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The WOW Series

Laurent Attias, SVP Corporate Strategy, BD&L and M&A at Alcon

In this podcast, Laurent talks about how making genuine connections with people has been critical to his success and why there is no substitute to getting in front of customers. He also explains why success is not a goal in itself, but a by-product of using your talents and skills to do work you love.

Listen Time
38 minute listen

Laurent Attias is living proof that you don’t need to change companies to succeed. While he’s spent his entire career so far at Alcon, he’s also enjoyed a wide and diverse range of roles, in a range of markets – and that breadth of experience has been a key factor in his rise to the top.

He’s also proof that a successful career trajectory doesn’t always follow a straight line, and sometimes a sideways or even downwards move can be the best investment in your learning, and yourself. In this podcast, Laurent talks about how making genuine connections with people has been critical to his success and why there is no substitute to getting in front of customers. He also explains why success is not a goal in itself, but a by-product of using your talents and skills to do work you love.

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Frederic Brunner: Welcome to the podcast, Backstage with visionaries. Today, I have the privilege to have Laurent Attias with me. Laurent is leading Alcon's BD&L, Strategy and M&A. He has made a fantastic career in the pharma and eye care industry, and today he's here to share with us what he has learned throughout his career. Laurent welcome on the podcast.

Laurent Attias: Thanks, Frédéric. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Frederic Brunner: Super. I'm very excited to have that conversation with you.

Laurent Attias: Yeah, and we're having it in Texas... We're having it in Texas, which is where Alcon is from, so it's even better.

Frederic Brunner: Absolutely, absolutely. So Laurent the things I'd like to discuss with you a bit before we talk about your career is what I refer to as the starting package, and the first thing of the starting package is usually we all come from a family situation, and there is the one or the other things that really made an impression on us, what was it for you, what was your family situation and what did you take away from your childhood?

Laurent Attias: Well, my childhood, what I took away from my childhood is this discovering of the United States. From an early age, dad took us to the United States, from age of three or four, which helped me actually get this English with less of a French accent, let's say, but that was something that marked my childhood quite a bit. And then as I got to my teenage years and I could contrast and see how different school was or the relationships with academics, it gave me this desire to come back to the United States and be able to go and study in the United States at the university level. But there was the problem of affordability, and that was a big problem. One of my key moments was this lunch at McDonald's in Paris with my dad and him telling me that there was only a one year of affordability on his side, and if that was the bet I was willing to take then he could pay for one year of university, and after that, I'd have to figure it out. So that was a critical moment for me and the starting package was that, right? And as you said it. So I took the bet and thanks to the university system in the United States that provides scholarships or aids or whatever, I was able to, through grades and doing well in school, to tap on that resource from the US with scholarships and be able to do my studies in the US.

Frederic Brunner: Interesting, I didn't know that. Very interesting. And you just said that you very early on came with your father to the US and it intrigued you or it appealed to you. What was the appeal? Knowing Europe, seeing the US, what was the attraction for you?

Laurent Attias: The attraction, which as it pertains to academics or then even projecting yourself into what working in the US would be and how different it is than Europe, I think it's this feel that the US and its maybe stereotype of the land of opportunities, but it's really... It's real. It's real when you're European you're eager to show performance, but you may enter in Europe into a much more hierarchical type of set up in business, where seniority is a big thing to be able to break into. The US feels a lot lighter in all those aspects, where people were more inclined to take risks with talent, to observe performance and reward it accordingly. I think that the general flavor of what attracted me the United States is this willingness to place bets, this willingness to recognize talent, the willingness to take people that have the talent that they're demonstrating and keep moving them up, which is a lot more complex and heavy in Europe. And that's what was the attraction, and I think it's been true and it continues to be true. You're from Europe yourself, probably you can relate to what I say a little bit, but there is this easier environment to play in and for people to shine, and for that shining to mean something and therefore create opportunities for oneself.

