Philippe Prufer, MBA '88, Recognized for Alumni Service to Ross
Eli Lilly exec is the first international alumnus to receive the honor.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Philippe Prufer, MBA '88, Eli Lilly vice president and area director, European mid-size countries, received the Bert F. Wertman Alumni Service Award during the Ross School's annual scholarship dinner March 12. Born in São Paulo, educated in Rio de Janeiro, and currently based in Vienna, Prufer is the first international alumnus to receive the honor since its inception in 1989.
Prufer is a longtime advocate for the globalization of business and the Ross School. As such, he has served as a member of the Ross School's Visiting Committee since 2004. He served on the leadership team for the Brazil Alumni Club and has been instrumental in re-engaging alumni with the school. Prufer also has helped source numerous Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP) in Brazil and Europe. And in 2008, he established the Otto Georges Prufer Scholarship, named for his father, to support incoming students from Brazil.
Prufer sat down with Dividend to talk about the importance of globalization in business education, why he created the scholarship, and the benefits he gets from staying connected to Ross.
You have a very interesting family background. Tell me how that plays into your emphasis on globalization in the MBA Program at Ross.
Prufer: Yes, my focus is on globalization. It's part of what I call my "DNA." My father was French, my mother is German. They both immigrated to Brazil. I was born in Brazil. My grandfather was Russian, my mother-in-law is from Hungary, and my father-in-law is from Estonia. Both my wife and I are first-generation Brazilians, and we love Brazil. It's our home country.
I speak five different languages. When I was a kid, I lived in Brazil most of the time, but also in Europe, and here in Michigan as an exchange student. The way I was brought up was always to have an international mentality. When I came to school here in the '80s, the school was not as international as it is today. I was always raising my hand, saying, "What is the application for this in international terms?" And there is still more to do on the global side.
I do not want to say a cliché, but this is a small world. What you learn after a while is that people are not that different. Language and cultural subtleties aside, everyone cries, everyone gets tired, and everyone needs a shower once in a while.
We sometimes make things too complicated. The beauty of the current globalization trend is that we are coming to appreciate more and more how similar we are as opposed to how different we are.
But isn't there a downside to globalization, too? Look at our current economic crisis. The fact that we are all interconnected is coming back to bite us, and people may be tempted to advocate for less globalization as a result.
Prufer: I think the danger is that because of the economic situation, we will go back to protectionism. We all know in history what protectionism has led the world to: wars, as well as feelings of superiority, racism, etc. It's very dangerous, which makes it even more important for students to realize how much they have in common with each other. All businesses today have international connections.—suppliers, customers, operations.—so students really need to come out of the school appreciating and being prepared to deal with that. In my work, I interface with people in 32 countries. I can talk in the morning with Norway, then Greece, then Portugal, and wind up my day talking with Indianapolis, our company headquarters.
The ability to communicate well across these cultures and get the job done is a particular skill students need to learn and need appreciate.
Why is it important to support Brazilian students at Ross? What do they bring to the table? And what can they take away?
Prufer: Brazilian students can really contribute to the school. As Brazil is an emerging economy, there are so many opportunities. Brazilians in general tend to be very entrepreneurial, flexible, and adaptable. This is what they can teach in an MBA program, especially in this age where the conditions are changing every day and every week. It's important to have students and future executives who are very adaptive to the changes going on in the environment. Also, Brazil is a large economy; itís one of the top 10 economies in the world. I think Brazilian students really can benefit a lot from an education here in Michigan, by opening up their horizons. They can meet with students from other places and have contact with the wonderful faculty.
Why did you name the scholarship for your father?
When I was accepted to Michigan and other business schools back in '86, I was only 23 years old. At the same time, I got a promotion in my company, to be the No. 2 guy in the area of international business. That made me think a lot. Should I take the promotion or go to business school? I remember sitting with my father and having long discussions. I thought, "I can get this great salary, I will not need to study anymore, I can get married, and I can stay here. My father said, "No, you are still very young. Nothing replaces education. Our family has gone through so many wars and we know the big thing no one can steal from you is your education." My father was really instrumental. I would not have come here if I had only thought about the short term, so I created the scholarship to honor him. He passed away last year, in October.
In addition to the scholarship, I know that you support MBA students by advocating and sourcing MAP projects in your company. How has your experience been so far?
Prufer: My first experience with MAP was indirect. I was a general manager at Eli Lilly in Argentina and the Brazilian affiliate had a MAP team come in 1999. I heard really great things about it from my colleagues.
