CHPA Chat - Legends of Consumer Healthcare: Mike Donnantuono

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Episode Summary

The consumer healthcare industry has a deep history. Today, consumers are a lot savvier, and the industry has adapted to meet their needs and demands. Join host Anita Brikman for a peek inside how the space has evolved from one of the adored and respected luminaries, former Blistex president Mike Donnantuono as he shares stories from his long and impressive career.



Episode Transcript

Welcome to CHPA Chat, conversations in the consumer healthcare industry with Anita Brikman.

Anita Brikman: Hey everyone, 30 years ago before online shopping and Amazon reviews were a thing, Blistex's Mike Donnantuono was working in the consumer healthcare industry. Today consumers are a lot savvier and industry has adapted to meet their needs and demands. I'm thrilled to have Mike join me to discuss how the space has evolved and share stories from his long and truly impressive career. Hi Mike.

Mike Donnantuono: Thanks for having me on Anita.
Anita Brikman: So 30 years, I mean, of course consumers have changed over that period of time. When you look back how and were there specific times of rapid acceleration in change in the way consumers approach our products?

Mike Donnantuono: Yeah, I think there's no doubt about it. I lived through in the first half of my career just in general consumers being bombarded increasingly with more and more messages hitting them from every angle. The proportion of shows that turned into ads, the number of outdoor visual ads, the fact that you couldn't go into a bathroom without seeing an ad. So that's what was happening early in my career, it was becoming more difficult to break through just because your share of voice was kind of intrinsically dropping as marketing just became more prevalent in everything that we did. But I think you're talking about sort of an inflection point and I absolutely believe the internet has certainly created an inflection point I think in society as a whole as we've just had to deal with over the last several years but from a consumption perspective, the places you can get your products, the ability to take on customized messages and as a manufacturer to figure out who's going to be most receptive to the message and then tailor it to them, all of that.

Mike Donnantuono: Consumers should become now sort of expecting that and falling short of that it's really difficult to connect. So breaking through, and it's gotten continuously harder but it became a very different game I think as social media increased, as the traditional outlets that we delivered advertising on, radio, a number of TV stations, cable turning into 200 stations, all of a sudden getting that reach so that your new product or your message and your positioning could efficiently be delivered, that game has gotten harder and harder over time. And the consumers have changed their expectations so higher demanding as a result of that and expect things to really be tailored to them.

Mike Donnantuono: And that's a big piece of it but where they shop too, right? Their patterns are very much more online. COVID certainly accelerated this, the ability to interact in a brick and mortar store, the amount of time people are willing to, in a very busy life, go and engage in a retail environment, that could have a lasting effect in the months that come after what we're going through right now. And the shopping patterns already, non-traditional retailers, the consolidation in the trade itself, all of these things have changed how consumers look at things. But we're seeing I think the emergence now of a greater attentiveness to what's called social consciousness.

Mike Donnantuono: We've always thought, how real is this? Because consumers will always tell you for over the last 30 years that they're interested in companies that do good, but I actually believe and particularly with this generation that is emerging with the greatest buying power now, that their ability to find out what companies are about because of the internet and the number of companies that now are forward on social consciousness, it's almost going to be I believe, even if it is not now built into their behavior, it's probably going to become a kind of cost of entry that companies are able to talk about their sustainability, their social consciousness. That's always been important to consumers but I'm not sure I ever saw except for certain number of brands of Ben & Jerry's, Tom's of Maine. You don't really see that it's made as much of a difference as I think now it's making and that it's going to make in the future.

Anita Brikman: I think about the way my daughter shops and how different it is even for me in one generation. She does a ton of research online and not just about what's in the product, where it's made, she reads the different reviews, but she also takes a look at what the company gives back. And to your point about sustainability and avoiding damage to the environment and what's in that particular cosmetic or OTC products, she shops very differently than I did when I was her age.