Frederic Brunner: Thank you for sharing. There's one thing that you once shared with me that I remember that you said your father was excellent at relationships, I think you mentioned that he was good with everybody, and it reminded me that you're excellent too, and I wanted to ask you a bit, can you share a bit with us this talent of your father to be good in relationships. How was it for you? What have you taken away from it? And how much are you using that today?

Laurent Attias: Dad was a connector. There are some books that you can read about the types of personalities out there, but he was definitely a connector and had relationships but I would say that the critical thing that I took away, well actually, I couldn't really have taken away when I was growing up, because I didn't understand that, but relationships on the whole spectrum, whether it was highly influential people or the more humble people in our lives, let it be a service company or plumber coming into the house or whatever, there was always that same consistent approach of making the relationships genuine and getting the benefits of it, whether it's somebody that you need for something around the house or whatever, or somebody at a professional level.

So he had very influential people that he knew, people that he could bridge with that had influence on the government, that became actually ministers of key departments in France, on the governments of the Presidents of France. And you could see him navigate this whole spectrum of personalities. And I learned from that. And I was almost able to replicate this in my job at Alcon, even from starting at the base level at Alcon and building the relationships with the assistants, the product manager, the this, and then some of the doctors that were your regular doctors, to understand their needs. And then all the way up to what we call KOLs, the Key Opinion Leaders, and being able to tap on what their desires and needs are or interests, and be able to make that connection with anybody at any level, on any type of connection, whether it's on their life interests, their business interest, their personal families.

Relationships are not one-sided, or are not one dimension, I should say. If you don't go about it naturally, then it becomes very obvious that it's a played relationship and a duty versus something that you enjoy. And the multi-dimension of that relationship becomes natural. So you'll do business, but you'll share also great culinary moments, if that's something that you share or other interests. And the compounding of all these things, multi-dimensional, is what builds this strength in the relationship, in my opinion, and therefore, the ability to use those relationships when you need them, and it's a two-way street, obviously, and when they need you for all kinds of things.

Frederic Brunner: Very interesting. Very interesting. I'd like to fast-forward a little bit from the family package. And our audience typically has a lot of question when they see somebody who makes it to the top is how people got started. You mentioned you got to study in the US. At some point, you decided, I want to study something, and I have a first job I need to go to. Can you tell us a bit about what did you study and what was your first job and why?

Laurent Attias: Sure. So study-wise, I went to TCU which is a good private school in United States, in Texas. My undergrad was in marketing, BBA, Bachelor in Business Administration. And then continued directly into an MBA, a two-year MBA. At the time, MBAs were more of a full-time thing. I didn't really have the luxury to try to branch out into a working experience, cause working experience meant I had to go back to Europe. Then that made it very risky for me to actually come back and do an MBA. So I knew that going directly into an MBA was kinda holding me back, because I didn't have that professional experience, but I also knew that it was a way to maybe get done with the studying part of my career, the academia of my career, and then therefore secure a job thanks to having two degrees instead of one. And so...

But I'll make it very anecdotal, but I owe my career at Alcon to Harvard Graphics. Do you remember Harvard Graphics? It's the precursor of PowerPoint. So why do I say that? Well, because I was really good at Harvard Graphics, and I got an internship at Alcon. And through this skillset that I had, where people were still doing presentations, remember with the black and white transparencies over a projector, here I am, a young MBA, and I do these great presentations that are on a TV screen or a flat screen. Actually, we were just starting with flat screen at the time. And the presentations were so much more communicative and had much more media. And that was my claim to fame during my internship, which demonstrated some skills of being able to put thoughts together and displaying them. And I got a job offer prior to finishing my MBA to join Alcon. But it was through this Harvard Graphics capability or learning how to communicate thanks to presentation tools.

Frederic Brunner: Interesting. You, obviously, did a rare career. These days, people change companies several times. You made it from the entry to the top in one company. Was that something you intended when you started or did it happen gradually?

