When he was barely 30 years old, Sam Samad faced the most challenging role in his career: he became Eli Lilly’s CFO for the Middle East area. At such a young age he found himself in charge of 15 countries and expected to be an expert on local cultures, all while having to navigate the bureaucracy of a large Fortune 500 organization headquartered in the Midwest. He admits that it was “not easy, but a fantastic learning experience nonetheless.”
This experience shaped him and throughout his 25-year career, he has never ceased to unlock diversified opportunities. As the current CFO of Illumina, Sam Samad is thrilled to be part of a company pioneering genome sequencing and to be involved in key decision making about investments in Oncology, Genetic Disease, Infectious Disease and Reproductive Health. He also leads Illumina’s sustainable growth efforts by helping to assess the financial potential of genome sequencing in diagnosing and treating key diseases in addition to overseeing the transformation of finance and GIS (Global Information Systems) organizations into more data driven support entities.
Daring to get out of his comfort zone by working in a highly scientific industry and taking on surprisingly diversified roles were key drivers in Sam’s success and have set him apart.
An Unexpected Path
Back in 1993, Sam Samad was looking for an opportunity in the world of finance. Shortly after earning his MBA from McMaster University, he joined the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. This move sparked the young graduate’s passion for drug discovery, patent acquisitions, and medical product investment.
In 2003, he took a bold leap of faith and accepted a Sales Manager role at the same company in Toronto. He confesses that, “I never sold anything in my life before. I decided to go back and give it a try, because I knew I had to differentiate myself from other finance people”. The first six months were really tough, he recalls. He had to study medications and their side effects and sell them to doctors and physicians. “I took that risk. I was voted the Central Region Sales Manager of the Year,” Samad remarks.
Over the years, he acquired a deeper understanding of how the pharmaceutical industry worked, earning him a multifaceted perspective that helped him make more informed decisions as a Sales Manager, then as an Associate Vice President and later as the CFO of Eli Lilly in Canada. And he enjoyed every challenge and milestone.
His talent and potential were obvious throughout his journey with Eli Lilly. He won the District Manager of the Year Award for the Central Region in Canada when he was Eli Lilly’s District Manager in Toronto, highlighting his effectiveness at guiding a team towards great results and achievements. When he was the CFO of the Middle East, he was a finalist for Global Eli Lilly Chairman’s Ovation Award because of his exemplary work on negotiating agreements with a number of pharmaceutical distributors across the region.
In 2012 he accepted the position of Senior Vice President and Corporate Treasurer for Cardinal Health, a healthcare services and products company in Columbus, Ohio. He was in a leadership role for Cardinal Health’s China subsidiary, helping to grow the organization and spearheading a number of local acquisitions across China.
In 2017, Samad became the CFO of Illumina, a leader in DNA sequencing and microarray products and services in San Diego.
“When you work in healthcare, it’s difficult to no longer work there. You become spoiled. It’s such a great place to work and wake up knowing that you’re doing something that really matters to many people.”
A key secret to success according to Samad is understanding and recognizing what motivates different people when managing and incentivizing employees. “Otherwise you’re using a one size fits all approach which might not fit most. Recognizing that sales professionals respond differently to challenges and opportunities compared to finance people is a critical ability I developed by working in both functions.”
Golden Eras: drug discoveries and precision medicine
Samad feels lucky to have worked for a pharmaceutical company during the late 1990s. He describes it as the golden age of the pharmaceutical industry, which saw a spike in the discovery of medications and treatments.
In the mid-1990s, drugs that came onto the market generated around $7 billion USD in sales, according to a study published in Forbes. But sales started declining between 2000 and 2009 due to the surging R&D costs and the lower number of new drugs coming to market. Profit margins tightened, so did the incentives for more companies to burn the midnight oil trying to discover new drugs for cancer and other serious diseases.
Pharmaceutical companies were revolutionizing how diseases were treated. Today, precision medicine through genome sequencing is making major steps towards that same goal. Samad again, with his move to Illumina, is lucky to be part of this revolution. Precision medicine works by determining and analyzing the DNA sequence of a person’s genome. This empowers scientists and researchers to be able to identify people’s predispositions to diseases and how their immune system would react. So instead of having a cancer patient undertake several therapies (from drugs to chemotherapy and radiation) to identify the most effective one, oncologists will be able to sequence a sample of a tumor to determine which cancer treatment is more likely to work.
“Ten years ago, the cost of genome sequencing was in the millions of Dollars. The cost has come down dramatically since then. We (at Illumina) have driven the cost down through our pipeline of innovations and our goal is to bring the cost down to $100 in the foreseeable future. Imagine the potential this has to unlock new scientific discoveries and potentially treat diseases.”
At the moment, precision medicine applications are more heavily concentrated in research, however, clinical applications are growing rapidly. Oncology, Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing and Genetic Disease are all fast growing areas in clinical. One of the bottlenecks for more accelerated adoption in the clinic is data interpretation and analysis. Physicians and practitioners, according to Samad, are left with huge amounts of data and very little resources to analyze it. Illumina’s partners are now doing a lot of the interpretation work and Samad expects a steady rise in adoption going forward.
In the light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Illumina is leveraging its genome sequencing expertise to help Genomics England, which works with the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care Consortium and the National Health Service in the UK, better understand how people’s bodies react to the virus. Illumina will sequence the genomes of 20,000 patients from across the UK who have severe symptoms and 15,000 patients with mild-to-moderate symptoms.
Responsibility that impacts lives
Every senior position comes with serious responsibilities. And Samad shoulders a big burden as he must prioritize Illumina’s research efforts in areas with a bigger impact on patients’ lives.
“What excites me yet keeps me up at night is that it’s a vast ocean of opportunity. [We have to make sure] we prioritize our resources in the key areas that move the needle for the markets and patients we serve. It’s not easy. You feel like you have an obligation to tackle everything from Oncology to Infectious Disease. There’s so much out there,” discloses Samad. Despite all the challenges and pressure, what keeps him going is his unwavering belief that he is part of a bigger cause.
“Illumina today is on the verge of changing the way care is delivered and treated and [how we] manage diseases. Sequencing is a revolution in how you treat people and to work in a company that’s driving that is a huge privilege. That’s incredibly motivating.”
What’s also motivating for him is the support he gets from his family and mentors.
At Eli Lilly, his boss’s manager was his mentor. “We would meet regularly. He sent me to the US and was part of the decision to send me to the Middle East. I touched base with him always and he believed in me and in my work so I didn’t want to disappoint him,” Samad reminisces. Outside of work, his wife always stood by his side, moving with him from one country to another. He sought advice from his brother-in-law who was working in the same field in the UAE. And turned to his mother who was a very strong person and a role model.
Sam Samad’s journey is far from over. This Lebanese business veteran still has a lot of things he wants to achieve as a CFO at Illumina. He aspires to transition into a CEO role if the opportunity arises, but until then, he is happy where he is.