Asa part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Levy.
Adam Levy is the CEO of NEXGEL, a leading provider of ultra-gentle, high-water-content hydrogels for healthcare and consumer applications.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Interestingly enough, I went to Johns Hopkins University to study physics and science in 1980. While I was there, I also had a summer job working for a record label, and I ended up pursuing that. For 27 years, I had a fairly successful career in music — I even built a company and eventually sold it in 2010.
Along the way, I reconnected with a friend who was an investment banker and thought I’d do well in a position as the operations arm of investment banking. So, I went into that industry for a few years, as well.
When the opportunity for NEXGEL came along, I was already familiar with the company since it happened to be one that my investment group had financed as a legal biomedical back in 2013. I’ve always felt that there was an untapped potential for this facility that was largely ignored. When the opportunity came for us to get this asset and the team chose me to run it, I jumped at the opportunity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting thing has been that, for every idea that I had for a particular use or application of NEXGEL’s hydrogels, the gel has outperformed and over-performed. Every time this happens, our team thinks of several more potential applications, because the product has proven to be so versatile. This has been an unusual but very welcoming surprise for us, and we are looking forward to seeing where the opportunity and continued innovation with these unique hydrogels lead us.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Two years after I left the music industry and started out in my banking career, I financed a wound care company that I found to be very impressive — so much so that I suggested we try to get the product on one of the plastic surgery shows in Los Angeles. Everyone around me looked at me like I was crazy and had no idea what I was talking about! Looking back, I’m sure that they thought of me as a record business owner turned novice banker who didn’t know much about anything at the time and was just being promotional.
Ironically, however, here I am today as the CEO of that very company — NEXGEL — and it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come since that time, especially with the scar product that continues to gather a tremendous amount of interest. It’s great irony, if you ask me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person whom you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I owe my early success in the music business to my partner Joel Bonner, who was 55 when I was 28. He taught me about the entire industry and really helped me to realize how important mentorship can be.
In a similar sort of relationship, when I began working in investment banking, I did not know much about the industry or its regulatory pathways. My partner, William Odenthal, took me under his wing and showed me the ropes, which ultimately led to a lot of my success and opportunities at my next job.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Understanding the issues that plague the general population is critical. You can’t survive in the business world unless you genuinely see people for who they are and not what they are. If you are unable to work with someone based on race, gender, etc., right off the bat, you vastly hinder your ability to find good people. Diversity helps to bring a fresh perspective to your business and is important in building a successful team.
When I started my record label, Warlock Records, I hired around an equal number of male and female employees. By the time that the company was 10 years old and very successful, to my surprise, almost every key position in my company was filled by a female. That had nothing to do with choice — these women were standout employees. If you start biasing yourself, you could be eliminating the chances of working with the best of the best, and that’s detrimental to running any business.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
The good news is that we have made great progress; however, there is still a lot to fix. My partner in the music industry, Joel Bonner, had been a promotion man for most of his career and had to stay in segregated hotels when he went to southern U.S. states, because he was Black. That experience is something that I’ve never had to deal with as a white Jewish man.
We have made a lot of progress with more people being “colorblind” or “gender-blind,” but we haven’t reached our goal. I’m hopeful that society as whole will continue to make progress, and we need to keep pushing to make all of society more inclusive.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Most people think of the CEO as the boss who runs the company and makes the decisions on everything, but there are a slew of things that are not just focused on solely running the business side of things.
As a CEO, you are responsible for setting the tone and culture of the company from the top. In that leadership position, it’s important to have the skillset to manage the personalities of all your employees while also working to keep them motivated, invested in the work that they are doing and focused on the ultimate goals of the company.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I would love to dispel the myth that CEOs don’t really do work. When I first started in the music industry, my father was adamant that I be able to do every job in a business and understand how to do that job. Most importantly, you need to show that you’re willing to do the work to lead your employees by example. There have been many times where we’ve had our sales get a bit too heavy for us. Seeing the massive workload, I’ve gone and put packages together right alongside the employees who were doing it.
