The Man From Medtronic
Cameron Findlay keeps the medical device company moving forward
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition - November 2010 magazine
on October 8, 2010
Updated on October 13, 2010
Cameron Findlay didn’t come from a family of lawyers: His father was a dentist and his mother a welfare caseworker-turned-full-time homemaker. But he knew pretty early that he wanted to become one.
“I loved Perry Mason,” says Findlay, 51, who grew up in the mid-sized Indiana city of Elkhart, tucked just under the Michigan border. “I liked to read, write, debate. My mom gave me some files from school recently, and I had written an autobiography in sixth grade in which I said I was going to be a lawyer.”
That sense of certainty has served him well as he’s ventured far—up through the top levels of academia and even to the White House—before settling back in the Midwest, in Fridley, Minn., the home of Medtronic Inc., where he’s been senior vice president, general counsel and secretary since August 2009.
In leading a 135-lawyer team for Medtronic, the world’s largest medical technology company, Findlay oversees the company’s worldwide legal functions as well as directs Medtronic’s government affairs department and sits on its executive committee.
“I wasn’t fully prepared for just how big the legal issues are in the health care world,” he says. “It makes this a lawyer’s dream job, because you want to have those big challenging issues to work on. But there are definitely days when you feel like the weight of the world is on you—as has been publicly disclosed, we have a number of government investigations, we have some very big lawsuits, and on top of that we’re dealing with the most significant health care reform in decades. All those things have been happening my first year and it’s made it a challenging job.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, Findlay received a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford and, later, his J.D. from Harvard Law School. He didn’t wait for graduation to begin creating opportunities: While at Harvard, Findlay followed what he calls his “political bug” and worked summers at high-profile Chicago and Washington, D.C., firms, including Covington & Burling. Those mid-school apprenticeships laid the groundwork for a yearlong clerkship under Stephen F. Williams, former judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and later U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was then in his third year on the court. Findlay says Scalia’s often foreboding public image is at odds with the justice he got to know during the 1988 to 1989 judicial term.
“He’s gregarious with a great sense of humor,” Findlay says. “It was intense in that he has the reputation of being the intellectual of the justices, along with Justice [John Paul] Stevens. It was a little intimidating to write a draft for him.”
In addition, a high-profile docket that year—including pivotal cases involving separation of powers, the death penalty and abortion—braced Findlay for his future work in high-profile, highly regulated industries.
From there, Findlay worked as counselor to then-Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner, following Skinner to the White House when he was appointed chief of staff in late 1991. On his first day of work, Findlay heard a voice welcome him from the hallway in a familiar Texan twang: It was President George H.W. Bush, walking with Ranger, one of the Bushes’ two dogs.
“He said, ‘Welcome to the campus,’ and I would have sworn it was Dana Carvey,” Findlay says with a laugh.
As the policy go-to guy in the chief of staff’s office, Findlay assisted Skinner on legal and policy matters ranging from judicial selection to Medicaid to issues in the Department of Justice. Throw in the fact that it was the chaotic election year of Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and little-known Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, and “it was a wild year to be working at the White House,” he says.
The tumult of the Bush White House was an ideal proving ground for Findlay’s transition into the private sector. He spent the next eight years with Chicago transaction/litigation powerhouse Sidley Austin, where his emphasis was on antitrust security, class action litigation, and highly regulated utilities, with the firm’s biggest client being AT&T.
“Back then especially, telecommunications companies were pretty heavily regulated in terms of rates and practices,” he says, “so whatever practice was being challenged in an antitrust case was often either dictated by, or at least permitted by, regulators.”
According to partner Thomas A. Cole, Findlay handled his work at Sidley with great acumen. “Cam is one of the smartest and most versatile lawyers in the U.S.,” Cole says. “His experiences in private practice, the highest levels of the federal government and the executive suite of some of the largest corporations in the U.S. give him a uniquely broad range of expertise.”
A two-year stint followed as the deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor, under President George W. Bush. Findlay was offered the job at a time when his law practice and family life had really gotten, he says, “in a groove,” so at first he declined. But after talking to Elaine Chao and hearing from her that she intended to be a consequential Secretary of Labor, he changed his mind and relocated his family to Washington.
