Art is a fabulous scientist, but not in my opinion one you would suspect could run this company.” In The New York Times, John Archer, a biotechnology search firm executive, commented that appointing Levinson sent a strong signal about the direction the company was going. “This is going to be a research-driven organization,” he said, and added that even for a company as “swashbuckling as Genentech,” it was “quite striking” to have a scientist out in front. What these analysts didn’t realize was that this scientist, who did pioneering work on the HER2 cancer gene, had enviable business acumen and financial insight.

It was not long after the announcement that a wide banner announcing “Under New Management” appeared on the balcony outside of Art’s new office. Reluctantly, Art appeared, acknowledging that he now was the person in charge. The banner was a tangible signal that it was not going to be business as usual for this budding biotechnology company.

After the announcement of Art’s CEO appointment, a banner was unfurled on a balcony with “Under New Management” in old-fashioned lettering, like a local grocery store advertisement. And with this new management, Genentech’s founding spirit was renewed. Photo of Art and administrative assistant Kim Burke from the Genentech archives.

That July day gave Genentech new momentum. The following 14 years would be defined by Art’s deep commitment to science, doing what was best for the patient, nurturing Genentech’s unique culture, and inspiring intense dedication to the company’s difficult-but-meaningful work.

In one of his first actions as CEO, Art convinced Genentech’s board of directors to plow 50 percent of revenues back into research—which was a bold move at the time. He focused the company’s science on “significant unmet needs” particularly in oncology, along with immunology, and tissue growth and repair, as well as still unproven technologies such as monoclonal antibodies.

“If we took the long-term perspective—if we funded a lot more of the projects coming out of research than a typical company would fund—we could ultimately help patients best,” Art said. Early on in his tenure as CEO, he established his belief that great science would yield great medicines—and he became known for his willingness to take the risks, both in business and science, to make a difference for patients. He routinely did what many didn’t think possible—and encouraged his employees to do so, too.

With the novel manufacturing process that Art had institutionalized in the 1980s as a scientist, Genentech was able to start scaling its ability to deliver medicines to patients. The company received a remarkable 13 FDA approvals for new medicines during Art’s tenure. Millions of patients were treated during that time with Genentech’s new medicines, which improved the lives of people suffering with a wide range of diseases.

Some financial analysts questioned the move to designate a 45-year-old science geek as CEO. But Art’s early decisions to ramp up investment in R&D and focus the company’s science on “significant unmet needs” led to the approval of 13 new life-changing medicines for people around the world. Photo from the Genentech archives.

At the same time, Art reinfused the company with the playful spirit Bob and Herb had imagined. He understood what motivated people to do their best work. He participated in zany antics and showed up at parties dressed as the Mad Hatter, Sgt. Pepper, Batman and an M&M, even singing and dancing his way through musical numbers at a Broadway-themed Friday afternoon Ho-Ho. He constructed puzzles that unlocked clues to highly anticipated employee events and designed a companywide bingo game that would halt the “spread of unintelligible, gibberish-laden PowerPoint presentations.”

Art modeled a work hard/play hard culture. At work, he had high expectations and demanded scientific rigor. He was known for responding to emails within minutes, no matter the time of day (or night). He challenged the organization to identify single decision-makers and eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy. His sense of urgency and attention to detail were infectious. As attendees at the 2009 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference can attest, simple oversights—such as an illustration of a DNA Helix twisting in an incorrect direction—did not escape him. But his quick wit and disarming nature made him a well-liked figure among employees and throughout the biotech community.

Art, dressed as America’s favorite candy, getting into the spirit of Halloween. Photo from the Genentech archives.

Art, now CEO of Calico and chairman of the board of Apple, personified much of what Genentech still stands for today—a focus on patients, smart risk taking and following the science wherever it may lead. His unique style of leadership turned what was arguably one of the company’s greatest moments of unease, instability and low morale into a renewed era of scientific curiosity and focus with a bright, irreverent spirit.