Potter, Myrtle 1958–

views updated May 08 2018

Myrtle Potter 1958

Pharmaceutical company executive

Mother Was Her Role Model

Entered the World of Pharmaceuticals

Success Led to Executive Positions

Promoted Diversity and Individual Careers

Juggled Career and Family

Became COO of Genentech

Achievements Recognized


As the chief operating officer (COO) of Genentech, Myrtle Stephens Potter directs the worlds second largest biotechnology company. In her previous position as head of Bristol-Myers Squibbs U.S. Cardiovascular/Metabolics business, she was the first African-American female president of a major pharmaceutical company. Potters rapid rise through the ranks of the industry is due to her exceptional business skills and energy, since she is neither a scientist nor a business school graduate.

Mother Was Her Role Model

Myrtle Stephens was born on September 28, 1958, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, one of six children of Allene Baker Stephens and Albert Stephens. Her father, a military veteran, had a spirit of giving that we saw at a very young age and that continued throughout our lives, Potter told Pharmaceutical Executive. Her mother, a social worker, was a superb role model, studying for exams until late at night and making her daughters dresses the night before the dance. Allene Stephens served on the Governors Commission on the Status of Women and taught her children that they could be whatever they wanted to be. Interestingly, Potters siblings also are in senior management positions at large businesses. Potter told Pharmaceutical Executive, My mother was a wonderful example for us and a tremendous influence at a time when many African-American women certainly didnt have the kind of career that she had mapped out. She truly was a visionary, both for her own life and for what she wanted to see in us.

Potter developed her cooperative skills at an early age. She told Time magazine, Six kids in a two-bathroom home. If you dont work in shifts and make trade-offs, you cant get out of the house in the morning. She also told Pharmaceutical Executive, Having grown up in such a big family with modest means, we really did learn what it meant to give to one another, to look out for one another, to be thinking outside ourselves.

By the time she was 16, Potter had high grades, was girls state governor of New Mexico, and a cheerleader. She wanted to enter the University of Chicago a year early, so her father made her a deal: if she did well in junior and senior-level classes at the local college during her first semester, he would re-mortgage their home to send her to Chicago.

Entered the World of Pharmaceuticals

Potters part-time job as a lab technician at the University of Chicago Hospital turned her interests from law to medicine. A marketing internship with IBMs Chicago sales departmentnormally available only to MBA studentssparked her interest in the business side of medicine. She graduated with a B.A. in political science in 1980 and went to work as a sales representative with Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was one of the first salespeople in the new patient care

At a Glance

Born Myrtle Stephens on September 28, 1958, in Las Cruces, NM; daughter of Allene Baker Stephens and Albert Stephens; married James Potter; children: Jamison, Lauren Elizabeth, Education: University of Chicago, BA, political science, 1980.

Career: IBM, Chicago, marketing intern, 1979-80; Proctor & Gamble, Cincinnati, OH, sales representative, 1980-81, district sales training manager, 1981-82; Merck Sharp & Dohme, West Pointe, PA, sales rep, 1982-84, marketing analyst, 1984-85, training and planning manager, 1985-86, field meeting services manager, 1986-87, district sales manager, 1987-89, product manager, 1989-90, director, Astra/Merck affairs, 1990-92, senior director, sales planning, 1992-93, senior dir, marketing planning, 1992-93, vice president, northeast region business group, human health division, 1993-96; Bristol-Myers Squibb, Plainsboro, NJ, vice pres, strategy and economics, 1996-97, group vice pres, worldwide marketing and sales force effectiveness, 1997, vice pres, worldwide medicines group, 1997-98; U.S. Cardiovascular/Metabolics (BMS), sr vice pres of sales, 1998, president, 1998-00; Genentech, South San Francisco, CA, COO, executive vice pres of commercial operations, executive committee member, 2000.

Memberships: Philadelphia Urban League, 1988-96; Delaware Valley Boys and Girls Club, board of trustees, c.1996-00; University of Michigan Business School, industry faculty associate, c.1996-00; California Healthcare Institute, board of directors, 2002; Healthcare Business Womens Association, advisory board, 2003.

Awards: Merck Chairmans Award; Bristol-Myers Squibb Leadership Development Award; HBA 2000 Woman of the Year; ranked number 18 on Fortune Magazines list of Americas Most Powerful Black Executives, 2003.

Address: Office Genentech, Inc, 1 DNA Way, South San Francisco, CA 94080-4990.

products division and her territory covered most of Wisconsin and Michigans upper peninsula. She told Pharmaceutical Executive that women were treated ever so slightly differently within the business milieu. They were asked regularly whether they planned to marry and have children. Frequently male colleagues would avoid serious discussions until the women had left the room. Despite her isolation as a black woman in a white mans world, Potter turned down promotions, instead making lateral career moves to gain experience and always pressing for additional responsibilities.