In 2000, I wanted to do one in Argentina. I had five or six students come help me and my team put together a 10-year plan for Lilly in Argentina. It was fantastic and a wonderful opportunity. We had our thoughts of what to do in terms of strategy, but the students helped us validate some of our thoughts and brought some different ideas. That's the beauty of MAP: You get a group of individuals who are highly motivated, from outside of the company, to bring a fresh view of the issues and alternatives you have. That's very encouraging for the organization. There's an added benefit: Being close to young people, we all benefit from that energy. At Lilly, we are very much dedicated to attracting people not for a job, but for a career. We really want to develop leaders. For us who participate in MAP, as well, it's important to get to know some potential individuals who can work in our company. So we also take it very seriously from the recruiting side.
Last year, I had MAP students in my European countries look at the launch of a new product, in particular focusing on Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. That project uncovered a lot of things and also validated some of our assumptions. We are launching that product now.
This year, we're going to have three MAPs in my area. We're looking at long-term strategic planning, partnerships, and other business development opportunities.
So you've received good feedback on MAP within the company. And is it fair to say your colleagues are now pushing to bring Ross students back year after year?
Prufer: It's interesting. Last year was the first MAP we did in Europe. Quite frankly, I did not force my team to do three MAPs this year. Last year, I was forceful. This year, the general manager said, "Hey, I want to do a MAP this year." And he is not even a Michigan alum!
It's win-win. It provides students hands-on experience to learn about the company and the culture. They can figure out if this is a company where they'd like to work in the future. It also helps us as a company. Sometimes, we have so many things going on, so it's helpful to get a dedicated group of intelligent, well-trained individuals focusing on a problem or strategic kind of analysis.
Is there one thing you learned in business school that you'll never forget?
Prufer: There are a few concepts. The first thing I learned in business school is that you will always be a student. Every day, with things changing so dramatically, you are always a student.
The second thing I benefited a lot from is learning how to diagnose a problem: how to look at alternative solutions or options, and how to pick the very best one. Looking back, that process of thinking was fantastic for me. Every day when I have an issue, I go back to that process.
The third thing is something I remember hearing in human resources classes, which I used to hate, but which ended up being the most important classes. I learned you can be very smart, but if you are not able to work with people, through people, and for people, forget it. Forget it. Then you're going to be a lone ranger, and business is not made of lone rangers. Business is made of people who are able to build a team, motivate a team, develop a team, and be part of team.
Going back to those human resources classes, I also learned about the importance of culture. How do you, as a leader, instill a culture in your organization? And how do you use culture to create a competitive advantage for your business? So, as you grow in an organization, you start thinking, all of these concepts make a lot of sense. I wish I would have paid more attention to that!
I read a quote from you where you told Ross students that listening is one of the most important skills to have in business.
Prufer: It's a cliché, but we have two ears and one mouth, so I guess we need to hear more than we talk, eh? And we have two eyes, so we need to observe a lot. I think we often fail to observe. We need to observe a lot more.
What are your impressions of the pharmaceutical industry these days?
Prufer: I never thought I would work in pharmaceuticals. I hated science in high school, but then Lilly came and recruited me from the business school. I really appreciated the company's culture and values. I am a hardnosed business man, but I like to know I am working with a company that is truly innovative and is making a difference in peoples' lives. We all see the advancements in medical science the last few years and I'm very honored that my company is part of that.
What does it mean to you that you are the first international alumnus to receive the Bert F. Wertman Alumni Service Award?
Prufer: It's a huge honor. When I was a student here, I challenged my peers and professors to make Michigan more international. Students now are getting much more international exposure than when I was here because it's really critical. It goes both ways. It's important for the international students who are here to have exposure to these other cultures represented in the classroom, including American culture, and vice versa. Americans here need to understand that the value chain of business will go through the international arena one way or the other. Either it's your supplier, your customer, or the competitor. So you need to be prepared. Itís absolutely necessary to be successful in business.
I'm very honored that Michigan has honored me as the first international alum to receive this award. I hope this also means that it strives to be even stronger as a global school. From the discussions we're having in the Visiting Committee, that's the direction we want to go. Action-based learning is great, but how can we put a little more salt and pepper into this action-based learning to make it global action-based learning?
Ross is lucky to have people like you advocating for the school out there in the world. But what do you get out of this equation? How do you benefit by being connected to Ross?
Prufer: First, from an academic perspective, I value the opportunity to be connected to such a wonderful school as Michigan. Every time I come here for a meeting, I either get a book, a case, or talk to a professor. Also, my peers on the Visiting Committee are extremely sharp, smart, and very nice people. The networking is fantastic. People, even though we are so different, are bonded by our Michigan education. I learn so much. It goes back to listening. Networking for me is more about listening than talking. So I get a lot from that.
The Bert F. Wertman Service Award was established in 1989 to honor the contributions made by Wertman, MBA í28. He served for more than 60 years as class president, and through his leadership and caring, the class remained a cohesive and vital group, which held a record number of continuous reunions.
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