Laurent Attias: Not intended. Truly not intended. But it happened gradually. I had couple times where actually I almost left Alcon. As a matter of fact, I had signed an offer letter and got everything, but I changed my mind at the last minute, even if I actually had accepted this job. So it was not planned. But when I explain why, why Alcon throughout is, you have to go back and ask yourself, well, why do people change companies? Well, and I think that generally, people change companies in a given industry is because they're trying to have different experiences within that industry and learn different skills. So for example, if I have a marketing job, but I don't get to have maybe an operational job in sales, and I'd like to get that, maybe I jump over to another company that gives me an opportunity to manage people, have the responsibility for achieving numbers. Or I join into a pharma company, and I know that the med-tech world is not only pharma but medical devices. Therefore, I jump into another company in order to get that device experience, so I can round my career. 

Well, I started at Alcon, and Alcon had three key divisions that were quite distinct. One is pharma, classical pharma for the eye, full-fledged pharma. Another one was devices, surgical, surgical devices, big capital equipment as well as instruments. And the other one was almost a consumer division with consumer products sold at the shelf. So if you think of those three things, I mean, gosh, it allows for many permutation within the same company to learn all these different skills. And I gotta tell you, when I went from pharma to managing in surgical IOLs, Intraocular Lenses. It could have been more different learning and go to market from pharmaceutical products to this product that was gonna be sold in a consultative type of sell, in an operating room with a surgeon, versus a pharmaceutical that is prescribed and sold through distributors and market access very different worlds, and yet within the same company.

So I always said, if mama has been good to me, and it keeps being good to me, mama being the Alcon, why leave. And if they're providing, gradually all these diversification from either different types of segments or staff jobs to operational jobs, international jobs, which I got all that experience through Alcon, there was really no reason to leave, especially if they rewarded me if I did well, and I felt that the reward was very competitive and therefore stayed, and it's been the story of my life with Alcon, really.

Frederic Brunner: When you think of these wealth of different roles and experience, and you reflect back on how much that was the success to the top, because you mentioned pharma vs med device etcetera, staff role vs line role, how much was that a necessity to round up and to learn to get higher up versus how much you could have gone straight up?

Laurent Attias: Yeah, well, I think it's critical. Because if you go, Alcon, let's say there were people that were growing into the one silo, like the pharma organization. Okay. Well, but when you get to a senior level position, more than likely, you're gonna have to manage and oversee businesses that are not just in one key franchise pharmaceutical. And so that diversification, earlier on, allowed to build the confidence into the people that are promoting you, that you had the skill set and the learning agility as well to be able to take on various businesses. And by the way, you don't need to have equal amounts of time spent in each of those, but you need to have enough exposure so that you understand those businesses, and you build the confidence in others that you can make the right decisions for each of those businesses and oversee all of them. So I think it's critical that the diversification played a role into that ascent going up into the ladder, if you will.

But it's not a linear line. It's not always going up. You gotta have some flattening of the curve, meaning you have to take lateral positions, you may have big steps downs. And I've actually done that, I've actually taken step down. I went from pharma director levels, back to product management in surgical. You have to trust that taking these moves ultimately becomes a growth overall, but the curve is oscillating until you get to that. And those are the risks and confidence choices that you need to make in order to climb to the higher level positions, because those are investments in learning, and... Again, they don't happen in crescendo like this, they happen with either sidesteps or backward steps.

Frederic Brunner: There's one thing that I always find impressive about you is how much you understand your customers. And since I know you, it's been always a relentless topic, is you know exactly what they think. And I think you mentioned once to me it's critical to be in front of customers. Can you maybe share a bit why this is so critical and how was it relevant for you and your success?

Laurent Attias: Well, it is critical first of all, you can do whatever market research out there, I believe in market research, I think it's a great tool. But I think it works when you have large volumes or a large industry, consumer type of market research, because they involve big opinions that are being gauged with quantity. When you're in a field like ophthalmology, where, in reality, let's take devices, let's take our surgical business. There are 17,000 ophthalmologists in the United States, 8,000 of those are surgeons, so 8,000. Okay. Well, those 8,000 are also looking up to a smaller group called Key Opinion Leaders. And that's a smaller group. I bet you that group is probably 150 of them, right? And if you are able to tap on those and work with them to develop technologies, work with them in concert, they spread the word through their access to the podium, to the press, through these days all kinds of channels, social media, etcetera. We've multiplied this ability to tap on larger audiences than maybe was classically before, and so by personal involvement with each of those smaller group KOLs and relationships, you're able to shape those people who then shape a much larger group.