In 1982, after being turned down for a lowly sales position at Genentech in South San Francisco, Potter moved to Merck Sharp & Dohme in West Pointe, Pennsylvania, as a sales representative. Potters promotions came fast, even though a manager had warned her that she should stick with sales since women did not have the intellectual ability to do analytical work. Under a rotation program for those with high potential, Potter moved through sales management, sales training, brand management, marketing communications, and business development.

In 1990 Potter was given the job of running the poorest performing company at Merck. Within three months she had turned it into the top performing company. She headed the marketing team charged with increasing revenues from two Astra products that were licensed to Merck. According to the agreement, if cumulative sales reached a certain level by the deadline, Merck would create a U.S.-based joint venture to move Astra into the U.S. market. It looked as if Merck would miss the deadline by six months. However, within eight weeks Potter had restaged the products and Merck beat the deadline by four months. She became a pharmaceutical-industry legend, transforming Prilosec from a poor seller to the best-selling ulcer medicine in the world.

Success Led to Executive Positions

Next Potter headed up the team that developed the business plan for the new $4 billion joint venture, designing marketing and sales strategies, real estate plans, and capital structure. Potter told Pharmaceutical Executive, It was a small organization with no R&D, and the feeling was that we had to go to market in a fundamentally different way, one that really leveraged the strengths that could be built in sales, marketing, and information technology. everything about that company was designed deliberately to be different, because it was up against the big pharma companies at that time. Potter received Mercks Chairmans Award for her work.

After 14 years at Merck, in 1996 Potter joined Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) in Plainsboro, New Jersey, as vice president of strategy and economics, a newly-created position. Potter introduced new direct-market technologies to increase direct-to-consumer advertising. After only one year, she was promoted to group vice president for worldwide marketing and sales force effectiveness.

Potter overhauled most of the companys development, commercialization, marketing, and sales operations. She took a new approach to global product development and commercialization, forming a team that included almost all medicine group executives in the United States and abroad. Within a year the entire company had implemented this new approach that linked clinical development, marketing, and sales. Important new products were released and other pharmaceutical companies copied aspects of the BMS model.

In 1998 Potter moved to U.S. Cardiovascular/Metabolics, the fastest-growing division of BMS, as senior vice president of sales. She transformed the cholesterol-lowering drug Pravachol and Glucophage for treating diabetes into billion-dollar name-brand medicines. The anti-clotting drug Plavix also began doing very well. By the end of the year, Potter was president of the multi-billion-dollar business with more than 3,000 employees. Despite tough competition, sales and profits increased steadily.

Promoted Diversity and Individual Careers

At BMS Potter was known as a tireless mentor, always promoting the careers of others, especially women. She more than doubled the number of women in senior field management and served as a role model within the industry. A BMS colleague told Pharmaceutical Executive, Myrtle mentors other women and creates unique opportunities for them to stretch their horizons. Despite my lack of experience in the field, Myrtle offered me a position with her team; and then helped me leverage my skills. Myrtle asked me to interview for this position weeks after I had announced that I was pregnant. Myrtle supported my work project as one of her top priorities and also supported my personal decision to take family leave.

Senior-level women in the pharmaceutical industry are more likely to be affected or displaced by mergers and acquisitions. Potter told Pharmaceutical Executive, I dont know that women have the kinds of insight and mentoring know-how to get through those situations successfully. Because there are so few women in executive positions in general, its not unusual that a woman might find herself in a situation where there isnt anyone she knows well enough to help coach her through that.

Various colleagues at BMS described Potters management style to Pharmaceutical Executive: She seeks input from all corners of the organization and makes each individual feel valued. She has an unusual combination of management talent and personal commitment. It is rare to find an executive who has done so much for so many. She helps her people achieve results and deliver beyond their own expectations. She not only commands respect but earns it.

Juggled Career and Family

Potter told the Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News: I am a mother and a wife first. My husband and I work very hard to make sure our children are in a nurturing environment, that they see a lot of us and that they have a good time with us. But at the same time, with both of us having careers, my kids see another model in terms of what is possibleespecially for women, and especially for a black woman.

Potter told Pharmaceutical Executive, We can talk about work-life balance, we can write articles and policies about it, but until employees see someone on the executive team leaving to go to a soccer match or tend to a family situation, theyre not going to do it no matter what you say. There was the night we had a crisis when I sewed the Girl Scout patches on in the wrong spot and had to sew them on in the morning before my daughter left for school. Ive always had incredible physical stamina. Im up very early and Im up very late at night.

Potter often brought her children to work with her and always took calls from her family. When her son was three, he was diagnosed with a developmental disability. Potter got assistance from experts and helped him herself. She tried to attend every volleyball game and music recital. Potters concentration is so legendary that colleagues told Time that they were amazed when she once paused in a meeting to say Ive got to have a Little Mermaid costume ready by 5 p.m.

