The Executive Series: An Interview with Laizer Kornwasser
About The Executive Series:
'The Executive Series', provides access to the thoughts and experiences of highly accomplished individuals in the business world. Through its conversational style the column expresses the unique story of each business leader, including their motivations, struggles, successes and failures. 'The Executive Series' also serves as a forum for a broader conversation about leadership in business and in life.
About Mr. Laizer Kornwasser (Adapted from Bloomberg.com):
Mr. Laizer D. Kornwasser served as an Executive Vice President and Company Group Chairman of Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, Inc. from February 1, 2013 to July 2015. Mr. Kornwasser served as an Executive officer of Medco Health from 2003 to 2011. Previously, he held positions at Merrill Lynch and Coopers & Lybrand and served as an Associate Professor of Yeshiva University. He is a Director of Everyday Health, Inc. and is currently advising various Private Equity investors in the healthcare space. Mr. Kornwasser holds a B.S. in Accounting from Yeshiva University in 1992 and a Master in Business Administration from Harvard Business School in 1996.
Mr. Kornwasser currently serves as a member of the board of trustees of Yeshiva University with the goal of assisting Chairman Moshael Straus, President Richard Joel, and the administration on thinking through the current situation from a business perspective. He is also teaching a course in SSSB: Managing a Growing Business.
This interview was conducted by Raymond Cohen.
RC: Who, would you say, had the greatest influence on you as an emerging leader?
LK: My biggest role model would be my father. I was blessed to be able to spend time with him on business trips. When he would be involved in negotiations, I would be the ‘fly on the wall’ observing his every move. He showed me what it means to lead with passion and to be successful. My father had founded, and was the CEO of, a Real Estate Investment Trust. He always taught me the importance of being kind to others. He would go around the office every day to say hello to everybody regardless of how busy he was.
RC: When was the first time you considered yourself a leader, and how did that experience help you as you advanced to more sophisticated leadership positions?
LK: My first leadership position was student council president of my elementary school. That experience taught me not to view my age as a disadvantage. I had skipped a grade and was the youngest in my class, so that role taught me that leadership can be achieved regardless of one's age. Another formative leadership position I held was as student president of the Sy Syms School of Business. I was very studious and was passionate about a couple of student issues regarding Sy Syms, and I learned that leadership is first and foremost about the ability to convince others to embrace change and recognize potential.
RC: Why did you choose to get an MBA? And how do you compare the experience with your original expectations?
LK: After college, I decided to go into accounting and went to work for Coopers & Lybrand (which later merged to become the ‘C’ in PwC). I spent two years there and then got accepted and decided to go to Harvard Business School. I always knew I wanted to get a business degree. I thought I was going to go into my family business and I figured that if I was going to join the company, I wanted to have some credentials behind me. I also knew that I wanted to broaden my horizons, I really wanted the experience of understanding the business world from a completely different perspective.
I had a great experience, and was fascinated by the case study method. Business school changed the way I think. It changed the way I analyze; it changed the way I make decisions. It also broadened my horizons from a network perspective. The experience of Business School is not just what you learn; it’s who you learn it with.
RC: What was the toughest moment of your career?
LK: After being laid off from Walker Digital due to the fact that the "Internet Bubble" had burst, I decided I wanted to return to investment banking. I was able to get to a position where Lehman Brothers made me an offer to join their Telecom, Media and Technology group. The next day I got a call from Merrill-Lynch, who I had worked for previously, saying: ‘we hear you're coming back to Investment Banking, why don't you come back to us.’ I called Lehman Brothers and told them I would be going to Merrill-Lynch because I was more familiar with the people there. They said, 'once you give it up there is no turning back. I said 'That's ok.' The following Monday I came in to Merrill-Lynch and the head of the division says: 'I have your offer, but I can't give it to you - the Company announced a hiring freeze on Sunday. I told everyone about your situation but unfortunately there is nothing I can do.' This was a bump in salary, a bump in title and substantial equity.
