Chairman, Synthes, Inc.
For thirty years, Hansjörg Wyss has led Synthes, a global medical device company whose surgical instruments and implants have revolutionized the way surgeons treat the traumas that can afflict the human skeleton. While successfully navigating the complexities of this highly competitive industry, Wyss, a lifelong hiker, has demonstrated a passionate commitment to protecting the world's wide-open spaces.
The drive and attention to detail that characterize Hansjörg Wyss can be misleading. While these are qualities that colleagues would probably use to describe him, it would not be accurate to assume Wyss is also a meticulous planner. "I never really make forecasts," he says. "I can't write a five-year plan, and I can't analyze things with spreadsheets. I get bored."
The same has held true for how Wyss has approached his career. Asked if he ever thought he would spend thirty years building a medical device company into a $2.3 billion organization with some 8,500 employees worldwide, Wyss responds in the negative. "I knew I would be with Synthes for a certain amount of time, because I had some equity in the company and saw there was huge potential for our products in the United States—if we could survive the first five years."
But well before he entered this industry, Wyss's life as a boy growing up in Bern, Switzerland, centered around a daily occurrence that is almost unimaginable in today's world: "You always came home for lunch," he says, recalling that the family would sit down to eat and listen to the news on the radio after his father, a mechanical calculator salesman, came home. A discussion of world events would follow. "We were very well informed as kids," remarks Wyss, who maintains an active interest in policy and geopolitical issues.
That knowledge of the world came in handy in the early years of Wyss's career, when he worked as a plant engineer and project manager for Chrysler in Pakistan, Turkey, and the Philippines before coming to HBS. But it did not prepare him for the economic disparity and differences in political systems he witnessed in these countries. "I was shocked," he says. In some ways, coming to HBS was equally overwhelming. "I didn't speak in class for the first five weeks," he recalls. "My classmates were all the crème de la crème, with button-down shirts I had never seen before." He finally broke his silence during a discussion of the International Monetary Fund. "I had a great time at HBS and very much enjoyed the classes, as well as the discussion groups—I only needed some courage to speak up."
"The difference between the Swiss system of lecture and exams and the case method was like night and day," he says. "I learned so many things that I still use on a daily basis." Chief among those takeaways is the importance of understanding a company's product from the inside out—a lesson that proved particularly valuable in his post-HBS positions at various textile companies, including Monsanto Europe.
The initial connection to Synthes was made through Wyss's love of flying, when he sold an airplane (as part of a side business) to one of the four Swiss doctors who had founded the company. After two years of talks and trying to understand the medical device business, he agreed in 1977 to become president of Synthes in the United States. Until that point, the company's internal plates, screws, and surgical tools for the fixation of broken bones had been produced in Switzerland by a separate manufacturing company and distributed in the United States. Wyss undertook a vigorous change of direction, first building a manufacturing plant in Colorado to establish control over costs and supply, then expanding the company's sales force and establishing training courses in the United States for surgeons interested in learning the new techniques of bone fixation. More recently, he led the firm's global expansion by acquiring the two other companies that were selling identical products to the rest of the world. Today, Synthes products can be found in hospitals from Buenos Aires to Warsaw and from Johannesburg to Tokyo.
Unlike the use of casts and traction, internal fixation helps the bone heal more quickly, with better long-term results. "I knew that we could succeed if we could survive long enough to get younger surgeons involved and create documentation so that people could see the results," says Wyss, who maintains an active interest in product development. He describes recent advances in spinal surgery, for instance, and a Synthes product that eliminates the need to fuse vertebral discs, thereby preserving the patient's range of motion. "One-third of every board meeting is devoted to new products," he states. "It continues to fascinate me, because it represents the future." Wyss's passion for improving medical practice can also be seen in the AO/ASIF Foundation, a nonprofit he cofounded in 1984 that is now the largest medical teaching organization in the world.
For Wyss, the future is also embodied in the world of nature. While he remains involved with Synthes as chairman, stepping down as CEO earlier this year has opened up more time for him to devote to his many philanthropic pursuits, the environment being among them. The Wyss Foundation, for example, focuses on preserving extraordinary landscapes in the intermountain west and the Colorado Plateau, where Wyss first hiked and climbed as a 23-year-old exchange student. Planning is also under way for the launch of The National Conservation System Foundation, which will devise sustainable resource management plans for more than 40 million acres of land overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "I believe this could have the same impact as the National Park System," he comments, quickly adding that none of this would be possible without a great deal of help. "Alone, I've never been able to do anything well," Wyss remarks. "I've always had the best people work with me, never for me."