Shortly after he was named CEO of Harvard Bioscience, Jeff Duchemin '89 spoke to his new employees.
A lot would be demanded of them as they worked to make this a great company, he told them, but embracing change would be the most important and the most difficult.
"We would be looking at every aspect of business—processes, people and talent development, how we develop products and bring them to market—and do things differently across the board," he said. "The primary driver of our future success would be their willingness to accept change."
Harvard Bioscience produces instruments for research, primarily in neuroscience, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and oncology. If a pharmaceutical company is developing a new therapy to prevent epileptic seizures or treat Alzheimer's and dementia, for instance, Harvard Bioscience can supply devices to measure neurons and electrical reactions in the brain.
Duchemin took the helm of the company in August 2013, when revenues were declining by six percent a year. Management practices were outdated, he said, and the entire sector was struggling with shrinking federal support for research.
Within two months of Duchemin's arrival, the company laid off 50 people, shedding 13 percent of its workforce. He rebuilt his senior executive staff, closed half of the company's 10 manufacturing sites, and realigned processes to improve efficiency.
He also refined the company's acquisition strategy, overseeing the purchase of four companies in the past three years. Most recently, Harvard Bioscience paid $70 million for Data Sciences International, a Minneapolis-based firm that supplies equipment to monitor the physiology of rats and mice in real time. Drug developers use the technology to test new medications in advance of human trials.
At the same time, Harvard Bioscience sold its wholly-owned subsidiary, Denville Scientific, to Thomas Scientific, a move that allowed Harvard Bioscience to reinvest in its future.
"In our industry, you have to keep moving forward at all times, constantly developing new products, constantly looking at acquiring companies, and staying one step ahead of competition," he said.
That means maintaining a global perspective. China has become a vital market, with its government-funded Brain Project producing innovations at a rapid clip, while South Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia are also hotbeds of research.
Pursuing a goal
Duchemin's career in science is anything but accidental. When he arrived at UMass Dartmouth from his hometown of Haverhill, he had inherited an interest in business from his father, who worked in research and development for the shoe industry, and an attraction to science and health care from his mother, a registered nurse.
He majored in accounting, but was drawn to sales in the life sciences and medicine. "I thought it was interesting for sales people to have face time with a surgeon or other doctor, and provide them with products that could change, and in some cases, save people's lives," he said.
In those days, however, the field wanted sales people with health care or science degrees. So he joined Colombo Yogurt, in Andover, to learn the basics of sales. Then he took a job selling tray mats to hospital cafeterias. "In those days, I'd do anything to start selling to hospitals," he said.
That led to a job with the medical technology giant Becton Dickinson. There he became an expert in the products he sold, learning about diabetes and ophthalmology, even spending time in an operating room during eye surgery.
During his 16 years at the company, he earned his MBA at Southern New Hampshire University and became vice president of global sales and marketing in the labware division. He moved with the division when it was sold to Corning Life Sciences, where eight months later, a recruiter came knocking. Was he interested in being CEO of Harvard Bioscience?
Lessons for success
Today, Harvard Bioscience is healthier than it has been in its 117-year history, Duchemin said. Its stock value is near an all-time high, and the $31.5 million in revenues reported for the quarter ending June 30 were 66 percent higher than the same quarter in 2017.
Duchemin doesn't sugarcoat the hard decisions that have led to those results. "As a leader, you have to make tough decisions, decisions that may not be popular within an organization, decisions that can alter people's lives," he said. "I don't take that lightly."
But as a Corsair, he learned about the discipline of a winning strategy. As an outside linebacker playing for then football Head Coach Butch Harrison, he learned to work hard, take criticism, and be one of many people who have something important to contribute. Football also taught him key leadership lessons—place people in the right roles and motivate them with a shared vision of success.
"These are things they didn't teach you in the classroom," he said. "I've seen people a lot smarter than me fail because, as talented as they are, they cannot work on a team or they don't have the backbone to make hard decisions. It's never easy, but in the end, results speak volumes."