Mike Donnantuono: Yeah. And I'd add to that because you made reference to the, what are you looking for online? Me saying what my product is going to do, that kind of says what it's designed to do. But consumers are looking online and researching what other consumers have to say, they're listening to their peers. And the vehicle is out there for them to listen to people who've actually had experience with the product and it's kind of smarter to listen to that. And I worked for Procter for a while and they always believed that great marketing started with a great product. And while that definitely was true, it's true now more than ever because the broad gets stripped there in the marketplace now more quickly than ever before.

Anita Brikman: Absolutely agree. And the power of these reviews, I, even during the pandemic, know I started filling out more of them because I realized how much I was relying on them. And then you do start, as you said, turning to your peers for their experiences but then you also want to be part of the community that helps somebody else make the right choice for them. I want to know if that shoe isn't going to fit right because someone said, wow, this is really for somebody with a narrow foot. And I think to your point Mike, the quality of the products our industry puts out there it has to be paramount and we can't ever take our eye off that prize because the proof will be out there in what people say about them.

Mike Donnantuono: No doubt about it. And we were talking about consumer trends in general, that's a big piece of it but I just always want to bring it back to the expectations and how they've been changed because the manufacturers have contributed to it, the rate of new products. And one of the reasons that people are online right now is there's so much more to look at, it's inefficient to try to keep up with the rate of innovation and they're not necessarily dramatic innovation but I don't have to tell you how exponentially new product launches for manufacturers in almost every segment have increased over the years. I've seen the numbers, I don't want to quote them, but they're factors of thousands and every year more and more and breaking through and breaking out, you better make sure you get out of the gate well.

Mike Donnantuono: And the internet and the reviews you're talking about, you've got a limited time now. You used to be able to develop a brand over three and four years slowly generating trial then you don't get that part running anymore. Partly because people won't waste it and partly because the consumers have been trained to move on, what's next, what's new. Speaking of loyalty down, the best I think you can do is satisfy them enough that every year they're willing to take a look at what you're doing now. But the idea that you would've locked someone in, it's just not the mentality that's out there right now and it's not the mentality that manufacturers are competing under.

Anita Brikman: What from your childhood or your upbringing helped you develop resilience and the longevity you've been able to demonstrate in building your company and being a success? What elements of that in times of rapid change and inflection points, as you said, over the years, what helps you be a survivor?

Mike Donnantuono: Well, in a way it's the same thing that maybe made it more difficult at times to survive, which is, I think that in a lot of ways, that time, that formative time, it really directs how you go about things even to a fault, right? So when I think about the things that served me well early, I'm a very direct person and-

Anita Brikman: No.

Mike Donnantuono: ... own a business, yeah, you thought that Anita, you've heard it. Yeah, it's direct, I hope it's not always unpolished, let me say it that way. But the point being, when you speak to an issue, you get the right decision factors on the table and the humming and hauling and half answers and all of that stuff, I grew up working class in Queens in New York and you just don't ever communicate that way, right? People are very direct around you and that is communication, right? I think this, I'm going to let you know what I think and why I think it, and in doing that I think that we've been able to move faster, strip politics at least in the small company I've worked at for the last 30 years of the 35 of my career. But stripping it down and really looking at things and forcing people to confront what's a crisis, what's not, what the elements you got to be looking at are and what isn't just blame throwing or pointing here or there's nothing we can do.

Mike Donnantuono: But the idea that there's always something we can do, and what are we going to do? It's an action orientation but I think if you grow up having to have a little hustle, having to stand up for yourself, you're not going to let a large company automatically take you down, you actually believe you can beat them and in many years and in many sectors, we have beaten them so that's another piece of it. You could call it resilience or you could call it maybe not being smart enough to realize what I probably shouldn't have bitten off and then it turns out that we've been able to bite it off. So I don't know, I think again, stripping away politics, doing your job, not worrying about how you look doing it as much as doing it really well, all of those things are things my family valued, it was things that in the environment were respected and I saw more nuance later of coming to the Midwest and going to some pretty prestigious schools but luckily and unluckily some of it changed me and some of it didn't.

Anita Brikman: Well, I think about you on the CHPA board of directors, how many years have you served now?

Mike Donnantuono: I'm thinking 12. I think that's about right.

