Levinson, Arthur D.

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Levinson, Arthur D.


Chief Executive Officer of Genentech

B orn Arthur David Levinson, March 31, 1950, inSeattle, WA; son of Sol and Malvina Levinson; married Rita May Liff, December 17, 1978; children: son Jesse, daughter Anya. Education: University of Washington, B.S., 1972; Princeton University, Ph.D., 1977.

Addresses: Office—Genentech, 1 DNA Way, South San Francisco, CA 94080-4990.


J oined Genentech in 1980 as senior research scientist; director of Cell Genetics department, 1987-89; vice president of Research Technology, 1989-90; vice president of Research, 1990-93; senior vice president, 1993-95; president and chief executive officer, 1995—.

Awards: Corporate Leadership Award, National Breast Cancer Coalition, 1999; named one of the Best Managers of 2003 by BusinessWeek.


A rthur D. Levinson began his career with thenorthern California biotechnology company Genentech as a molecular biologist and rose to become its chief executive officer (CEO). Scientist-turned-CEOs are somewhat rare in the corporate world, but Levinson has won the trust of Wall Street analysts and investors alike for helping make Ge-nentech a leader in its field. “I’d like to defy conventional thinking,” he told Forbes journalist Zina Moukheiber. “It’s easier for a scientist to understand business concepts than it is for a businessper-son to understand scientific concepts.”

Levinson was born in 1950 in Seattle, Washington, and planned on a career as an astronomer or doctor. He attended the University of Washington, where in his junior year he took a course taught by a prominent genetic scientist, Lee Hartwell, who had done groundbreaking work into the origins of cancer from a cellular standpoint. Levinson became so intrigued by the course that he switched majors to molecular biology, which investigates the interactions between the various systems of a cell, such as DNA, RNA, and the production of proteins. After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1972 Levinson went on to Princeton University, where he earned his doctorate degree in 1977.

Prior to joining Genentech, Levinson did postdoctoral research at the University of California at San Francisco, and wrote a much-discussed scientific paper on the biochemistry of cancer. There he also gained a reputation as somewhat of a maverick, known for occasionally donning a pith helmet and carrying a toy rifle in presentations or for group photos to impart his belief that scientists needed to have keen hunting instincts in order to make progress in their work. In 1980, he surprised many of his academic colleagues by moving to the private sector as a senior research scientist at Genentech. The South San Francisco company was a relatively new firm, founded just four years earlier, and Levinson was one of the first researchers hired there. The company was established with the aim of de vising new ways to replicate DNAproteins to create a new class of biologics, the drugs that mimic the body’s own natural disease-fighting properties. Genentech’s first success was the manufacture of synthetic human insulin, which went on the market in 1982. Previously, diabetics injected insulin made from the pancreatic glands of cows, pigs, horses, or fish.

During the 1980s, Levinson pioneered mammalian-cell manufacturing at Genentech, which was an experimental idea at the time and not considered cost-effective enough to pursue in earnest. Until then, biotech drugs were manufactured by growing the compounds inside bacteria cells. Levinson experimented with hamsters, and his and Genentech’s breakthroughs helped make the use of rodent cells standard in the industry. In 1987, he became director of Cell Genetics at Genentech, where he was involved in cloning the HER2 gene, which is linked to an advanced form of breast cancer. That work led to Genentech’s breakthrough drug, Herceptin, which targeted that HER2 gene. In 1989, Levinson was named vice president of Research Technology, and became a senior vice president in 1993.

Levinson advanced to the post of president and chief executive officer at Genentech in 1995 when its board ousted G. Kirk Raab after a number of issues had surfaced. Some years earlier, Genentech had struck a deal with Hoffmann-La Roche when it was in financial trouble; the Swiss pharmaceutical giant invested in Genentech, a publicly traded company, in exchange for a 60 percent stake. Raab resigned over negotiations with Hoffmann-La Roche that would give the Swiss company a greater stake in Genentech. There were also other problems at the company, including a pending lawsuit over kick-backs its sales representatives allegedly paid to physicians, and federal criminal charges about promotion of off-label uses to physicians for another Genentech success story, human growth hormone.

One of Levinson’s first acts as CEO was to hold a mass meeting of its 3,000plus employees in which he urged everybody to move forward and act responsibly. Over the next few years, he implemented several changes at Genentech to ensure that legal problems would no longer trouble the company. The pace of Genentech’s scientific breakthroughs also accelerated rapidly under Levinson’s guidance, and its immensely successful new biotech drugs include the aforementioned Herceptin, which came onto the market in 1998; Xolair, an asthma treatment, and Raptiva, a psoriasis drug, both in 2003; and Avastin, approved first for colon cancer patients in 2004 and later for sufferers of lung cancer. None are marketed directly to consumers in television commercials, with Genentech preferring to convince physicians and other medical professionals about the drugs’ efficacy. “These ads with people running through flowers and dancing are distasteful,” Levinson told BusinessWeek’s Arlene Weintraub.

Hoffmann-La Roche is still a majority shareholder of Genentech, but allows Levinson to run the company as he sees fit. That independence has helped Genentech post impressive numbers, including $2.4 billion in earnings in 2006. Now with a workforce of 11,000 employees, Genentech has a prestigious reputation among scientists and researchers, and receives around 15,000 resumes every month. Its employees are encouraged to spend 25 percent of their work hours on research projects of personal interest, and are free to use all of the top-of-the-line scientific technology at the company in doing so. “You don’t get 40 motivated people by telling them to get behind someone else’s idea,” Levinson explained to Financial Times writer Victoria Griffith.

Levinson has a small office, measuring just 9 by 12 feet, and favors jeans, not suits. He sits on the Board of Apple Computer, and has a son and daughter with his wife Rita, a childhood playmate. At Genen-tech, the rather unusual corporate culture that was present when he began working there in the early 1980s remains in place under his watch: Employees are expected to work long hours, but are known to unwind at annual Friday-afternoon parties, and the company is known for its elaborate office pranks. When a joke cover for the 2005 annual corporate report was submitted as a mockup during a meeting, Levinson liked the gallery of images from Genen-tech costume parties over the years so much that he had it set as the back cover for the actual shareholders’ report. “You’d think with the kind of success we’ve had that more people would see us as a model,” he told Griffith, “but I just don’t see a lot of companies moving in our direction.”


BusinessWeek, October 6, 2003, p. 72; May 17, 2005.

Financial Times, February 11, 2005, p. 12.

Forbes, July 26, 1999, p. 133.

U.S. News & World Report, February 19, 2007, pp.46-50.

—Carol Brennan