Alumni Profile: Amgen's Ed Garnett

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Amgen’s vice president of human resources Edward F. Garnett attended Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks and was a member of the last class to graduate from Cal State Northridge’s predecessor, San Fernando Valley State College, in 1971. The following year, his future wife was among the new CSUN’s first graduating class.

Garnett went to work for glass bottle manufacturer Owens-Illinois and, while attending graduate school, he was offered a job at 3M Pharmaceuticals, where he worked for 12 years before joining Amgen, the Thousand Oaks-based biotechnology firm, in 1986. He was named vice-president, human resources, in 1994.

Amgen, Inc., makes and markets therapeutic products for blood cell production, inflammation and autoimmunity, neurobiology and soft tissue repair. The company’s Epogen, an antianemia drug, and Neupogen, an immune system stimulator, account for more than 90 percent of sales. Amgen, which employs over 5,000 people, spends nearly one fourth of its sales on research and development.

Garnett, who received a bachelor’s of science degree in operations management and business administration and serves on CSUN’s Dean’s Council of Business Advisors, talked with freelance writer Scott Holleran about his education, what he looks for when hiring and today’s business principles during an interview at his office in Amgen’s corporate headquarters.

Any thoughts about your education at Cal State Northridge?

Well, it’s interesting. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, they didn’t have management science or operations research as an option. They offered parochial things like finance, marketing, accounting. There were a bunch of us who were more interested in the computer side--the systems solutions side--to business issues. We ended up being one of the first classes through the school with a major in production planning, inventory control, operations research---that’s been a big help to me. And I’ve gone back to CSUN to recruit undergraduates by picking that as a major and tried to tell them how it’s been helpful and that I know all this statistics stuff is hard and boring and you’re not sure how you’re ever going to use it but it really does have many applications in today’s world.

As you advance in an organization, there are more and more conversations at the strategic level that include questions like what is the rate of return on this investment, what are the upper control limits of this experiment, what’s the p value of a particular set of data.

It’s not just because we’re in the drug industry. More businesses are relying upon statistical forecasting, regression analysis, science-based predictions based upon the past.

Why were you interested in computers at such an early stage in their development?

I was always fascinated in electronic stuff. In the 1960s, computers were not sophisticated and there were a lot of on/off switches. Now, there’s more on my desk[top computer] than there was that landed man on the moon [in 1969], but it always intrigued me that you could sort through this stuff and come up with fast, analytical answers to business problems.

Though they don’t call it this anymore, linear programming always fascinated me. I was interested in coming up with decisions based upon facts and doing it faster. I didn’t want to become a computer geek—not that I mean anything bad by that. I wanted to be a businessperson who could offer management solutions through systems.

How did you come to Amgen?

After working at 3M Pharmaceuticals for 12 years, I worked as materials manager for Integrated Air Systems. Later, I realized that I really missed that thing that gets you out of bed in the morning and gets you to work--saving people’s lives. I realized that it was important to my values.

It had been one of my goals to get back into health care. Amgen was a small company back in 1986 and I didn’t really know what they did but a friend from 3M had come to work out here and so I called him.

He later told me that Amgen was looking for a purchasing guy and I said I’d be interested. The risk was that I had a wife and three kids and I was going to work for a company that had no revenues. But I wanted to take that risk and my wife was supportive. Today, we look for the kind of people who take risks.

Which values governed your decision?

I knew that I needed to work there. I felt really good about the people I’d met. There was a true interest in what I was talking about—in purchasing and how I would help them develop the materials management logistics and operations and how I saw the future—and the respect that I received from a bunch of Ph.Ds who were interviewing me was astonishing.

It was almost intimidating sitting down with these genetic engineers but they treated me like I was a colleague and a peer. What I said really mattered at Amgen and I was unaccustomed to that in big business, where it was sometimes: “Thanks very much--we’ve already done that.”

There was obvious collaboration [at Amgen] and they were united in a certain vision to make a difference in people’s lives. And they were having fun while they were struggling to get going in doing something important. It was like [ Alvin] Toffler’s Third Wave [Theory]: it was biotechnology that was going to change the way medicine was to be delivered. I was impressed with their direction.

What advice do you have for today’s business students?

For the undergraduate, I say learn all you can learn about what the business does from development through marketing--from soup to nuts--and understand the business cycle. That way you’ll be able to use your background to add value at some step along that cycle. Don’t be afraid to move around and take other jobs in that business unit to learn those cycles, like I’ve done at Amgen.

For the graduate student, and the kids who are thinking of going back, don’t be in a rush to go back for your MBA. Go out and learn the business and be able to apply what you have learned so that when you go back for your MBA, it will be useful to you from a practical standpoint.

What are the challenges you face in human resources?

A lot of the hurdles are put there by politicians who have never had business experience—otherwise they’d be in business. At Amgen, for example, we have no sick leave program. Our policy is simple and generous: If you’re sick, don’t come to work. Don’t be sick too often and know that we watch Mondays and Fridays. That’s the rule and everyone knows that.

Now, the state [of California] requires that, if an employee has a family member who’s sick, we have to give the employee an equal amount of sick leave to go take care of their family member. But we don’t have sick leave here.

You learn to live with the bureaucrats. What you love about the job is the people. At 6 o’clock, all of Amgen’s assets are going home in tennis shoes every night- we are all intellectual property. The fun part about human resources is trying to make this a place where people want to come back to work the next day and say: “I want to get up and go back to Amgen.” We have great benefit programs, stock ownership, a day care center, a fitness center, a great cafeteria, on site shoe repair, ATMs.

What qualities do you look for when you hire an individual?

Integrity. A risk-taker. We’re assuming that you have the technical skills or you wouldn’t even be here to talk to us. Honesty and not being afraid to make a mistake- we encourage mistakes. As a matter of fact, if you don’t make enough mistakes, we come in and beat you up a little bit because you’re not taking enough risks.

How do you encourage innovation?

We encourage the individual to excel. However, for the individual to get an idea past the laboratory bench or desk, they have to have a team. The team is the unit that move those ideas into reality. We encourage our scientists and the people making discoveries to create a better solution and review it with one’s peers.

Are you concerned that Amgen’s success depends on a government entitlement program, Medicare, which is projected to go bankrupt?

Medicare is our biggest customer. But the more we grow our business, the less dependent we’re going to be on Medicare. Our Epogen product is reimbursed through Medicare because every dialysis patient is covered by Medicare no matter what the age. But as we develop other drugs—drugs that will be paid through private and individual channels—there is going to be less dependency on the government to tell us what they’re going to pay us.

As the home office worker phenomenon takes root, will Amgen redefine the employer/employee relationship?

That’s a good question. I’m a Baby Boomer. The people I’m hiring are Gen Xers. Their mentality is totally different than my mentality. Their guiding principles are different.

When I was coming out of school, a job for life was considered OK. The people we’re trying to recruit today are challenged by their work in a pleasant environment which is flexible to allow for a balance of family, personal and business life. These kids saw their mom and dad working their butts off earning two salaries and thought: “I’m not doing that.” They want to spend more time with their kids. We’re number 27 of Fortune magazine’s top 100 best employers.

And, while we’re worried about the recent decision against Microsoft [ruling that temporary workers must be treated as employees]—again, government telling us how to run our business—the employment trend is to go toward the contractor.

This 2000 interview was published as a profile in the alumni magazine for the College of Business Administration & Economics at California State University, Northridge.

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