Became COO of Genentech

Potter was happy at BMS. However, Genentech lured her away with a million-dollar signing bonus, tax-related payments of $500,000 tied to the bonus, $11 million in stock options, $695,000 in relocation costs, and a $2.2 million interest-free loan, half of which would be forgiven if she stayed with the company for five years. Potter joined Genentech in May of 2000 as COO, the number two job in the company, executive vice president of commercial operations, and an executive committee member. Her pay for 2002, including salary and bonuses, was $1.8 million.

Potter is leading Genentechs biggest period of commercialization, with 20 new drugs or indications expected on the market by 2007. She is in charge of the companys commercial operations, including sales, marketing, managed care, business development, and commercial development and innovation. She co-chairs the companys product portfolio committee and is in charge of strategic and financial oversight of its drug development portfolio. One of Potters priorities is the development and implementation of global strategies for building and sustaining product value. In 2002 Genentechs revenues were up 23% to $2.72 billion.

Part of what makes Potter such a good executive is how she handles those people who work for her. Although she may dress casually, often wearing sandals and jeans to work, Time quoted business professor Noel Tichy as saying, Ive watched her with her people, and she puts them out of their comfort zone. Shes not an easy person to work for if you dont want to be pushed. Potter herself said something very similar as the keynote speaker at the Black Business Students Association Conference in February of 2003 posted on Stanford Graduate School of Business website: Get comfortable getting pushed out of your comfort zone. Push yourselves and ask other people to challenge you. Never be intimidated by people who are smarter than you are. Your job as a leader is not to have all the answers, but to understand the questions.

Achievements Recognized

In 1999 Potter was honored by the Association of Black Cardiologists as the first black woman to head a division within a major pharmaceutical company. She was the Healthcare Business Womens Associations 2000 Woman of the Year. Time magazine named her one of its 15 Young Global Business Influentialthose with particularly promising and far-reaching careers. Potter was 18th on Fortune Magazines list of Americas Most Powerful Black Executivesone of only 11 women on the list.

Potter is a director of the California Healthcare Institute, a non-profit public-policy research organization that represents Californias academic institutions and biotechnology, medical device, diagnostics, and pharmaceutical firms. She was the 2002 corporate co-chair of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundations San Francisco Race for Research.

One of Potters colleagues at BMS told Pharmaceutical Executive: She is truly a model in the health care industry, a woman who has achieved great heights and led with her own principled values, stressing the importance of family, friendship, respect, honesty, and integrity. Potter hopes to become a chief executive officer one day. She told Fortune magazine, It is important to me not only as an African American or a woman but as an African-American woman.



Tichy, Noel M. and Nancy Cardwell, The Cycle of Leadership: How Great Leaders Teach Their Companies to Win, HarperBusiness, 2002.


Fortune, July 22, 2002.

Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, April 17, 2000.

Medical Marketing & Media, May 2000, p. 6.

Pharmaceutical Executive, April 2000, pp. 48-60.


2002 Global InfluentialMyrtle Potter, COO of Genentech, Time, www.time.com/time/2002/globalnfluentials/gbipotter.html (April 7, 2003).

Dont Be Afraid of Pressure, Counsel Speakers at Black Business Students Conference, Stanford Graduate School of Business, www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/headlines/2003bbsaconf.shtml (April 8, 2003).

Forget Brass RingsExecs Grab for Gold, USA Today, www.usatoday.com/careers/news/2001-03-20-gold-ceos.htm (May 3, 2003).

Genentech Appoints Myrtle Potter to EVP of Commercial Operations and COO, Genentech, www.gene.com/gene/news/press-releases/printnews.jsp?detail=4615 (April 8, 2003).

ManagementMyrtle S. Potter, Genentech, www.gene.com/gene/about/management/exec/potter.jsp (April 8, 2003).

The Secrets of Strategic Focusing, CPSNet, www.cpsnet.com/reprints/2000/04/Stratfocusing-R.pdf (May 3, 2003).

Margaret Alic

Potter, Myrtle 1958–

views updated May 14 2018

Myrtle Potter

Executive vice president, commercial operations, and chief operating officer, Genentech

Nationality: American.

Born: 1958, in New Mexico.

Education: University of Chicago, AB, 1980.

Family: Daughter of a restaurant owner and a social worker; married; children: two.

Career: Merck 19801996, vice president of Northeast Region Business Group, 19931996; Bristol-Myers Squibb, 19962000, vice president for strategy and economics, vice president of Worldwide Medicines Group, vice president for sales, president of U.S. Cardiovascular/Metabolics Group; Genentech, 2000, chief operating officer.

