In Profile: Julie O’Neill

Julie O’Neill

Julie O’Neill

MBA '96

A strong self-belief system and commitment to ongoing learning – both of which were nurtured by her parents – have been instrumental in Julie O’Neill’s career progression, which, to date, has included becoming vice-president of operations and general manager, Ireland of biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, and, last year, being elected the first female president of Ibec.

About Julie O’Neill

O’Neill’s interest in the pharma-related sector began at a young age. “When I was a child my parents’ very good friends were pharmacists. I spent many hours in the back of the pharmacy and was always fascinated by the activities and even the smells in pharmacies. When I was going through school it always struck me as a career that I would be interested in.”

After studying pharmacy at Trinity College Dublin, she opted to spend six months in industry during her pre-registration year, as well as the obligatory six months in retail pharmacy. “I was absolutely fascinated by industry and was fortunate enough to meet some exceptional people, entrepreneurially and technically, at the time,” she says. “That just really forged my interest in the pharmaceutical industry.”

Since qualifying in 1989, she’s spent the vast majority of her time in the industry side of things. The exception was a two-year sabbatical from 1995 to 1997 when she and a colleague opened four pharmacies in Dublin. Setting up the business coincided with her Smurfit Business School studies. “I used a lot of the learnings from the executive MBA in the development of the business in terms of marketing and finance. Having had a purely technical background at that stage – both in terms of my qualification but also in the execution of my job – the executive MBA opened my mind to what is really needed to run a business and to run and grow a business successfully.”

O’Neill says she was motivated to do the MBA by the belief that she needed to increase her skill sets if she was to develop in terms of managing and leading a business of any description. “I think an MBA is a great basis for anyone in business because it gives excellent grounding across a broad sphere of disciplines,” she says. “I think it gave me great insight into how other functions worked, how functions interacted with each other and the reliance on different functions within a corporate organisation. It really spurred me to think differently about how the pharmaceutical industry worked and what was needed to run a business within that area.”

The introduction at the time of licensing of pharmacies created a scramble for licences, says O’Neill, with the result that she and her partner chose to sell up after a relatively short period.

She then joined NeXstar Pharmaceuticals, which was acquired by Gilead a couple of years later in 1999, as general manager. “I had just come back from my honeymoon the week I started work. We were eight people and we had a single product. Ireland was used as the launch site for that product entering the European supply chain.”

Over the years, the business in Ireland has developed from being an importation and distribution business to being a fully integrated manufacturing and distribution operation, she says. “We now import active ingredients that are manufactured throughout the world and we manufacture medicines for the treatment of HIV and Aids and other disease states in the plant in Cork. And then we perform all of our international distribution operations through the facility in Dublin.” The Irish operation currently employs 250 people. 

“We all worked to make the business successful as it was and as it grew. We haven’t lost some of that entrepreneurial activity – or as I call it intrapreneurial activity. I think the success of many companies that have invested in Ireland has largely been predicated on the intrapreneurial activities of its Irish management who’ve gone out and sought opportunities for the company in Ireland and are able to demonstrate how the Irish operation can deliver for a global corporation.”

At the beginning of 2010 she was appointed vice-president of operations for the company, which recently reported a 14pc increase in product sales to US$2.36bn in the quarter to 30 September 2012. “As a VP you have to think more holistically about the organisation rather than just specifically about the operation that you run,” she says. “It is about greater engagement, cross function and cross geography and making sure that you work very effectively with people everywhere in the Gilead network. It’s just another step up on the leadership framework when you start to think about how every piece of the puzzle impacts upon the delivery of our medicines to patients. You just have to think about the goal more strategically.”

Apart from the day job, O’Neill is currently on the governing body of University College Cork, a member of the Advisory Council for Sciences, Technology and Innovation, and on the research institute advisory board at UCD’s Conway Institute. She’s also on the board of Crann, the Trinity College-based nanoscience institute. She was president of Ibec until September of this year, when Microsoft Ireland’s Paul Rellis took over, and is a former chairperson of Ibec group PharmaChemical Ireland.

The workload is not as heavy as it sounds, she says. “Some of the work is very much advisory and the engagement is at the request of the executive when they need advice. It’s a very limited involvement. In the presidential role at Ibec it was a very busy time, but it was a tremendous opportunity for me to lead an organisation in a slightly different way, engaging with stakeholders and trying to get the message of the members of Ibec.”

She believes participation in external organisations is a two-way street for senior leaders. “There’s a lot that you bring to an organisation in terms of engagement and oversight and the enterprise-type agenda. But also you learn so much from other institutions and how they manage their business and what they’re trying to do. So it’s a kind of synergistic relationship.

“I think through participating in some of these advisory bodies and governance bodies I have gained an awful lot or as much as they have gained from me. I would encourage more business leaders to collaborate and work with other organisations. I think it’s a great opportunity for business and for the organisations themselves.”

She also stresses the importance of being able to network with other leaders from the same sector. “Being alone in a senior leadership role can be a lonely place and many of our agendas or issues are the same. Our own network of colleagues is a very useful resource.

“That’s what encouraged my external involvement. The fact that I moved on to leadership roles in those organisations, well, maybe I’m just a bossy person!”

O’Neill has also continued her own professional development and completed the Institute of Director’s chartered director programme in 2010 and was awarded designation in 2011. “I think it’s important to continue education. If you’re reliant on the information you had in ’96 or ’97, well business will pass you by and opportunity will pass you by. I firmly believe in continuing professional development and continuous learning.”

O’Neill is also a firm believer in learning from mistakes but focusing on solutions. “We all face problems and to me the biggest issue is that you don’t get into a blame game or assigning fault. We learn from the mistake and we focus on what it is we need to do to resolve the issue and to move on. I’m very big on focusing on solutions and I think that’s how you engender collaboration and teamwork within your group.”

She stresses the value of mentoring, both formal and informal. “I think that’s something that helped me in my career. When I faced issues where I wasn’t sure what to do I would approach somebody I trusted to give me an opinion. And it wasn’t necessarily somebody always within this industry.  My father and my uncle were great mentors at various stages and other people who I worked for and even more recently previous presidents of Ibec – I would pick up the phone when I was faced with a particularly challenging situation and ask their advice on how they would deal with something.

She likes to mentor women within her organisation. “I think one of the things we’re challenged with as leaders is ensuring there’s a constant stream of women at senior levels in organisations. And for various reasons women opt out – whether it’s for family, for social reasons or whether they just don’t have the confidence, I’m not quite sure where the solution in that dilemma lies, but I think mentoring and encouraging others can maybe help retain our very highly qualified, educated and excellent females in very senior leadership roles in organisations.”

One of the key influences on her success over the years has been her family, says O’Neill. “Both my parents engendered the value of education and continuous learning and also a belief system that matured my own self-belief and confidence. My parents today would still tell me there’s nothing I cannot achieve, that there are no limits to my success. And they said the same things to all of my siblings and I have three very successful siblings.”

More recently working in Gilead has had a significant impact. “Gilead is a phenomenal organisation chiefly because the patient is the focus,” she says. “That is a remarkable incentive to work and it’s a remarkable motivation.”

October 2013