Ben Bulkley has had a long career in a variety of sectors. He started out as an engineer and worked in transportation before holding positions as an advisor, founder and senior executive of companies in healthcare and venture capital. Recently I caught up with him to get a better sense of how he ended up where he is and what he’s learned along the way. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Matt Sexton: You started your career at GE in the transportation area. How did you end up in healthcare and what was that transition like?
Ben Bulkley: My boss in GE Transportation (he was CEO of a joint venture company) moved to GE Medical and he invited me to join him. Transportation and healthcare are two different worlds – biggest difference is the commitment to reliability and safety in transportation and not so much in healthcare.
MS: GE has hit a rough patch the last few years, between replacing Jeff Immelt as CEO and planning to sell off GE Digital, a division they have invested heavily in. Did you see any of this coming and what do you think it means for GE’s future?
BB: I didn’t predict it, but am not surprised. I had a closer look at one of the assets being sold from GE Healthcare and was surprised by the poor performance.
MS: As a healthcare executive, what do you view as the biggest obstacles facing the healthcare industry today? Is it equal access to high quality care or the continually rising rates?
BB: Biggest obstacles are the policies which encourage consumption and an over-reliance of the medical model… fee for-service and a supply chain indexed to prime movers of price (providers and pharma). If our goal is health, then we are deeply over-invested in the medical model crowding out investments that improve health more effectively (food security, transportation, living wages, safety, access to healthy spaces, exercise, reducing risky behaviors)…
MS: How far away do you think we are from enacting universal healthcare in the U.S.? What do you think the major impediments are?
BB: I don’t think we will have universal healthcare because of the political distortions in the narrative.
MS: You’ve held executive positions (CEO, COO, VP, etc) at both Fortune 500 companies and start-ups. What’s more exciting to you and how do the challenges differ between building and scaling a business from scratch and creating or growing a division within an established company?
BB: Each offers a different kind of challenge. To me it is all about moving health and healthcare in a more favorable direction (per above).
MS: Securing funding from venture capital firms and angel investors is something you have a great deal of experience with. Is there such a thing as perfecting a pitch, and is there a rhyme or reason to what gets funding and what doesn’t? Some pitches are better than other, none are perfect.
BB: Yes, there is good reason for what gets funded: value creation (some kind of advantage is generated), probability of success, strength of management.
MS: Was there ever a company or idea you were personally involved in that you felt sure would be successful but failed (or vice versa)?
BB: None. Fluidnet, the infusion pump business, is taking longer than we expected but that is more an engineering problem than a bad idea.
MS: When it comes to your personal investing, what are the biggest factors you look at before investing in a company?
BB: Who I hire to manage it for me.
MS: From a leadership perspective, what have some of your biggest lessons been in terms of effectively managing people and walking the fine line between motivation and micro-management? Was there any advice given to you when you first started down the management track?
BB: Big question. Your self-awareness is the key. Never stop learning. Stretch yourself.
MS: When hiring an employee or investing in a new business, how easy is it to see through a “blow-hard” or someone who may present well but lacks authenticity or integrity?
BB: Some are easy, some are very difficult. It’s the difficult one’s who matter. I do my own reference checks because of this.
MS: Having accomplished a lot in business, are there any specific milestones that you’re still working towards? What would it take you to retire?
BB: I hope I can keep working until I drop. Active mind is a healthy mind.
MS: Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk, Ben. Good luck with everything in the future.