The next chief executive of Eli Lillysaid Tuesday his scientific training and experience as a chemist would help the drugmaker develop new medicines and maintain its research prowess.
John Lechleiter, scheduled to take over on April 1 from longtime CEO Sidney Taurel, has also headed regulatory affairs, laboratories and the company's far-flung pharmaceuticals operations during his 28-year climb to the top at Lilly .
"My experience equips me to meet the company's biggest challenge, which is to bring new molecules forward," Lechleiter said in an interview. He said he intends to give Lilly scientists the breathing space needed for invention.
"As CEO, I will be careful to allow scientific leaders to carry out their functions without me trying to serve as their surrogate."
He did not seem concerned that his ultimate stamp on Lilly may be compared with the legendary career of Roy Vagelos, a medical researcher at Merck who eventually headed the company's laboratories and, as Merck CEO, spurred development of many of the industry's most innovative drugs.
Vagelos retired in 1994.
"We can stand shoulder to shoulder with Merck's track record of success" in the laboratory, Lechleiter said. "And in the years ahead, Lilly will continue to prosper on its very strong scientific skills."
He said Lilly's future success could hinge in part on its ability to ceate medicines tailored for the genetic makeup of patients, an emerging discipline known as personalized medicine. Lilly prefers the term "tailored therapeutics."
"We want to make sure the right patients get the right dose of the right medicine at the right time," Lechleiter said. Lilly intends to remain focused on the areas of diabetes, neuroscience, cardiovascular medicine and osteoporosis, but it is also taking a bigger interest in multiple sclerosis and other diseases, he said.
"Multiple sclerosis is an interesting area, and we don't currently have a direct play in it."
Lechleiter noted that Lilly on Monday reached a deal that gives it exclusive global rights to an experimental multiple sclerosis drug being developed by Canada's BioMS Medical.
He also expressed interest in treatments for type 1 diabetes -- the less common but potentially crippling form of the disease, in which an overactive immune system attacks joints.
Industry analysts describe Lechleiter, 54, as a down-to-earth sort who is equally courteous to doormen, scientists and senior executives within Lilly and on Wall Street.
The father of three children in their 20s -- a daughter and two sons -- Lechleiter said he walks to and from work in downtown Indianapolis "because my wife needs the car."
As for hobbies, he said he likes to relax at the family farm in southern Indiana and play a little golf. "My handicap is probably worse than Jeff Immelt's," he joked, referring to the CEO of General Electric and the parent of CNBC and CNBC.com.
Lechleiter, who studied chemistry at Xavier University in Cincinnati and received a doctorate in chemistry at Harvard, acknowledges being a fairly rabid New York Yankees fan.
"I'm not from New York, but every kid grows up idealizing the Yankees," he said, but quickly added, "I'm also a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, which is the other league."