Strategic insight and comfort with uncertainty help this biotech CFO navigate a world of disruption.
When Jeff Lamothe assumed an executive role at Seattle-based Aptevo Therapeutics in 2016, it marked the culmination of a flurry of activity. As CFO at biopharmaceutical company Cangene Corporation, he negotiated Cangene’s 2014 sale to Emergent BioSolutions and helped engineer Emergent’s subsequent spin-off of Aptevo into a stand-alone public company trading on Nasdaq.
Such experiences have defined Jeff’s career as that of a skilled strategist and negotiator who has made his mark with companies in the midst or on the brink of major change. His seven years working in the EY Winnipeg office’s Assurance practice provided the foundation for his career. Jeff spoke with us recently about leadership, purpose, adaptability, disruption and being comfortable with uncertainty.
What does it mean to you to be an EY alumnus?
I really valued the opportunity, fresh out of university, to be exposed to the various types of businesses that the firm serves as clients and to sit directly across the table from CEOs and CFOs and learn from them. I cannot overstate the value of that to me in my career. I learned a lot about team play in a business setting; my critical thinking skills were honed; and – maybe most importantly – I learned a lot about working through influence rather than authority.
Who are some people who stood out during your tenure with EY?
I was recruited by a partner, Gus Campbell, who was fantastic. He insisted on each of us taking the time to understand the client’s business. Peter Dueck, another partner, taught me how to discern and focus on the most important issues. And I have this vivid memory of Al Moore, who was retiring as managing partner of the Winnipeg office when I was being recruited, telling me the history of the firm. He was a gifted orator, and I always appreciated that moment.
[Current EY partner] Joanne Dunbar is an ex-Winnipegger. She and our dearly departed friend Jeff Charriere were members of the cohort who formed part of our core group of friends. And there was Craig Roskos, who was managing partner in Winnipeg for many years and is now based in Toronto; Bruce Flatt, who’s now the CEO at Brookfield Asset Management; and Paul Cunningham, who’s the CEO at WGI Westman Group.
And the list goes on. I am fortunate to have built lifelong friendships with many of my EY colleagues. The people of EY, both past and present, have been and continue to be great friends, supporters and advisors.
How did your career develop from there?
After EY, I cut my teeth on M&A at James Richardson & Sons, Limited, one of the largest privately held companies in Canada. As corporate controller, I regularly presented to our board and learned about thinking at that strategic level. I had my first CFO opportunity at Motor Coach Industries, which I joined 11 days before September 11, 2001. The events of September 11 dramatically changed that industry, and we had to take rapid and decisive action.
I had the opportunity to conduct financial negotiations with governments in Canada and the US, and to negotiate partnerships with our labor unions to put the company back on solid footing post-9/11. Later, at Emergent, I negotiated with the government to change corporate tax legislation in a way that benefited all companies conducting research and development inside Manitoba. Along the way, I’ve had opportunities to negotiate and close unique business deals.
Apart from what you just shared, how did you develop those negotiating skills?
I had the chance to hone those skills at Motor Coach as I was thrust into government and union negotiations with no prior experience in that business sector at the time, and I continued to strengthen those with the other companies at which I have worked.
But where I really learned to negotiate was at the kitchen table, as a kid, with my parents. Dinner was a time when we debated for the pure joy of debating, and my brother and I were expected to be active participants. Our parents did it so that we would learn to think and talk about the events of the world, but I think also to teach us a little bit about how to make a constructive argument.
You spent several years as a CEO [at Kitchen Craft Cabinetry, a subsidiary of MasterBrand Cabinets and Fortune Brands]. What lessons did you learn in that role?
First and foremost, that every person truly matters. At Kitchen Craft, we had 2,400 employees with a range of skill levels. I came to realize the whole operation could grind to a halt if anyone in the organization was not performing. I also learned that there is no such thing as over-communication. Every two months, I would meet with every person in the company, in groups of about 50 at a time, to have an active dialogue. That was time well-spent. Also, if you’re going to succeed, you want to surround yourself with smart, motivated people who are team players. Then give them the room and autonomy to do what they need to do.
What are some keys to navigating disruption?
Take a breath, step back, look at the big picture and make sure you understand the long-term objective. Then have the confidence to act decisively and quickly, recognizing you’re not always going to be right – and be OK with that. It requires discipline and focus. We’ve always worked to be strategic and thoughtful, especially with company-level changes.
The sale of Cangene to Emergent, the creation of the biosciences group inside of Emergent and the spinout of Aptevo — these are major changes in the strategy of a business that shift the way the market perceives the business. We’ve worked to make sure the right people are on the team and that all voices are heard – and to consistently take a shareholder perspective.
And I’m proud to say I’ve been part of values-based, caring organizations that have always sought to do the best by their employees that they can do. We’re not going anywhere if we can’t inspire people to come along with us for the journey.
The health and life sciences sector has seen so much change. What are some of the challenges that stand out to you?
One of the most challenging things for a biotech company to do well is to know when it’s time to invest and pour on the cash and when it’s time to cut bait on an individual therapy and move on, because not all drugs are going to be winners. So, knowing when to stop is a critical skill and one that takes a lot of courage. And even more important, you must have access to capital. Having a market out there that believes and that wants to contribute capital and take the risk along with you is critical.
Describe the regional transformation in the Pacific Northwest and how Aptevo competes for talent there.
There’s a huge and developing technology sector broadly based in and around the Seattle area. The city is alive, and there’s been such an influx of 20- and 30-somethings as the result of some of the companies that are here. We offer extreme flexibility in terms of our work relationships. Every employee at Aptevo is an owner in the company; every employee is a shareholder who, hopefully, will benefit from the fruits of our collective labor. Most importantly, our people help develop what can be life-changing therapies.
How do innovation and purpose relate to each other in your organization, and to you personally?
We practice in immuno-oncology, where we’re working to extend people’s lives. This provides important meaning for me and why I want to be here, and why our people want to be here. Innovation is going to be successful when you have a purpose and a reason for it. At Aptevo, and for me, it’s pretty simple. We have an unwavering focus on the patient — all of our energy is pointed toward that — and we have a really clear line of sight to that as we run our business. For me, that’s what it’s all about.
More about Jeff Lamothe
Family first: Jeff and his wife, EY alumna Jillian Lamothe, are proud of their two sons, who are early in their careers – one in New York and one in Toronto.
Community-minded: In addition to grassroots volunteer work, Jeff has enjoyed robust involvement in environmental and arts organizations.
Life at the lake: Jeff and his family enjoy summer getaway time playing tennis, kayaking and hiking at Lake of the Woods, which straddles the Canada-US border.