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Q&A with Dow Wilson, retired president and CEO of Varian Medical Systems

by Gus Iversen, Editor in Chief | October 05, 2022
Rad Oncology
From the October 2022 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

HCB News: Is there anyone specific you credit with helping to build up your interest in the field?
DW: Many great mentors on the way — both at GE and Varian. But I'd have to credit customers and patients most of all. It's one thing we sometimes take for granted in our industry. We get to work with brilliant and compassionate care-givers... focused on curing patients. There's nothing like the purpose-led motivation of a career in healthcare.

HCB News: Prior to joining Varian, you spent 20 years with GE Healthcare. What are some of the most important lessons you learned during that time?
DW: I loved my years at GE. I moved through several important roles, and had the privilege of running the CT business there. At the time, it was one of GE's best franchises across the entire company. The team was amazing. Everyone was focused on the customer and the patient. We delivered four-slice CT innovation with our LightSpeed product. I was also on the ground floor of the PET business — a startup at the time.

I think of those years from 1985-1999 or so as "Camelot". I learned the importance of culture and people. It's interesting to see how many people from those days have gone on to become CEOs of big healthcare companies (Omar Ishrak, John Chiminski, Mike Mahoney, Mike Minogue, Peter Arduini, Joe Hogan, Jim Davis, ... to name just a few). These were all people I got to work closely with and they taught me a ton.

HCB News: How has the healthcare industry changed since you first entered it?
DW: I'd have to check the exact numbers, but I think healthcare as a percentage of GNP in 1983 was probably around 8%. Today it's more than twice that. So, some of it is just scale. With that scale has come both good things and bad things. Sometimes we don't move as fast as we did in the old days. On the other hand, I do like the orientation today around evidence-based medicine. Grounding innovation in either outcome or productivity has to be the way we focus innovation.

HCB News: What are some of the core values that shaped your career?
DW: I loved my first 15 years at GE, largely because there was great congruity between my values and the company's values. That started to change at some point. In particular, the company became much more internally oriented. It seemed to me that performance didn't matter so much as “how-good-was-your-presentation?” I loved the competitiveness of GE... and it brought out mostly the best of people. But when the incentives on growth, profitability, and market share started to be crowded out by other cultural norms... it was time to go.

So, I left in 2005. I joined Varian then as part of a long-term succession planning process. I loved Varian. I really enjoyed the transition from the diagnostics side of the business to the therapy side. It was always a purpose led company, and my leadership challenge was to make it even more focused on beating cancer. Our goal wasn't to snuff out our competitors (though growing market share was part of what we had to do), but to snuff out cancer! I found that inspiring — to have 11,000 of us focused on that goal together felt great.

David Hurlock

Great interview with a great leader

October 06, 2022 09:42

Congratulations on this interview with Dow Wilson. I had the pleasure of working in Varian during his tenure,
(several levels below Dow, of course). But he knew my name, and never hesitated to engage in conversation every time our paths crossed.

His success in nurturing innovation in cancer care, while growing Varian, is remarkable. I would wish him every success in his retirement, but I don't think anything would stand in his way to success, however he defines it.

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