It was there–overseeing a $70 billion budget, several operating agencies and 17,000 employees—that Findlay learned the value of disciplined managerial skills.
“[It] was an excellent preparation for running a large legal department,” Findlay recalls. “It was a management job where one had to set objectives, get good people on board to help you achieve and monitor progress toward the objectives, and plough the ground with numerous other stakeholders outside the department. Secretary Chao had an ambitious agenda for us, and we achieved nearly all of it in her first term. We weren’t always popular with the White House or with unions, but we called ’em as we saw them.”
Findlay then moved to Aon Corp., the multibillion-dollar Chicago insurance titan. As executive vice president and general counsel, Findlay spent six years leading Aon’s global law department and worldwide business units through a thicket of legal, regulatory and government relations matters.
“Cam is an extremely bright lawyer who was very instrumental in the success of Aon on a number of fronts, most importantly in his work with federal and state regulators on matters relating to insurance legislation and regulation,” says David Prosperi, Aon’s vice president of global public relations and a former colleague of Findlay’s under Skinner.
Considering his journey from D.C., where regulations are crafted into legal work for companies whose success depends on how they deal with those regulations, Findlay’s next move should have come as no surprise. Matters involving government investigation, class action suits, mass tort actions, strategic transactions and corporate governance are all in a day’s work for Findlay and his Medtronic team (along with battalions of outside counsel).
Of course, Medtronic is in an industry that’s both highly lucrative and highly regulated, and as a result, legally complex. At any given time Findlay’s workday can include patent infringement issues, mergers and acquisition details, and questions concerning the proper disclosure of consultant agreements with physicians. The last item was a key matter for Findlay during his rookie year at Medtronic. The company had been the target of criticism for its arrangements with doctors that were seldom visible to the public. Upon his arrival at the company, Findlay’s boss, chair and CEO Bill Hawkins, asked him to tackle the perceptions surrounding Medtronic’s physician relationships.
“There really are classic conflict-of-interest questions,” Findlay says.
“[The disclosures are] in part transparency, although that’s a small part of it. It also involves changing the way we contract with doctors, new guidelines on what sorts of consulting arrangements we’ll have with doctors, what sort of evidence is required of inventors’ contributions, whether we’ll pay them royalties, all those sorts of things. We’ve really done a comprehensive, top-to-bottom look at how we’ve engaged with doctors in the past, and have made a number of changes to our business model around that.”
The subject of relationships between doctors and Medtronic has been the sternest test in Findlay’s brief tenure there. Leading up to the company’s decision to make information about those relationships more transparent, the issue raised the antennae of everyone from media outlets to Medtronic shareholders to the Department of Justice.
Findlay calls the re-tooling of how those relationships are treated “a work in progress. … It’s not as if it had been doing something wrong before, but it had to think in a comprehensive way about how it collaborates with physicians and how that drives innovation.
“We wanted to maintain those relationships, but we also wanted to insulate these relationships from any challenges based on conflict of interest questions,” he adds. “I think we came up with a good set of solutions.”
Despite all the scrutiny, Findlay’s days should become a bit more manageable now that he and his family have settled in Minneapolis’ Lake of the Isles neighborhood. For nearly a year, Findlay commuted from Chicago while his son finished high school there. When not spending time with his wife, Amy Scalera Findlay (a former law school classmate), and two teenage sons, Findlay is a big golfer and reader. When he’s not working that is. And he works a lot. Life hasn’t gotten any less complicated recently.
Taxes resulting from the health care reform bill may mean a hit to Medtronic’s bottom line, but those sorts of challenges will always be in the air, he says. And his next challenge will be to consolidate the company’s U.S. position and take its products to developing countries.
“If you look at the number of people who could benefit from, say, a pacemaker in India and China, the percentage of people who have access to those products is very small compared to the U.S. or the U.K. or Germany,” he says. “People still want to feel better and live longer, so there will always be a demand for our products.”
In the meantime, Findlay has the confidence of his boss. “Since joining Medtronic, Cam has quickly become a valued counselor, combining his rapid understanding of our regulatory and legal environment with his extensive prior corporate, government and private practice experience,” says Hawkins. “His skills and perspective have enhanced our overall legal strategy of being proactive and collaborative, both important traits of a world-class legal organization.”