Awards: Bristol-Myers Squibb Leadership Development Award; Woman of the Year Award from Healthcare Business Women's Association, 2000; Fortune magazine, no. 18 on list of Most Powerful Black Executives in America, 2002.

Address: Genentech, 1 DNA Way, South San Francisco, California 94080-4990; http://www.gene.com.

In 2000 Myrtle Potter was offered a million-dollar bonus to join Genentech, the world's number two biotechnology company. At two major pharmaceutical companies, Potter had gained a reputation as a leader who could bring good drugs to market and turn them into blockbuster success stories. She joined Merck right from college and moved from sales to marketing and business-planning roles during her 14 years with the company. At Merck she succeeded in making a struggling ulcer remedy (Prilosec, marketed by AstraZeneca since 1998) one of the best-selling drugs on the market. Potter joined Bristol-Myers Squibb in 1996 as vice president and advanced to senior vice president and then to president of a major group. With that company she brought a high-cholesterol drug (Pravachol) to the billion-dollar mark on the market.


Myrtle Stephens Potter grew up in a large family in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She later attributed her team-building business skills to living and coping in a home with five siblings. Potter told Time writer Chris Taylor that with "six kids in a two-bathroom home, if you don't work in shifts and make trade-offs, you can't get out of the house in the morning" (December 2, 2002). She also developed a focus and a competitiveness that materially contributed to her rise from an entry sales position to top management.

Potter's professional drive can be traced to her early experiences in Las Cruces. Her father, retired from the military, started a small business that became successful. The family moved to a new neighborhood when Potter was in her early teens, and she found herself one of only four African American students in a school of five hundred. It was not a comfortable environment for the family. Potter's parents told their children to ignore the racial problems and to focus on studies and extracurricular activities. Myrtle Potter excelled academically and convinced her father that she should go to college. She was accepted to the University of Chicago, and he remortgaged the family home to help her.


At the University of Chicago, Potter took a part-time job at the university hospital and became interested in medicine. She also persuaded the university's Business School to let her take an internship in business at IBM that was generally reserved for MBA students. The rewarding experience at IBM convinced her she wanted a career that combined business and medicine. On graduation from the University of Chicago, she took a job as a drug representative for Merck. She was soon promoted to an analyst position, but after a bit more than a year her managers told her she did not have the intellect to do the job and that they planned to demote her.

Potter disagreed with the managers and asked them to show her what they wanted. She also went to the human resources department. After that the managers did not question her abilities again. "As an African-American woman I was really going against the grain," she said to Cora Daniels, author of the "Most Powerful Black Executives" article in Fortune (July 8, 2002). Daniels described African American women executives, including Potter, as of necessity fiercely competitive and more openly ambitious than their male counterparts.

Potter pressed for more responsibilities at Merck, even accepting lateral moves to broaden her experience. In 1991 she was put in charge of a $4-billion joint venture between Astra and Merck to design a business plan and to do it within six months. The appointment met with skepticism within Merck, but in just eight weeks Potter designed a business plan that led Prilosec to become the world's best-selling ulcer medicine.


In 1996 Potter went to drug giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, where she started as a vice president of strategy and economics and soon moved up to senior vice president of sales, U.S. Cardiovascular/Metabolics. She was then promoted to president of the $3-billion sales unit, making her the first black woman to lead a major pharmaceuticals business unit. She was hired by Bristol-Myers Squibb to reengineer their drug-development pipeline and worldwide commercialization of products. Her successes in making billion-dollar drugs out of Pravachol (for high cholesterol) and Glucophage (for diabetes) attracted the attention of Genentech executives, who enticed her to join the company in 2000 as executive vice president of commercial operations, chief operating officer, and member of the executive committee.

Myrtle Potter credited her success to her ability to leverage high-performing teamswhich, she told Noel Tichy (The Cycle of Leadership, 109), "nine times out of ten gets you ten times further than doing it by yourself." Colleague Claudia Estrin described Potter as not an easy person to work for, although Estrin noted that Potter freely gave credit to someone else when it was due. Noel Tichy wrote that Potter put people "out of their comfort zone."

See also entries on Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, Genentech Inc., and Merck & Co., Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories.

sources for further information

Bell, Ella, L. J. Edmondson, and S. M. Nkomo, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001.

Daniels, Cora, "Most Powerful Black Executives," Fortune, July 22, 2002, pp. 6080.

Potter, Myrtle S., as told to Eve Tahmincioglu, "A Deal with Dad," New York Times, November 23, 2003.

Taylor, Chris, "Myrtle Potter: COO Genentech," Time, December 2, 2002.

Tichy, Noel M., and N. Cardwell, The Cycle of Leadership: How Great Leaders Teach Their Companies to Win, New York: Harper Business, 2002.

Miriam Nagel