They gave him a sword and he handed them the world.
When William Hawkins officially flipped the keys to Medtronic Inc. (NYSE:MDT) over to successor Omar Ishrak, he offered a simple message and a gift. The message was clear – don’t lose sight of founder Earl Bakken’s mission to alleviate pain, restore health and extend life while “striving without reserve for the greatest possible reliability and quality.”
The parting gift, a tradition among the small fraternity of men who have held the corner office at the Minneapolis-based company, is meant to serve as a symbolic signpost, a kind of guide to the incoming leader. In 2007, Hawkins was given a sword by Arthur Collins to cut through the red tape and take the competition head-on. Hawkins’ gift to Ishrak reveals how the 57-year-old sees the future of the world’s largest pure-play medical device maker.
“I gave him a globe,” Hawkins told MassDevice in a wide-ranging interview at our Boston offices today, one of his first since retiring from the company in April. “I said it’s all about equalizing health care and the opportunity to extend our mission around the world. When I took over, 70 percent of our business was in the U.S. When I passed the baton, 55 percent of our business was in the U.S. – but 90 percent of the world’s population is outside of the U.S.”
Hawkins spent 10 years in all at Medtronic, four in the corner office and three as chairman. His balancing of the push-and-pull between his long-term vision and the short-term demands of investors didn’t make him a Wall Street darling; some analysts dismiss his years at the top of the medical device goliath as unremarkable at best and disappointing at worst.
But the newly retired CEO insists that he planted the seeds of a major transition for MDT, from a pacemaker-stent-and-pump business into a chronic disease management company. Hawkins oversaw a series of bets in some very intriguing and diverse markets, including regenerative medicine and bariatrics, and expanded the firm’s plays in the heart failure, diabetes and deep-brain stimulation spaces. Those moves, not the firm’s performance on the Street, will be his legacy, Hawkins told us.
“My hallmark is going to be what we did to reshape the portfolio, to refill the pipeline, to reposition the company,” he said. “Being able to provide market-leading, sustainable, profitable growth for the next decade.”
That success – and the work it took to get there – contributed to the decision to step away from the awesome responsibility of running a $16 billion global med-tech operation, Hawkins explained.
“I put a real big focus on innovation and refilling the pipeline to set the company up, I believe, for growth over the next five to 10 years,” he said. “A lot of what’s needed now is execution: Execution in emerging markets, execution in the product launches. It really is well-positioned for the right next person to come in and drive growth.”
Hawkins had very little involvement in choosing his successor, apart from general discussions with the board about the type of leader needed to take his place.
“The board pretty much agreed that they would take the lead on finding my successor,” he said. “We looked at my current team. One of the things I’m most proud of is the team that I built and I had some really good people in the pipeline. Admittedly, they were not quite ready, so the board decided that they wanted to go outside and find someone that was ready.”
Still, Hawkins said, Medtronic has the right man for the job.
“If you look at his profile, he has a very strong technology background. He has a strong background for working in the emerging markets. Those are two areas that are really important for the company right now,” he noted.
As for Hawkins, he’s now off-site in an office in downtown Minneapolis, a move he says puts him close enough to be of assistance but far enough not to loom over Ishrak’s every move.
“My view is, when you bring in a new person, you get out of the way and let that person have free rein,” he said. “I’m available 24/7 for him to reach out to me. We’ve had a couple of conversations, but he’s in a learning-and-information-gathering mode right now. I don’t expect to hear a lot from him until he gets a better view of the landscape, and then I’m sure we’ll have more conversations.”
Not content to let any grass grow beneath his feet, or to be counted among the ranks of retired executives hanging out on the golf course (even though he plays a little more now than he did before April), Hawkins is intent on finding new opportunities in the medical device space to both share his expertise and capitalize on new technologies.
“I’m hopefully going to continue to play a big role in the fostering of innovation in a portfolio of companies through a private equity group, and I’ll perhaps serve on a few boards,” he said, declining to name any firms he’s talked to – although he did allow that he’s actively looking to find the “right group, with good people and a good track record,” rather than seeking to raise a fund of his own. In the meantime, he says, he’ll stay on with MDT for a year as an advisor while he plots his next moves.
“All along my life, the plan had been to take a little bit of a step back and bring a little more of a balance into life, after being on this treadmill for 35 years,” Hawkins told us. “It was a little sooner than I had originally planned. I sort of said I was going to do this before I turned 60. I’m 57 now, so, plus-or-minus a few years.”
Translation: Don’t count Bill Hawkins out of the game just yet – he still has that sword.