The reason why I tell you this is because you never know how life takes its course; everything turns out min-Hashamayim. I would have spent the next 10 years becoming a Managing Director in either Lehman Brothers or Merrill-Lynch, with my compensation tied to their stock - and then when the mortgage crisis hit the financial markets my equity in either bank would have been wiped out.
RC: How did you end up in healthcare after accounting and real estate investment banking?
I got a call from a friend of mine who I had previously worked with who asked me to join business development for a company called Medco Health. Medco was being spun out from Merck and I liked the idea that it was being spun out as the "Problem Child". To me that meant opportunity. I did not have any healthcare experience, nor did I think I was going into healthcare. I remember my first meeting with the CEO, David Snow – he asked me 'why should we hire you?' and I said to him 'I have no experience in healthcare, but if you want someone who is going to get you to the finish line first, then bet on me.’
RC: How were you able to compensate for your lack of industry expertise?
LK: Medco hired me for business development and internal turnaround. I had the ability to make deals, to understand numbers, problem solve and act as a business manager. You need to be able to communicate. You need to know when you know an answer, but also when you don't know an answer and get the right help to get there. So, in my mind, if you've got a good business sense, you can communicate and you can lead, you don't necessarily need to be an industry expert - that's not the case with all industries but with many industries it does apply.
The same thing happened at Valeant. I had industry exposure, but didn't grow up in the 'pharma world'. And most of the executives at Valeant did not grow up in the ‘pharma world’ either which allowed us to approach the marketplace with a different mind frame, with the inherent assumption that the current pharma process could be improved. It’s a lot easier to improve upon a model if you’re not in it and if you're coming from the outside. So to me the key was identifying what I know and what I don't know. In the areas that you don't know, you need to find people you can trust that you can lean on for advice. For example, research & development - I'm not a doctor - I'm not someone who is going to make those decisions, but it’s about getting the right people at the table.
RC: What factors do you consider to be a must-have for any company worth joining?
LK: My philosophy is that you have to put yourself in a position to constantly grow and learn because that's how you get ahead. Another major factor is confidence in leadership. When I joined Medco Health, I knew that the executive team there had leaders whom I could learn from and I felt that they were going to be successful. The same was true with Valeant. Whatever you do, you have to join companies whose leadership you have confidence in to achieve success, otherwise you're just wasting your time.
RC: You've spent most of your career working for large corporations, could you explain why you prefer that setting a more entrepreneurial environment?
LK: Well, you could have an entrepreneurial mindset in a large corporation. When I was at Medco, one of the reasons we were able to grow from a $6 billion company to over a $30 billion was because we had an entrepreneurial frame of mind combined with the resources of a large firm. So, I very much consider myself to be entrepreneurial.
RC: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to achieve success in your career?
LK: My biggest obstacle was that since I started out in Accounting and Investment Banking, it took me some time to step away and realize that while numbers are important in terms of making business decisions, they are only one data point in arriving at what is ultimately the correct solution. And if you only make your decision solely based on a spreadsheet, you probably won't end up with the right answer.
RC: You’ve been active with community service throughout your career; could you describe some of the challenges that you've had balancing community service with work life?
LK: You know, it’s always a struggle - especially the earlier on you are in your career, you will always have challenges in balancing different situations. It's less of an issue with regard to community vs. work because the reality is, when you are young in your career, work can be all encompassing. The amount of time I gave to my community earlier on in my career is nowhere near the amount of time I'm giving today. The struggles really become combining family, work and religion. The key thing is knowing your priorities and not deviating from them. People will respect your balance so long as you don't make it an "excuse". If I ever left a team working on Friday, I would always let them know that I will get the job done by Monday morning. Regardless if it meant coming in on Saturday night or Sunday.
But you need to understand that you can't just take, you need to give - and you should also view giving as receiving, for me, there is tremendous reward to giving. Whether that means giving financially, whether it’s giving time, or even sitting down with a student to help them think through their career - that's what gives me pleasure.
RC: What qualities do you look for in a new hire?
LK: Hardworking. Work ethic is paramount. Being smart and summer jobs are just the cost of entry. The person needs to demonstrate that they want the job. Come in having done your research, come prepared and prove to me that you are willing to go the extra mile.