Justice Is Served

How Tom Kendris went from the Manhattan DA’s office to president for one of the world’s leading pharma companies with an unwavering focus on integrity

Flying back and forth between New Jersey and Basel, Switzerland, is routine for Tom Kendris. He is the US country president and general counsel at Novartis, an innovative healthcare company providing healthcare solutions to address the evolving needs of patients and societies. The company offers a diversified portfolio that spans innovative medicines, eye care, and cost-saving generic pharmaceuticals. All told, Novartis employs more than 22,000 people at twenty-four sites across the United States.

As if that wasn’t enough, Kendris also provides corporate leadership for the US divisions of Novartis, as well as serving as US country head of legal.

But his legal career began in a much less extravagant fashion, sparked in an undergraduate class titled Law and Society. He was required to spend one afternoon watching the law in action and happened to wander into the courthouse during opening statements of a criminal jury trial. Kendris was hooked and skipped class for the rest of the week to attend sessions until a verdict was reached.

After law school, Kendris worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office from 1981 to 1990. “It was an amazing place for a young lawyer to learn,” he recalls. “At the DA’s office, you’re given tremendous responsibility at an early state in your career, as well as superlative training by experienced prosecutors. You learn so much so quickly—leadership, judgment, making decisions, thinking on your feet—and that the goal of prosecution isn’t to obtain convictions, but is about doing justice in each case.”

That experience strongly influenced Kendris. When he left the DA’s office, he applied those lessons learned while honing his litigation skills at a law firm. But in 1995, he began to reevaluate his career goals and consider new options: Return to being a prosecutor? Start his own firm? Continue as a litigator at a new firm? Or perhaps something outside the box, such as moving in-house at a pharmaceutical company?

In the end, he traded in his suit and tie for business casual and moved out of the Manhattan rush to the slower pace of the New Jersey suburbs and to a role with Ciba-Geigy. The change in pace was drastic for Kendris, but the merger of Ciba-Geigy with Sandoz to form Novartis in 1996 presented new opportunities, as well as exciting challenges for Kendris and his colleagues in the legal department.

The merger integrated the best of both companies: the large legal staff of Ciba-Geigy and the faster-paced approach of Sandoz’s leaner legal team. It was a game-changer for Kendris, and when he began to see the value that the new and broader portfolio of innovative medicines was bringing to patients, he was back in the fast lane where he ultimately found his niche.

He dove into learning the business, working in the transplant business, then oncology, and wholeheartedly adopting Novartis’ devotion to helping patients.

“The drugs we were developing were keeping transplant patients alive, and the research we were doing was helping to cure cancer,” says Kendris, who became enthralled with supporting his internal clients. “Their work to find cures for patients was so important, and their energy and passion was so much higher than anything I’d ever experienced.”

Since working in the DA’s office, maintaining integrity and ethical conduct in his practice has been essential to Kendris, and perhaps never more so than at Novartis. An aging population is putting health systems under unprecedented pressure, and scrutiny of healthcare from governments and life sciences industries has never been stronger. “Society’s expectations of the pharmaceutical industry are increasing,” Kendris says, “so as we move forward, we can no longer simply do what is legal and deliver good results. People want to know more about how we do business, that we are conducting ourselves in the right way, and delivering high performance with integrity.”

Evan Chesler, chairman of Novartis’ frequently collaborating law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, puts it even more succinctly. “Tom is a straight shooter,” Chesler says. “He is a lawyer who believes in doing the right thing and playing by the rules.”

To meet the high expectations of so many stakeholders, Novartis continuously works to anticipate and address new challenges before they occur. “We work to proactively identify and mitigate risk exposure as an integral part of normal decision-making,” Kendris says.

This means that, rather than evaluating the compliance of a new program at the conclusion of its planning process, the legal and compliance teams consult with business operators from the earliest stages. “If we can balance business performance with doing the right thing in the right way, we’ll be successful,” he continues. “That is why ethics are so important: Nothing else matters if we’re not doing the right thing.”

Anticipation of obstacles and discovering solutions to problems on the horizon requires a unified view of the risk environment and a holistic approach to managing it.

“If we can’t agree on how to view and manage risk, our strategy won’t be as effective as it needs to be,” Kendris says. “So we have regular touch points between management and the board, and we make sure our culture of compliance is communicated thorough our company.”

Kendris has found that the best ways to mitigate risk is to invest in people—developing and nurturing new ways of thinking, thereby enabling the Novartis culture to change and become even more transparent. This reemphasizes Kendris’ mantra that doing business ethically and in compliance requires more than having the right systems and processes in place. It’s also about nurturing new ways of thinking and cultural change. “We work hard to embed a culture of compliance at every level of the company,” he says. “The tone is set at the top, and it is integrated throughout our business and our partnerships.”

“If we can balance business performance with doing the right thing in the right way, we’ll be successful. That is why ethics are so important: Nothing else matters if we’re not doing the right thing.”

Kendris and his team carefully monitor programs to watch for compliance issues. They regularly complete risk assessments and are diligent to maintain high standards, all in the name of reinforcing that culture of integrity across the company in every function. All of that supports the Novartis vision to be a trusted leader in changing the practice of medicine among patients, stakeholders, and society.

“Not one day passes that my experience in the Manhattan DA office hasn’t helped me, whether in the boardroom, presenting to management, or making decisions,” Kendris says, adding that he finds a strong parallel between his experience at the DA and his current position.

Lessons such as “Ensuring justice is more important than winning convictions” especially apply when working to cure diseases under the public and government’s microscope. How it’s done matters as much as if it’s done at all.

But at Novartis, that’s exactly the point: The goal is to improve patients’ lives, but success is ultimately determined by the way this goal is achieved.

“Our reputation is based on how we do business, not only on our results,” Kendris says.