No Generic Success Story

West Virginia native and Mylan CEO Heather Bresch—the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company—opens up about her childhood, her career, and how she juggles it all.


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Heather views Mylan as the scrappy underdog. She says, “Mylan was like the girl in a large Italian family. The big pharmaceutical companies were the entitled ones. It was a David and Goliath story. As a company, we were always a ‘show me story’ that had to prove itself.” Mylan is now a global Fortune 500 company and one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, providing products to customers in more than 150 countries and territories. Its profit grew 24 percent in the first quarter of 2012 on strong sales of the EpiPen and its generic version of the antidepressant Lexapro. But Heather doesn’t plan on stopping there. “My vision as CEO is simple: to do good and do well at the same time by providing access to high quality medicine to the world’s 7 billion people.”

It is no secret that Heather grew up in a political family, but she says that she’s never considered getting into politics. “That was all I knew. I thought everyone grew up with heated debates with colorful characters like Uncle Jimmy (the late A. James Manchin, who was a former secretary of state and state treasurer). I thought it was common for relatives to storm out of the room and slam the door,” she laughs. “We have a very open family. All issues were always on the table. But I learned early on the good and bad of politics and the challenges of facing personal setbacks in the public eye. My Uncle Jimmy was impeached as the state treasurer when I was in college. My dad’s defeat in the primary in his first run for governor in 1996 was also tough. I also realized that public perception is often more important than the facts in shaping what people think of as reality and that when you take on the responsibility of public service, your family puts a lot on the line.”

And of course there was the “Heather Bresch Situation,” as she calls it. Heather says that although the handling of the ordeal, and the impact on those involved, still concerns her—and how could it not?—she’s moved past it. According to Heather, she mentioned to then-WVU president Neil Bucklew during a meeting in the early 1990s with Mike Puskar that the university should consider an executive MBA program. When she enrolled in the program, she could not have foreseen the turn of events. “I pursued my Master’s for personal enrichment, not because I needed it to further my career, and I believe I did what I needed to do to earn my degree. I couldn’t get sucked into all the drama. I had to put the interests of Mylan first and continue to do my job. I had a multi-billion dollar company to help run and I was responsible for integrating the acquisition of a company two times our size. The only way I could prove the critics wrong and overcome this was to be successful. Did it hurt?  Sure. Do I hate that this happened at the institution that I dearly love? Yes. People will hold on to what they want to hold on to. But I had to keep persevering. I needed to focus on growing Mylan and moving forward, and that is what I’ve done.”

Heather says the three tenets of her success have been hard work, perseverance, and passion. She’s passionate about two things. “For me there’s just work and family. There’s nothing in the middle,” she says. “There is no exact balance—it is a juggling act.”

Heather’s days are unpredictable, and she has to travel quite a bit. “I don’t manage from an ivory tower. I’m the CEO of a global organization with almost 20,000 employees. There are always issues,” she says. “I’m on conference calls beginning at 6 a.m. because that is the only time I can talk to our teams in Europe, India, or Australia. I usually work until 8 or 9 p.m. at night. I travel to our facilities around the world one third of the time. I’m hands-on and I work really hard to understand all the issues—local, regional, and global.”

But Friday night through Sunday is sacred for her—the time she dedicates to her four children, Kelsey, 17, Madeline, 15, Chloe, 12, and Jack, 9, and husband, Jeff, who is a partner with the law firm Jones Day. “Our family dynamics are not typical. We’ve had to teach our children that they have been given opportunities and exposure to things that most children do not get, but because of those privileges, we expect more. And I tell them that because my position affords them those privileges, I have to work really hard. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Time with family is very important to Heather. “Growing up in a great Italian family helped make me who I am today and I cherish those traditions. Fairmont and Farmington have always been hubs for my family. If my dad had his way, we’d all live together in the same house. We are all about getting together—and it is always centered on food.”

Good thing Heather loves to cook, one of the many things she learned from the wonderful women in her family. “Cooking is a form of stress relief for me. I love being in the kitchen. Come Saturday, I start my mornings off thinking, ‘What am I going to cook tonight?’ Having my family around the dinner table is one of my favorite things. When I’m home, that’s what I am focused on.”


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