And that becomes a tangible impact on the business, because with surgeons and things that are very applied like surgical skills into an operating room, people look up to learn and look up to, so that spreading of that learning mushrooms and it spreads itself very quickly, and you can move the needle therefore on the business side in a significant way through personal involvement with those key relationships, you don't need that many. And so you have to believe in it and you have to also be willing to deep dive in it. It's not because you're a vice president that suddenly going into the field and learning from surgeons across the US or other regions is still not valuable. It's highly valuable, but you cannot make it a rule of just one here and one there, you have to be willing to invest and diversify that group so that you can have a better overall picture because for example, customers in the United States may think very differently that customers in Europe or customers in Asia, so you also need to have a little bit of a wider view so that you can understand the differences between those different regions, for example.

Frederic Brunner: Yeah, I also remember on the same topic, you told me once that it's also critical to be in front of customers, to be really clear on how your product or your message are really perceived, having that kind of firsthand and that really made an impression on me that kind of being sure of what the market is really hearing, and it does the whole chain that go through.

Laurent Attias: Yeah, look, especially with the device side, again, I'm double-clicking on this one, the rate of innovation in devices is fed through the feedback, because I have an instrument, I'm bringing it to a doctor, this doctor is trying it, they don't like it, it needs to be bent this way or that. Well, that's direct feedback as to how I need to modify my product in order to be fulfilling more needs and actually being more adopted by the greater audience, that's not true for a pharma drug, I cannot modify a pharma drug based on feedback in an individual that takes. But in devices is highly relevant, and it becomes therefore an iterative process, and it can only happen through frequency of exchanges because, okay, you told me this change, I go back, make the change, I test again, it's a trial and error, and by doing these incremental steps, not only you're improving the product, you're improving the relationship too, and if you're improving the product and the relationship, you're also gonna improve the acceptability with wider audiences. So I think it's this iterative process that builds trust in that relationship with any individual key opinion leader, but at the same time, improves the product too. The product therefore becomes more accepted by a wider audience and see it's a self-feeding mechanism. Right?

Frederic Brunner: I like that a lot. Yeah, very clear. There's one word that when one spends time with you is always top of mind when I think of you is innovation, why is innovation so important to you?

Laurent Attias: Well, innovation is the blood of our company at Alcon. At the end of the day, if you look in the span of the time that I've been at Alcon and you look at a key surgery like cataract, the way it was done then to the way is done today, tremendously different. I think a good surgeon could do a cataract in 20 minutes back 15 years ago, 20 years ago, today is 3, 4 or 5 minutes, but more importantly is that more people can achieve the same level of outcomes. With any technology, with innovation, you're gonna see that you're gonna have early adopters, but the early adopters is not really the pulse of the entire market, you establish innovation to a wider audience if everybody can benefit the same way from that innovation, and so because, for example, you don't want to have your innovation be only able to deliver in the people that are the more skillful, you want that innovation to be able to be benefiting from all kinds of people that have various levels of skills, and so the innovation engine for Alcon is that, how do I come out with technology that are innovative, but at the same time become broadly adopted so that I can take a standard of care and truly improve it, because at the end of day, it's your experience, it's my experience.

If you were on the table getting your eyes done, you would want to benefit from this process of improving the innovation to where everybody can give you that level of great outcomes for your surgery, because the innovation has enabled various skills of people to achieve the same great results for you, the recipient, let it be a consumer or we call them patients. I like to call them, we're all consumers actually also. So that's the key thing about innovation. And if you think about it, our innovation also allows us to command and gain the shares, the market shares that we have, because we differentiate through that technological innovation, it also allows us to command a certain price point for those because people see, let's say in a premium price, and I don't like the word premium because it's actually the value that you see in that price, and if we're able to be at a high market share, thanks to innovation if people see that there is the value and they're willing to pay that value because they're getting the benefit from that innovation at that price point.

