Photo credit: HollenderX2

Ask CSL Limited CEO and managing director Paul Perreault about his company’s uncommon origin story — it was founded by the Australian government in 1916 and not privatized until 1994 — and you receive an uncommon response.

It begins with a discussion about the steely mindset government ownership breeds — “you’re always scrapping” — and concludes with a pronouncement that, coming from almost any other pharma exec, would land somewhere between pompous and delusional.

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“In Australia, we are the healthcare industry,” he says.

Perreault makes this statement matter-of-factly, as if giving the time of day. But within the context of CSL’s continuing corporate arc, his words come across less as braggadocio than as a plaintive assessment of reality.

Among its primary tasks in its earliest years, the company imported medicines to Australia — at a time when World War I limited access.

Over the years it has evolved that mission, to exporting the fruits of its innovation around the globe. In 2016, 46% of the company’s business came from North America. CSL now ranks as the eighth largest Australian company by market capitalization.

But none of this has gone to Perreault’s head.

“Where we came from is still a part of what we are. We still spend every dollar like it’s our own,” he explains. “There are no art galleries at our place, no fountains or marble. We just renovated the corporate office, but that was mostly to stop the possums from falling through the roof.”

The brand’s rise has been fueled by an unusual mix of successful businesses.

CSL Behring remains one of the world’s foremost makers of therapies for blood disorders, among other conditions. The company’s CSL Plasma division operates nearly 150 plasma-collection centers, while Seqirus, formed after the purchase of Novartis’ vaccine business in 2015, ranks as the world’s second biggest seller of flu vaccines.

Metronomic efficiency in CSL Plasma helps support innovation on other fronts.

The company also knows what it’s not. A few years ago, when the firm’s antibody for treatment of acute myeloid leukemia showed promise in early trials, it didn’t bulk up in anticipation of an eventual push into a new category. Rather, it licensed the asset to Janssen.

“We wouldn’t have been a good parent because we’re not an oncology company,” Perreault notes. “With all the R&D burn out there, that’s not a place for us to be.”

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Perreault, who spent some time in operations before ascending to the C-suite, is hands-on in a way many other pharma leaders are not. He started in sales and makes it a priority to “go riding with reps,” as he puts it, on a regular basis. He’s also big on posing questions, to the extent he wonders how those on the receiving end interpret his curiosity.

“I drive my people a little crazy,” Perreault says with a self-aware laugh. “When you’re asking questions, sometimes people feel you don’t trust them — which isn’t the case. I’m just interested.”

Following a centenary anniversary year in which CSL launched five products, the company is excited about the potential of pipeline products CSL112, a cardiac plaque treatment, and CSL830, a drug to prevent hereditary angioedema attacks. However, Perreault’s focus is on people — the ones under his own roof and the ones who rely upon CSL products.

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“I don’t worry about plants blowing up or about disruption, because we have smart scientists figuring that out,” he explains. “I worry about whether I have the right people doing the right thing for patients.”

Perreault, the second oldest of eight siblings, does what he can to set an example. Every year, CSL runs a sports clinic in Phoenix for more than 100 children with bleeding disorders.

“I caddied during the golf tournament, I shagged baseballs, and I timed the swimming races,” he notes. “I hear about companies that have a chief patient officer and I shake my head. If you have to hire somebody for that role, it means it’s not built into the culture of your company. That will never be a problem here.”