Exclusive Interview: David P. King - Chairman and CEO of LabCorp
David P. King is Chairman and CEO of LabCorp, a leading global life sciences company. After several years in law as a partner at what is now Hogan Lovells, Mr. King provided outside legal counsel for LabCorp. After this initial exposure to the company, he joined in 2001 serving in a number of leadership positions; in 2007, he became CEO. Mr. King is now focused on applying his background and leadership skills to growing LabCorp while also tackling the challenges of a changing healthcare market.
You’ve held a wide variety of senior positions at LabCorp; from 2001 to 2007, you held such positions as General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer, Executive Vice President, Strategic Planning and Corporate Development. How did that six-year general experience in the company inform or help prepare you for becoming the President and CEO? Why did you choose to move up into a higher-level position? Did any of the earlier positions especially help with your current duties? Did they help with the transition?
From 1995 to 2001, I handled significant litigation and counseling matters for the company as outside counsel. By the time I came to LabCorp as general counsel, I had a strong understanding of the company and the industry. I credit my advancement through the ranks to CEO to my strong understanding of the company gained from experiences partnering with legal and compliance to solve business problems. Ultimately, those experiences better positioned me to take on operational functions as the CEO because I had gained a thorough understanding of our complex business, credibility with the board, and deep respect for LabCorp’s proud history.
Could you discuss LabCorp’s growth over your decade-long tenure, and explain some successes that you’ve had?
When I became CEO in 2007, we had about 25,000 employees, operations in approximately 10 countries, and revenue of $3.6 billion. Today we have nearly 60,000 employees and business in more than 120 countries, and our 2017 revenue was $10.2 billion. I am very proud that we have both grown the business and created value for our shareholders while creating good jobs for many colleagues, and that through development and delivery of cutting-edge drugs and diagnostic testing, we have improved the health and lives of millions of people around the globe.
How has LabCorp changed under your leadership?
We are larger and global — and we have added terrific talent. LabCorp was originally a diagnostics company and we have successfully grown into a global life sciences company. We sit at the intersection of research and patient care, providing comprehensive clinical laboratory and end-to-end drug development services. The combination of diagnostics and contract research organization (CRO) capabilities expands growth opportunities and provides unmatched real-time, real-world data and patient intelligence. I am proud that even as we have grown, we remain a mission-driven company whose employees have great passion for their work in helping patients live better lives.
As an executive, what are the largest challenges of leading such an expansive and successful company?
- The biggest challenge is, as Peter Drucker said, focusing on doing the right things rather than simply on doing things right. We can’t do everything we want to do as a company, and I can’t do everything I want to do as CEO. So, on some initiatives, even though I believe I could add value, I have to step away.
- Time management. I could spend all of my time and focus on emails, texts, and phone calls, but I must remain focused on my primary responsibilities to the board, the shareholders, and our employees as well as the vital few company initiatives for which I am the champion.
- Work-life balance. I have not come close to solving this. I have a fantastic family whom I love deeply, and I do not spend as much time as I would like to, or as I should, with them.
- Maintaining the culture. We pride ourselves on a culture of excellence, integrity, and innovation. We have to sustain that culture because people literally trust us with their health and lives every day.
What have been the largest challenges LabCorp has faced in the last 10 years, and how have you addressed some of them?
First, companies are dealing with the short-term focus of investors who disregard multi-year initiatives and “slow but steady” growth. Instead they focus on “catalysts” to drive up the stock price rather than the soundness of a company’s strategy. We remain committed to achieving success by “playing the long game” to secure the future of the company.
Second, adapting to the pace of change in the quickly evolving healthcare industry. We are seeing rapid changes in payment models, ongoing government funding cuts, the consolidation of healthcare through mega-mergers, and the increasing importance of the role of the patient, and we must be nimble to adapt.
We have responded to these challenges by creating new revenue streams, becoming a global business, and developing new competencies.
