Inspirational Leaders: Sir Paul Girolami

Sir Paul was once a Partner at Coopers &Lybrand and moved to become Financial Controller, Finance Director, Chief Executive and finally Chairman of Glaxo. It was said that as he was being promoted to stellar heights, he never gave up any of the previous jobs. He always had a firm grip on the finances of Glaxo.

There was a time in my career that I completed many consulting projects at Glaxo, often working directly for Sir Paul.

Once, in the late 1970s, I was invited to lunch at the Mirabelle just a few hundred yards from the Glaxo Head Office in Clarges Street. By now he was CEO. We chatted, and he asked me what I knew about ‘electronic war rooms’ and how they could be used in business. Fortunately, it was something I had a little knowledge about – but not a lot.

‘Good,’ Sir Paul said, ‘I would like one. Will you send a proposal round this afternoon with an idea of the costs?’ And that is what we did. It was never going to be a competitive bidding process, but we knew better than to pad it out and, so we built the first electronic board room in the UK on the top floor of Clarges Street.

It was a challenge but an exciting challenge not least for the afternoon when we looked out of the window and saw the mass of aerials and other electronic equipment on the building across the road. We had put a great deal of effort to make sure that we were ‘tempest proof’, which meant that the electronic signals we were projecting couldn’t be read. What we hadn’t considered was that we might be impacting MI5 across the road on Curzon Street and the Company Secretary was sent to make discrete enquiries.

You could argue that Sir Paul’s reputation was based on the dramatic impact he had on Group profitability while he was at the helm. You might equally argue that he was fortunate to be in charge when a real block buster drug, Zantac, was in the pipeline. However, you can’t argue that Sir Paul changed the global drug industry forever.

Zantac was an anti-ulcer cure drug and had all previous protocols been followed it would have been priced at manufacturing cost plus some thing to recover development. Sir Paul changed that. He knew (then but not now) the alternative was surgery. He priced Zantac against the much greater cost of surgery which blew away all previous pricing strategies and made Glaxo rich. Much of Glaxo’s prosperity is attributable to that one stellar product, Zantac, which in 1986, accounted for 40 percent of the company’s sales and about half its profits.

It was an inspired insight, particularly from an accountant.

While building the electronic Board Room I had many meetings with Sir Paul. It wasn’t just about the technology and electronics but also the information to be collected and displayed. We had worked through company accounts, KPIs, lead indicators and all the other data which we envisaged being needed at a Board or Management meeting. I needed one more piece. What were Sir Paul’s personal performance measures? How did we measure his personal success?

This was insight at the highest level of business. Over a week we probably met for a total of three or four hours. Of course, he was accountable for the performance of the Group, but we were looking for something else. We were looking for something that reflected what he did.

It was walking down the corridor one day he stopped me to tell me he had worked it out.

His performance and possibly his job, he said,  was to hire and fire the right half dozen people each year. Glaxo was a large Group. He knew he couldn’t directly reach every person who worked for him, but he needed his will and voice to be communicated directly and right through the Group. He needed people who when faced with a problem would do exactly as he would.

As he said to me, ‘I need everyone to ask themselves: what would Paul do now? I need the right people in place.’

We were never able to identify a measure for that but at least we felt better that we had solved the problem. That was my inspirational moment.