Frederic Brunner: I like that. So I'm hearing two things, one is superior benefits over the previous standard, but also the ability to have everybody benefit from that superior benefit standard.

Laurent Attias: That's exactly right. That's exactly right.

Frederic Brunner: I like that, I like that a lot. One thing that our audience also would love to learn typically is what people have learned from a difficult moment or failing, do you have a moment in your career that was maybe not easy, where we say, I really learned something there and I wish I had known before.

Laurent Attias: Yeah, I think so. We've talked about that my career has taken me to different places, and that was by choice. I wanted to understand the US market environment. I had a chance to go to Canada, which even though it's North America, the healthcare system there is tremendously different, as a matter fact it mirrors more Europe than the US by many aspects, and then I had a chance to be in Europe running the whole region, which was a large region with a P&L of $3 billion and 7,000 people. But by going there, it was a large responsibility, and as you can imagine, we live in the world where the economies have cycles, and if you take it back to the 2008-2009 time frame, we know that there was a lot of crisis in the United States and the economy slowed down. And I got to be in Europe right around the 2010, '11, '12 and at the time, I think that Europe was having a delayed effect on this whole crisis as well, economic crisis, and as I was running Europe in 2009-2010, those were good years.

We had almost double digit growth and we were exceeding plans, and then there was a bit of a tsunami of the crisis hitting, and so one of the things that was challenging for me was to get the pulse from my markets, from the people that I knew, and I trusted to tell me, "there are big signs of an economic crisis, we don't think we're gonna be able to do like the two previous years, we gotta really think something here and take a step down and reset things, the conditions have changed tremendously."

It was very hard to communicate that change to Alcon or even better to Novartis, which was now at the time the owner of Alcon. And I think that as an organization, because we were new inside this larger family of Novartis, you're the new kid in town, the new segment, you wanna please the bigger mothership and say, no, I can achieve those results. And I think that through my lack of experience, or one of the things I've learned, I had a very challenging time because I was not able to impose more strongly the direct pulse on the market that I had that said "Nope, we'll only drive growth by 4% and not 8% or 9%." Even though that was presented and ratified, but it was overturned at a higher level, at the most senior level, and said, "we really think that we should be at the same historical double digit rates." Well, my mistake was to not hold my ground on that, and therefore almost claiming that that's fine, but those are gonna be your numbers, not mine, and willing to go and try to hit it, but be clear that there was a problem.

I thought I was being clear, but I should have been even more and I should have stood my ground even stronger at that time, this made for a very challenging year because as predicted, we were in the hole the minute the year started, and I did the wrong thing of not trying to be much louder with what I was hearing, because I was hearing it from the pulse of the market, everybody else was trying to do it top-down or trying to fit into a larger mothership intentions if you will, from Novartis. So that was a big mistake in my opinion, where I should have stood my ground, but I learned a lot from that challenge. I really did.

Frederic Brunner: Thank you. And I have one last question about your career which when people look at you, they see success. When you look at yourself, do you feel successful? And what is success for you? What is your definition of success?

Laurent Attias: My definition of success is probably going to be whether I do things that I enjoy doing, and that if I do things that I really enjoy doing, it doesn't feel like work. And by the way, if you enjoy doing them, generally that means that you're gonna do 'em well, and success almost comes along with it. So success is a by-product of what you do. It shouldn't be the primary goal. I would say the primary goal should be, do the things that you love, and do the thing that you love as best as you can, and the success will be the byproduct of that. If you're chasing money, if you're chasing success, it's the wrong objective, those are rewards from the work that you put in, and so the only thing that I can tell you is that even through my positions, it seems like in retrospect, I've done positions that catered a lot to my personality actually. Today I'm in strategy and M&A, I like to think that I have an ability to zoom out and see things strategically, and for me to be in charge of Alcon's strategy today as a corporation, I think caters to this skill set that was built throughout my career, and therefore my position today fits this personality trait or this skill set that I've developed over the years.