LabCorp is known for providing cutting-edge laboratory tests and services. Especially as more online resources and walk-in clinics become available, how does your company plan on maintaining a competitive nature in this changing marketplace?
As consumers demand more information about their overall health, genetics, predisposition to disease, and other important measures of well-being from lab testing, we must meet them where it is convenient for them — in a healthcare provider’s office, in a drugstore, at home, or elsewhere. This flexibility will help us remain competitive as the market embraces new ways of engaging with consumers.
We also continue to focus on precision medicine so we can give consumers personalized information about their treatment options. For example, whereas multiple drugs, or trial and error, historically were used to suppress HIV, we are now able to look at the genotype of the virus and very specifically prescribe drugs that are likely to work. We can see when the patient develops resistance to a drug and determine what other drugs are likely to be effective.
Why does LabCorp maintain such a strong emphasis on scientific research? Will you emphasize growth in LabCorp’s research or in customer service in the upcoming years?
Our company was founded by a medical doctor and we always have been deeply committed to delivering the best science to the clinician. Today we employ more than 1,800 colleagues with an M.D. or Ph.D., and we know that our deep scientific and therapeutic experience is a differentiator for us. Our investment in science is an investment in our ability to deliver the right test to the right patient at the right time. Concurrently, we continue to invest in optimizing the experience of every patient to whom we provide services.
You actually began your career having studied law at the University of Pennsylvania before practicing as an attorney in both private practice and the U.S. Department of Justice. What had interested you about law to begin with? Why did you choose to make the transitory move? How did this career prepare you for working within the private business sector?
My mother, who earned her law degree while my three siblings and I were in school, consistently encouraged me to earn a professional degree and advance my career after I had graduated college, and I felt that studying law would give me a wide range of career opportunities. The transition to working at LabCorp was also family-inspired. The demands of private practice, particularly the heavy travel schedule, were not consistent with the demands of parenthood.
The study of law provides an excellent foundation for a business career. Legal training at its best teaches one how to think tenaciously, make decisions without all the facts, come to a point of view on important issues, and explain one’s thinking to others. Furthermore, legal training emphasizes the importance of a culture of compliance and ethics, which is absolutely fundamental for succeeding in any business.
What aspects of your education best prepared you for the “real world” and having such a successful and long career?
My Princeton education taught me about the breadth of opportunity to learn, the joy of reading, and the benefits of being around accomplished people who constantly challenged my way of thinking. Princeton also taught me the importance of open-mindedness and free expression, which have been central to my personal development and are under alarming attack in our society today.
What aspects of Princeton did you most enjoy?
I enjoyed the culture of excellence. I enjoyed my four years as coxswain of the lightweight crew. I enjoyed the friendships I made. I enjoyed particularly the opportunity to learn from academic giants like Fouad Ajami, L. Carl Brown, Sir Arthur Lewis, and Paul Ramsey.
What advice do you have for students on making these career transitions and on moving up within a company?
Ask questions. Challenge assumptions. Don’t be content with the answer that something is happening because “it’s always been done that way” or “we’ve been successful with this since long before you came here.”
Be a good communicator, but more importantly, be “the best listener in the room.” Remember the adage a judge taught me, “When my mouth is open, my ears are closed.”
Develop real financial fluency. My predecessor as CEO told me in an annual review that as hard as I worked, I was “lazy with numbers.” I bought a business calculator and spent hours every month going over the P&L, cash flow statement, and balance sheet so that I would understand them and be able to ask intelligent questions about the performance of the business. It is an important and underdeveloped skill — you would be amazed how often I have recommended to promising young executives that they spend more time understanding the numbers, and how few actually have done it.
Have an appetite for risk. Don’t be an advocate for risk in a business deal but refuse to take risks in your personal life. It never occurred to me when I left the legal department to move to the business side that I could be CEO of LabCorp one day, but it happened because I was willing to take a chance.