Anita Brikman: Okay. So you have always, in my time at CHPA, have always been a breath of fresh air for a variety of reasons. One of which is that cutting to the chase, right? What is the issue at hand? What are the hard questions that need to be asked so that the path forward everyone can be in alignment like, yeah, this is the way to go? But you've also been a voice for the smaller companies and speak up to remind CHPA that this association is built with fantastic companies, large and small. And so I've always appreciated that of you being the voice of a smaller company that has achieved success.

Mike Donnantuono: Well, I've been in both. I always have felt like there were advantages to each and I'm comfortable with mine but to me you can be right on both ends depending on what the issue is. So I think maybe part of what enabled me to work across the aisle so to speak was the fact that if the majors had legitimate points on how they wanted to move the business forward, there were times when you just know that sitting in their seat it's not predatory, it's just, we can't sit and hold back their ability to move forward at times.

Mike Donnantuono: So I think again in everything I say that in the world at large that my worldview is driven by nothing more than my justice, just let's do the right thing, you know what I mean? For the right reasons. And I think I've kind of tried to carry that thinking into business whether it's on a board or whether it's just sitting around our own place, right? If you have these principles that drive the way you think then usually those principles drive the way you speak. And so again I probably haven't been measured enough, Anita, but I have no regrets for it because I think sometimes people need to hear what no one else is willing to say.

Anita Brikman: Well, you definitely say it Mike. What about looking back on your career, some memories, just a walk down memory lane, what are key points that stand out for you? And the role others played, be they mentors, coworkers, et cetera, in shaping your path?

Mike Donnantuono: Memories. Wow. I always had my most fun in creative areas. I got a slow start in business because undergrad I was a history major and all my electives were visual studies and literature and things like that, political science, and then got into business. But one of the reasons I got into marketing was there were elements of it, commercial development and for part of my career actually being onsite to shoot ads, package development, which I've still kept a hand in over time, these are creative exercises that I've felt like being in, yes, OTC but also CPG. Some of the most fun times, fond memories, best work we've done has been in the creative area. And I am a cold analyst of data, no doubt, again that to a fault, but what I really enjoy and my best memories have been with creative teams, to be honest with you, and that includes in new product development and ideation sessions.

Mike Donnantuono: I think in a lot of ways it's a unique strength relative to general business strengths I might add and most of my memories are in three-day deep dives with creative people where there's been a lot of laughs and a lot of brilliant ideas, a bit to target on, that's where a lot of the fun is. And when you say what my best memory is, it's probably in that field and in people, people are memories. My company is still in business so I guess I did pretty well as a small independent company but the things I smile at aren't the numbers, they really are the experiences so those have probably been the most fun times.

Mike Donnantuono: But what I'm proud of is a little bit different, we had a lot of work to do to get the company built for the future over the 30 years, this has been an evolution, we're about to go into our 75th year as Blistex as a private family-run independent company and so it's taken a lot of revamping of a lot of functional areas throughout my 10 year at Blistex and I'm proud that we actually acted to get that done every time that it emerged we needed to do and so I feel pretty good about that. And the acquisitions that we've made, we've made five or six, for us, pretty major brand acquisitions, a number of them with well-known consumer names from Stridex and toxin and odor ridders, as well as the number one skincare brand in Canada, that really built the ability, as I said, to look to the future for Blistex. Because 75 years, yeah, but there's no reason they can't go to a 100 and I'd hate to be the guy who put them in a position where they couldn't.

Mike Donnantuono: So leaving it in pretty good shape for my successor to focus on a future is probably one of the things that I'm proud of. And I have to be honest with you, the company that I worked for, it is family owned, it is long-term thinking, and I got to tell you their objectives are noble, they have incredible consciousness for the wellbeing of their employees, a very generous profit sharing down to our line workers and consistently so. And we've had some challenges where I've watched what larger companies do, in 2008 and 2009 we continue to give raises as though it hadn't hit, our shareholders understand we're in here for a long haul and that they can make a little less money.

