“Pie Makes Everyone Happy.” Ginger Graham Shares Insights About Her Career and Why Everyone Has a Pie Story

by | May 26, 2021 | Thought Leadership

Foreword: The following is an abbreviated transcript from the latest Medtech Trailblazers, The Real Stories Behind the Innovators, Fogarty Innovation’s series of casual, in-depth conversations aimed at discovering the people who have forged our industry. To view part I of the videocast click here

From Miss Rodeo Arkansas queen to running Fortune 500 and Nasdaq 100 businesses, Ginger Graham has had a remarkable career, touching the lives of countless patients and inspiring untold employees. Today, as co-owner of Ginger and Baker with her husband Jack Graham, she hasn’t slowed down one bit and continues to make an impact and, of course, she can still bake a mean pie.  

Andrew Cleeland (AC) had the pleasure of chatting with Ginger (GG) and following is an excerpt of the fascinating interview.  

AC. Let’s start with your background, how you grew up and any key moments that helped shape your future.

GG. I grew up on a farm in rural Arkansas, much like Old McDonald’s farm. My parents raised beef cattle, quarter horses and poultry. I had a pet lamb and we had yard chickens; it was very much a simple time. My dad was a mailman and a farmer; my mom kept books for the local Ford Motor Company and babysat children, worked on the farm and sold cakes on the side – they were both very hard-working. We grew our food and made our own clothes and were part of a community where people took care of each other.

I grew up on a horse and competed in lots of pageants that were rodeo based; I was the Arkansas state high school rodeo queen and then became Miss Rodeo Arkansas. It gave me a great opportunity to travel my state, meet people and hone my skills as a public speaker while advocating for a sport and a way of life that is important to me.

My dream as a child was to be a veterinarian, but after completing a pre-vet program and  working for a vet for a year, I realized in wasn’t for me. I transferred to the University of Arkansas, which was very close to my hometown, held three part-time jobs to pay for the tuition and tried to figure out what was next. Luckily, like many things in life, I found a great mentor — a professor who was my advisor — and he encouraged me to take an economics class. And that was it. The world of business and economics presented a new way of thinking, something I’d never been exposed to, and I loved it.

AC: And then what was the impetus to go to Harvard?

GG: It wasn’t a specific plan; I didn’t even know where Harvard Business School was at the time. After college, I went to work for Elanco, the world’s largest agriculture chemical company. While I was there, President Jimmy Carter embargoed Russia, which collapsed the U.S. agriculture market, and the company was downsized by half. While I kept my job, there weren’t the opportunities to grow and make a difference in the same way.

An advisor at work suggested an advanced degree would help my career, and I was impressed with Harvard’s emphasis on learning in the Socratic method — I love to debate and talk and hear from other people; it’s how I learn best. So, I applied to Harvard and was fortunate to get in. 

AC: What was next after Harvard?

GG: While I was at Harvard, I had the opportunity to work for Morgan Stanley, which was an incredible, eye-opening experience and exposed me to a lot of new things. But I wanted to work in a company that provided products for people, not just transactions and services, so after graduating, I went to work at Eli Lilly and Company. They decided they wanted to sell one of their businesses, Elizabeth Arden, and I had the chance to lead the entire global team that put Arden on the block in an auction.

It’s one of the many opportunities I was given that were far beyond my knowledge set, but people had confidence in my decision-making, my thought process and my ability to lead a group of experts to get something done. 

AC: At Eli Lilly, you had an opportunity to run ACS (an Eli Lilly company). Can you describe your experience and how you got that opportunity?

GG: The offer to be the CEO of ACS was a life-time game changer. I received great training at Eli Lilly for future leadership, as I had been their first female director of sales and had luckily been number one in the nation. I knew Lilly would place me in other opportunities, and I had heard rumors that I would be joining one of the device companies, but no one was more surprised than me when I was offered the CEO job.  

While it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it was also a challenging time. ACS had had a lot of product recalls the year before and was losing market share, which led to unrest and dissatisfaction. But actually, I think that was the greatest gift I could have been given because when things aren’t going well, people are more likely to listen to new ways of thinking and accept change. And it just started an amazing 10-year ride in the medical device industry.

AC: What was your leadership approach in those early days? 