Same things with M&A and BD&L. Well, you know it's not all about the price that you're willing to pay for something, it's about the relationship and whether people actually wanna sell you the company versus somebody else. And you'd be surprised as to how much that plays into who the right owner should be about a technology or innovation. We've had examples even recently, where given a competitive bid situation, people are not gonna go with the highest bid necessarily, they're gonna with who they think the best owner is, and you get there through having established that trust through the relationship. So you see, it goes back to that same circle, and so where I am today is a product of the things that I believe in and the things that I'm inclined to do naturally, and success comes from that. Success can only come from things that come natural to you, in my opinion. You can't fabricate success, it has to stem from things that you do well because you're naturally inclined to do that, and you've perfected this through all the experiences you've had.

Frederic Brunner: I love that. It really resonates with me. I really like that. If it's okay with you Laurent, I'd like to finish our conversation with five quick rapid-fire questions.

Laurent Attias: Sure.

Frederic Brunner: The first one is, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Laurent Attias: Astronaut. And I almost did. But, yes I wanted to be an astronaut... But the funny thing is that I got to be awarded at NASA for one of the technologies that we had at Alcon, which was borrowed from NASA, and so I got to meet Buzz Aldrin and meet all the astronauts, so I thought I had a little bit of a full circle there.

Frederic Brunner: Mission accomplished. Very good.

Laurent Attias: Exactly.

Frederic Brunner: What would you tell your 20-year-old self looking back?

Laurent Attias: I think it's gonna be repeating what I already said, which is, focus on the things you enjoy doing, because if you're going to work and you're not enjoying it, it's gonna be hard to show good results and therefore to get rewarded by success and even monetary rewards or whatever. Because, when you love something, the time flies. You'd never look at how much time you spend working on something that you like, and so therefore it's this sense of accomplishment and this sense of dedication that is the most important, I think, in a career. All the people that are not really well fitted to their job, it becomes a burden, and therefore a barrier to achieving this self-fulfillment and success at the same time.

Frederic Brunner: If you were to do it all over again, what would you do?

Laurent Attias: I would not change a thing.

Frederic Brunner: Very good.

Laurent Attias: I would not change a thing. It's been a marvelous trip, journey. With all the ups and down, I think they all had great rewards, whether it was in growth or learning.

Frederic Brunner: Guilty pleasures?

Laurent Attias: Guilty pleasures. Well, I'm in Switzerland now, and I have a guilty pleasure for horology or watch making, but really not about the brands or the status, but actually the craft, the human craft. I'm very interested in humans taking a craft to the utmost level, and I think that that particular area of watch making and when you apply yourself to it is just incredible. And I love seeing humans doing beautiful things that takes a lot of time, a lot of skill, and I'm amazed by that.

Frederic Brunner: And finally, what is the moments you were the most proud?

Laurent Attias: The moment I was the most proud. The moments that I'm the most proud of is almost me today, and looking at the family I have with four kids in combination with the career I have at the level I am today, because a cliché is work-life balance. I probably jumped on that wagon a bit late, but I did jump on it, and I would not be the person that I am today in business, if I could not look back at the smiles and the joys of the people that I have now on my team, my wife and my four kids, and I can only be the person they need me to be if I have also fulfilled myself on the professional side. So the moment that I'm the most proud of is the moment I'm living now, which I'm seeing I think... I hope a very happy family, one that's stable in growth with a lot of love, and bonding, and a career that has been very rewarding for me on many levels, and they're benefiting from that as well.

Frederic Brunner: Thank you very much Laurent Attias. I really appreciate this open conversation. Laurent Attias, the Global Head of M&A, BD&L and Strategy at Alcon. It was a pleasure to have you on the podcast. You can find this entire podcast on Laurent, I hope to see you soon, and I wish you a very good evening.

Laurent Attias: Thank you.

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