LEADERS SURVEY: CSL boss Paul McKenzie reveals how swimming shaped his philosophy of ‘continuous improvement’

Adrian Rauso
The Nightly
CSL chief executive Paul McKenzie.
CSL chief executive Paul McKenzie. Credit: Hamish Blair

The boss of Australia’s third biggest company says the greatest leadership lesson he’s learnt is that leaders need to bring the right energy, for both themselves and the organisation they captain.

“Every leader needs to think, am I creating the right energy? Also, how am I channelling the energy? Are people working on the most important things?,” CSL chief executive Paul McKenzie told The Nightly for its exclusive Leaders Survey.

“It is easy to be ‘busy’ but if it is on the wrong things, it doesn’t get you anywhere and it is important to conserve energy; people work hard but we need people to work safe, you can’t work effectively if you’re tired.

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“And it is important to save some energy for home, so we all have the right balance. I want to create the right environment for that energy to happen.”

Mr McKenzie has been at the helm of CSL since last March, making him only the third chief executive to lead the blood products behemoth since it was privatised by the Australian government in 1994.

The US-born executive was a competitive swimmer in his younger years and says that, apart from being responsible for how he met his wife, a passion for the pool fostered a mentality of “continuous improvement” that served him well after graduating university.

“Competitive swimming teaches you how to set goals and work hard to achieve them, you must train regularly, monitor your progress, and adjust your strategy accordingly,” Mr McKenzie said.

“It tests your adaptability and problem-solving skills.

“These are all critical for biotech innovation and advanced manufacturing (and) have enabled me to pursue a rewarding and fulfilling career in the biotechnology industry, and to lead a company that is driven by its promise of saving and improving lives.”

Following the onset of the COVID pandemic those skills Mr McKenzie learnt from the pool were put to the test.

“During the pandemic, like many businesses, we saw costs increase,” he said.

“CSL is uniquely qualified to produce plasma-based therapies for rare and serious diseases … during the pandemic, acquiring plasma was challenging and costs increased.

“We’ve had to innovate to improve our efficiencies, including margins.”

He said since COVID, CSL has achieved a 5 per cent growth yield improvement in immunoglobin, which is one part of the plasma it turns into a therapy), via data analytics, process changes and manufacturing network strategy enhancements.

“When you operate at such a large scale these improvements can make a big difference,” he said.

Mr McKenzie says Australia has a world-class research sector, a highly skilled and diverse workforce, and a reputation for quality and safety.

However, the rates of translation and commercialisation of Australian research are very low compared to other markets.

“To support innovation, large scale R&D and manufacturing, Australia’s public policy settings must be modern, flexible and competitive with peer nations,” he said.

“Australia needs to create favourable policy settings and it must have an industry policy which is coordinated across Government.”

But Mr McKenzie remains highly optimistic about the future of medical science in Australia and sees gene therapy as a key opportunity.

“When I was at university, gene therapies were seen as the holy grail,” he said.

“Gene therapies replace a faulty gene or add a new gene to essentially cure a disease or improve the body’s ability to fight disease. These are now becoming a reality.

“CSL recently launched a gene therapy for haemophilia B in the US and Europe and we recently received approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia.”

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