Some firms' fertile soil grows crop of future CEOs

Baxter didn't have anything like GE's Crotonville. Instead, it would recruit top MBA graduates under a program promoted by Bill Graham, who died two years ago at 94 after being Baxter's CEO from 1953 to 1980. Graham placed recruits as assistants to leading executives; those assistants would then be put in charge of an international operation as the company expanded. When Baxter started the program, annual revenue was $100 million. It was an $8 billion company when the program ended, says Wilbur Gantz, chairman of Ovation Pharmaceuticals, who had risen to be president of Baxter when he left after a 25-year career.

"I was a (Baxter) general manager when I was 28," says Tony White, a 26-year Baxter alumni and CEO of Applera abi since 1995. "Where else in the world could you get that? We'd go to general manager meetings, and there would be a bunch of early-thirtysomethings running subsidiaries." At Baxter, people were given freedom and allowed to make mistakes. "They didn't punish."

Most other Baxter alumni who are now CEOs also left the company in the 1990s, a decade when the program started by Graham wound down and was phased out, Gantz says. Baxter produced CEOs for Boston Scientific bsx, Covidien cov, Genzyme genz and other health care companies. Because Baxter alumni wound up running other health care companies, they're "deep in domain," GE alumni Bennett says.

GE rotated up-and-comers. GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, for example, went from appliances to plastics to medical systems. GE alumni CEOs now run large companies in seven industries, which makes GE unique in its ability to nurture leadership "generalists," Bennett says.

However, Baxter spokeswoman Deborah Spak says Baxter is one of the most diversified companies in health care. Its portfolio spans medical devices, biotechnology and specialty pharmaceuticals, which provides diverse opportunities, she says.

"Baxter is a relatively well-kept secret, because it provides products and services primarily to health care providers, thereby making the company less visible to end consumers," says alumni Joe Herring, CEO of Covance cvd, a drug development service company with a market value of $5.6 billion and an ascending stock.

The company José Cofino runs isn't worth $2 billion, but he has an unusual perspective in that he worked at two CEO factories: PepsiCo and Disney. He's now CEO of Adir Restaurants, which franchises Pollo Campero. Cofino says PepsiCo was superior to Disney in leadership development because it didn't hire people with proven results, then try to mold them into something they're not. He says he learned PepsiCo's recipe when he was running Taco Bells in California. PepsiCo, which owned Taco Bell at the time, let him do market research and develop menu items specifically for his area, tasks companies typically do at headquarters.

The secret, says Cofino: "Give people their head, let them do their thing, and you can get amazing results."

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