By lending a hand in this way, you also learn the pain points for your employees. For example, through that experience, I learned what causes their shoulders to hurt, what kind of chairs they need and many other little things. Understanding the needs of your employees to help make their jobs easier and more manageable is how, as a CEO, you can help continue to grow your business from within and show your employees that they are valuable.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I think what has surprised me with NEXGEL is that we have such a diverse product with so many different avenues that can be pursued, whether it be medical applications, beauty and cosmetic applications, etc.
Going into conceptualizing these different products, I thought that we would test each product and be fortunate if one or two of the verticals actually worked. To my surprise, with all proving to be worthy of developing, I am definitely pleased with how my job is going.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
People who do not see the world in a completely objective manner and do not value people based on their merit are not going to be successful CEOs. Just like a football coach who will not let the best kicker on his or her team kick the field goals because she’s a female, if you are rigid in your thinking and do not value people based on merit, you are going to have trouble growing your business and being respected as the leader of your company. It is so important to actively listen to your employees — they can help to make the business more efficient and come up with fantastic ideas that move the needle and take your business to the next level.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
At both Warlock Records and NEXGEL, I’ve worked alongside a team that prioritized the notion of creating a sense of community in the workplace. Of course, we do the little things — pizza parties, retirement celebrations and the like — but we also try to create a culture that makes everyone feel engaged in the work.
For example, when designing a new product, we do not just have the marketing team look at it. We send it to every employee to see if he or she likes the colors, the messaging, etc., and to see if there is anything that these employees would want to be added to it. It gives employees a sense of ownership in their work, and I have found that to be a major factor in our success.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We’re hoping that NEXGEL’s products will make a difference for doctors and their patients. My mother lived with me the last two-and-a-half years of her life. She was bedridden, but I was fortunate enough to have been able to care for her at home with a full-time nurse.
One thing that she always dreaded was getting an IV or shot, because her veins were hard to find, and she had very fragile skin. She was also very nervous any time that the nurse would remove the adhesive when she had tape on her skin, whether for an IV line or otherwise. I will never forget that experience — it stuck with me and has influenced product development for me at NEXGEL.
If we can try to create a line of products that can alleviate that sort of discomfort for patients, especially the elderly, we can make people a lot more comfortable and give them a better quality of life.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You will have to answer for things that happened before you even started. There are times where you may have to educate yourself on and handle issues about events or decisions that were made well before you became CEO. Corporations are perpetual, so it is entirely possible that you will have to answer for things that have absolutely nothing to do with you.
- You need to be a good politician. When I was CEO of my previous private company, I was also the majority owner. While I often sought out advice, when I thought that something was the best course of action, I helped others to see my perspective so that we could push it forward. In a public company, you have to first convince everyone on your Board and your shareholders that you have a good plan in place. Because everyone has their own unique perspective and experiences, that often is not as easy as one might think.
- Just because you are CEO, this doesn’t mean that you won’t have to work on the assembly line. I did know this going in, but the story might be useful for anyone in the CEO role. As we experienced a very sudden rise in orders, we had to scramble production. You can explain to your staff why delivering on schedule is important, but when they see you working on the line yourself to make a delivery happen on time, they really believe it.
- Running the business will only be about 50 percent of your job. Raising capital, promoting the business, working on public filings, making appearances and public speaking are all vitally important.
- You will need to do some creative writing. Periodically, you will be asked to write an article about the “Five Things You Wish Someone Had Told You Before Becoming CEO.” When you get stuck after just four, you will need to get creative. Is this cheating? :)
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could make the world color- and gender-blind immediately, that would go a long way toward the whole globe becoming a more loving and caring place. Throughout my life, I’ve always had many different friends from all different backgrounds, with many different perspectives. I was, indeed, fortunate enough to have been raised in a completely color- and gender-blind environment. If we could get more kids to grow up in an environment like the one that I was fortunate enough to have, we would all learn to hopefully understand and listen to each other more intently to ultimately make the world a better place.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This may or may not be my favorite, but it has certainly served me well. My father told me, “When starting a new business or new direction for your business, start it small. That way, when you make inevitable mistakes, they are small mistakes and won’t cripple your venture. Always know that there are things that you don’t know.”
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
If I had the opportunity, one person I would like to meet is Bill Maher. He is very thoughtful and intelligent and sees the faults in his own side of politics. This makes him a more conversational and interesting person to me. He is also very funny, which is always a plus!