GG: Obviously I was an unexpected individual as CEO, so there was a good deal of skepticism about whether I was an appropriate choice or not. I spent my first three months listening, meeting with everyone, walking the halls, asking questions, riding with the reps, talking to our customers and standing in the cath labs to understand what was happening at the company.

After the first three months on the job, we rolled into the national sales meeting in January of 1993 with a salesforce that was anxious and unhappy with the state of the company. I just told them the truth — that although ACS had been the first company in the medical device industry to hit a hundred million dollars of revenue overseas and had been leaders in so many different technologies, they were behind. 

I shared what I had heard when I took the job about this amazing, leading, fast-moving innovative culture, responsive to customers, incredibly focused on patients and patient health. And what I found instead was a lot of finger pointing and blaming. And I told them we couldn’t fix it unless we said it out loud, and we then took dramatic steps to solve the problems.

My experience was that people want to be part of a great organization. People want to be included in a community and in things that matter. They want to make a difference. And if they feel like they get a chance to participate, they will.  

AC: It sounds like you’re also describing the next step, your experience at Guidant and the remarkable culture that I hear about the company. Can we talk about your experience there?

GG: Well, of course I love talking about Guidant. While I was at ACS, a few leaders from Eli Lilly decided that the best outcome for both Lilly and its portfolio of device companies would be to bundle the device companies, spin them out as a separate entity and take it public. And I had the incredible, life-altering good fortune to be part of the core team that took Guidant public. It was a hard beginning as anytime companies are being sold, you lose talent. 

We gave ourselves a new name, a new brand and a new look. And I can tell you that not many employees were excited about it — they weren’t yet bought into who Guidant was becoming. But it was an opportunity to create a cardiovascular powerhouse that we were convinced had the talent, the assets and the capabilities to lead the industry. But it didn’t happen the day we went public. It took a while to build.

AC: Let’s talk about your management style and what you believe has made you successful.

GG: I think one of the reasons that I get credit for success is because I worked with organizations that had winning cultures but were in trouble. And I’ve always told people, I think you can look brilliant if you fix just one or two things. People want clarity and people want to know that if they work hard it’s going to matter. 

Growing up, I learned that I get to choose how I show up and how I show up matters. And so for me, showing up, being available, being real, is who I chose to be. These simple principles allow people to make the organization better, and when times are hard, they’ll help each other. I think this mindset allows people to show up as their best selves at work. 

We touched millions of lives, and I know they’re in good hands because of the integrity of those who worked at the company and the rigorous quality controls and standards we set. We used personal stories to teach the organization about the reason for compliance standards and quality…not because a regulator sits out there, but because one’s mom or dad is going to potentially need one of our technologies. That’s why we do what we do. And that’s very motivational for people.

AC: Ginger and Baker — can you describe that for us?

GG: Ginger and Baker is a food hub and destination in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s based in a 115- year-old, national historic, registered grain mill that we renovated. It has two restaurants, a coffee shop, a teaching kitchen, a wine cellar, a big event space and three outdoor patios. It’s a great community gathering place.

It’s always been a bit of a dream for me to open a pie shop.  My mom took care of people and taught me how to cook. I can make wedding cakes and I can bake a mean pie.  I’ve always considered pie to be a symbol of things I value: it’s handmade, it’s a shared food, it’s usually made from locally sourced and natural ingredients and it takes time and love. It almost always has a story attached to it — everyone I’ve ever met has a pie story about an aunt or a great-grandmother or a special date. Pie is about bringing people together, about showing community attachment and familial nostalgia.  A pie shop is an anchor in a community — you get to know everybody in town and be an advocate for Fort Collins, which is a great place to live.

After the stellar accomplishments discussed above, Ginger went on to become the president and CEO of Amylin Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company that launched two first in class medicines for people with diabetes. She currently serves on numerous boards, including Walgreens Boots Alliance and Clovis Oncology. She co-chairs the Scientific Council of the University of Colorado Center for Women’s Health Research and is on the board of the BioFrontiers Center for Molecular Biotechnology in Boulder, CO. She has come full circle by joining the faculty at Harvard Business School and has written for the Harvard Business Review. Ginger is the recipient of numerous awards, including being listed in Pharma VOICE’s “100 of the Most Inspiring People,” among many others. True to her philanthropic spirit, in her spare time she coaches first-time CEOs in leadership, strategy and organization building.

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