From Tech to Biotech

Gilead CFO Robin Washington has overseen an ERP implementation and the company's $11 billion acquisition of Pharmasset.

Robin Washington was a veteran of technology companies when she joined Gilead Sciences as CFO in May 2008, shortly before the financial markets imploded. Since then, she’s led the biopharmaceutical company through a major ERP implementation and one of biotech’s biggest acquisitions.

Washington was previously controller at enterprise software provider PeopleSoft, where she was positioned to take over as CFO when the company was acquired by Oracle in 2004. Washington then signed on as CFO at Hyperion Solutions, but Hyperion was also acquired by Oracle. Washington decided it was time to consider opportunities in some fast-growing industry outside of enterprise software.

When she was approached by Gilead, Washington remembered that her last science class had been high school biology. Nevertheless, she took the challenge. Although she recalls digging in to understand Gilead’s business as one of the top challenges in her career, “the great thing about finance is that the skill set is very transferable,” she says.

As CFO at Gilead, which had $8.1 billion in 2011 revenue, Washington faced an ERP project gone awry. Software had been chosen and implementation had just begun when she arrived. Over the next 13 months, she guided the initiative back on track by focusing on the three key factors she sees as transcending industries: people, processes and technology.

Washington pursued a “job-leveling exercise” aimed at ensuring that finance executives’ titles and responsibilities matched appropriately and that promotions stemmed from the “functional depth and scalability of our people” rather than years on the job, she says.

Based on her experience at Tandem Computers, she encouraged finance executives to shift regularly to new positions and promoted those who took advantage of such opportunities. They, after all, had developed new functional skills and perhaps also project management skills and the ability to work in other cultures.

“You want people who can think outside the box and be agents for change, not only coming up with the changes but being able to implement them,” Washington says. Emphasizing employee development “results in lower turnover, but more importantly people with better skill sets and alignment with the company’s goals and objectives,” she says. “As the company scales [in size], our employees can also scale.”

Washington says consistent processes are also key for a global company. Often there’s a tendency to look at how differently things are done across a company, she says, but argues that it’s more effective to recognize the 80% of processes that are done the same way and “figure out how to nuance the remaining 20%.” Companies have to “create processes that are as consistent as possible to be as efficient as possible,” she says.

She says technology improves efficiency and effectiveness by “forcing consistent processes,” so that “when you buy software, you look for functionality a lot of people can use.”

More recently, Washington worked to improve Gilead’s credit ratings, achieving investment-grade ratings early last year. She attributes that success to the initial challenge she faced when she joined the company, that of thoroughly understanding a new industry.

“You have to understand the drivers behind the numbers,” Washington says, “I had to understand areas such as research and development and use that information to validate [for the rating agencies] that we were on the right road strategically.”

Achieving investment-grade ratings paved the way for Gilead’s $11 billion acquisition of Pharmasset, which closed in January.

Washington has also pursued a flexible capital strategy aimed at maximizing shareholder value. Early in her tenure, after determining Gilead’s R&D pipeline was undervalued, she emphasized stock buybacks over dividends. Gilead continued to invest in its pipeline, but with the Pharmasset acquisition, the emphasis has shifted away from buybacks and back to R&D.

“The valuation of our company has gone up because we were able to make an investment that grows our pipeline and the top line of the company’s revenues, while also diversifying our business,” Washington says.


See the 2012 Women in Finance list here.

See Part I of the Women in Finance slideshow here, Part II here and Part III here.

See the 2011 Women in Finance list here.

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