Former CEO of Pfizer Jeff Kindler offers insights from a career in law and business

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Credit: Lorin GrangerAlex Rienzie ’16, president of the Harvard Association for Law and Business, interviews Centrexion CEO Jeff Kindler ’80 as part of the organization’s series of ‘fireside chats’ held throughout the academic year.

Jeff Kindler ’80, CEO of Centrexion and former chairman and CEO of Pfizer Inc, joined the president of the Harvard Association for Law and Business (HALB) Alex Rienzie ’16 for a Q&A on Feb. 16. Their talk, part of a year-long series of “fireside chats” sponsored by HALB, focused on Kindler’s career and explored issues in the business world, particularly as they intersect with the law.

Kindler shared insights from his nearly 40-year-long career, which included serving as a law partner at Williams & Connolly, vice president at General Electric, executive vice president and general counsel at McDonald’s, and president of Partner Brands at McDonald’s, in addition to his tenure at Pfizer. Early in his career, Kindler was an attorney at the Federal Communications Commission, and served as a law clerk to Judge David L. Bazelon of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the D.C. Circuit and to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.

Rienzie kicked off the conversation by asking Kindler how his legal training influenced his career and how his day-to-day priorities and perspective changed as he moved from clerk to private practitioner to executive, and, finally, investor. 

Kindler said he had always wanted to be a trial lawyer from the time he was a kid watching Perry Mason.  He said that while he naturally learns by asking questions and challenging people, law school taught him how to think critically, gather information and make decisions. 

After law school, Kindler said he planned to spend his career at a law firm focused on litigation, but a career shift from law partner at Williams & Connolly to running litigation and legal policy at General Electric leapfrogged his career and gave him the “business bug.”   “Once you’re at a big company like GE, you realize you’re not in the center of action if you’re a litigator. The center of action is the people running the businesses,” he said.

Kindler said his successive career moves led him further from law and closer to business. After GE, he joined McDonalds as general counsel  and served as a litigator for the company as it was facing its “hot coffee” legal battles. During his time there, McDonalds bought Boston Market out of bankruptcy and Kindler began studying Boston Market’s marketing and brand. Convinced he could turn the company around, he approached McDonald’s then-CEO to ask if he could run the bankrupt company.  Kindler ended up moving into line management at McDonald’s as president of Partner Brands, and he went on to buy and sell several restaurant brands, including Chipotle Mexican Grill and Pret a Manger.

In 2002, Kindler joined Pfizer Inc as executive vice president and general counsel. During his eight-year-tenure at Pfizer, Kindler served as vice chairman and general counsel, where he led Pfizer’s worldwide legal, compliance, communications, government relations, corporate citizenship, policy development and global security groups, He retired as chairman and CEO in 2010.

Rienze noted that Pfizer lost two significant products at the start of Kindler’s tenure, triggering cost cuts and an emphasis on pipeline development. Then, the financial crisis hit, followed by historic healthcare reform. When asked how he balanced the pursuit of a long-term strategic plan that may have been at odds with short-term crises, Kindler replied, “One of the things you learn as CEO, there’s an expression that there is no long-term without the short-term. And you really have to pay attention to both.” 

He said that while he made dramatic changes at Pfizer — reshaping the business portfolio, changing the commercial model and changing the research and development structure — he also maintained the short term –by offering a generous dividend and keeping the company’s quarterly number commitments –in order to preserve shareholders’ interest in the company.

When asked what advice he had for students in the room as they begin their career, Kinder said:

  • Be open to opportunities.
    • Don’t think too far ahead.  Be willing to try something new.  You can take some changes and do some experimentation.
    • “I went from being a hamburger lawyer to being a drug dealer.”  I went to Pfizer to do penance for spending 6 years raising the world’s cholesterol level.
  • Get a mentor:
    • He encouraged students to find different mentors at different stages, and to find a mentor outside their current company.  He said he would have loved having a mentor when he became CEO of Pfizer.