Mike Donnantuono: And not being in the command of Wall Street has enabled us to do things with our workforce that we always know tomorrow is going to come and that the people make a difference and I'm really proud of helping keep a company that's independent and true to those original goals of serving every one of its constituents, not just the shareholder, are really important to me. It's one of the reasons I left the big guys and 30 years later regardless of what I might've left on the table, I have no regrets about that either of those, I did some good and probably didn't do any harm.

Anita Brikman: What about the employees now and then during this period with COVID? We've talked about that on several of these episodes of what this pandemic has done. And also this unprecedented year of this global pandemic, social injustice unrest, it just feels like this year has gone on and on in some ways yet has been so disruptive in others, what have you done in Blistex as far as keeping your folks safe and engaged and not mentally fraying at the edges?

Mike Donnantuono: Well, as I was moving into my retirement, I do have to give the greatest amount of credit to both my successor. And then I had the chief operating officer position which I know you announced me as that, weeks ago I moved into a vice chairman position and we've been-

Anita Brikman: Okay, I stand corrected.

Mike Donnantuono: Oh, you shouldn't be corrected so much as I also don't want this thing to air and then people are standing outside my door and thought they had my office wondering what happened. But our people on the ground, my CEO, who is the third generation of his family, our new COO who was our vice president of operations and our new president, they've been as visible as the necessary workers that we've had on the floor and everywhere else to make sure that they understand that we're trying to feel exactly what we're going through. Look at the very beginning of this, we got everybody out of there from the office perspective about 10 days before the state suggested that we did it.

Mike Donnantuono: So I like the idea that we acted more quickly than a number of people in our area, we kind of saw it coming so that was the first move. We were willing very early to slow our lines down, spread our workers, reduce our throughput in order to create space. And then we continuously over the first six weeks kept putting best practices into place, whether it was temperature checks, we did very early. And by the way, I was on the horn with another small company, CHPA member, who within the first week was taking temperatures. It hadn't been really established that broadly at the time but just because of the interface through CHPA we had that up and running. So everybody entering our building right from the start temperature checks and that came from another member and just making sure we stayed in touch and continued to implement additional steps every time they would appear on the horizon or in the public domain.

Mike Donnantuono: And we have an annual employee opinion survey that is typically done in July and we did it again this year and I have to tell you that I can't iterate every single individual step but the appreciation and the expression of our workers telling us that we really felt like as much as you can keep people safe, you've done it. We encouraged people to stay home if they were feeling anything sick, we provided pay policies that would enable them to do that, everything that we signaled was take care of the community and if you need your paycheck we'll give you your paycheck, don't do anything stupid. We were masked up fairly quickly here even before that was taken as a given in public places. So we tried to move faster, we tried to move on every front possible, we did a lot of communications, our top managers had a lot of visibility so people were feeling like they were in it with us.

Mike Donnantuono: And I just loved the feedback that came because it's what we were trying to do, but not in order to get great feedback but because it genuinely comes from the need to keep your people safe when these things emerge. And the other thing Anita is, this is far from over right now. We gave bonuses at one point, just an extra week's pay for the people who were regularly needed to be in the running lines at some point, right? Little things like that but a lot of people were doing that. And I think that we have to stay very attentive regularly with the recent upswing to make sure that we continue to take people's temperature. What can we do better? How are you feeling? See if you just let people express to you how you're feeling and give them another way to think about it or just empathy for it and thanks, all that as you would think goes a really long way. Like I do, I just keep going and going and going, right?

Anita Brikman: Energizer Bunny, with a deep voice from Queens.

Mike Donnantuono: I did hear myself drop the R of something earlier, I think that's that successor.

Anita Brikman: That's fantastic. Really quickly, you did mention learning something from another CHPA member. I think a lot of people in the general public don't quite understand what this whole association thing is about, right? Why is there a need for an association for all these different industries, et cetera, what have you gained from membership and do you still think it's valuable? And what would you tell newcomers to our industry about the community and association like CHPA provides?

Mike Donnantuono: Well, being that... Okay. Can I start this piece?

Anita Brikman: Yes you can. Yeah. So what would you tell a newcomer to our industry about what an association like CHPA provides?

Mike Donnantuono: Well, I don't know how much I would bless every association that I've seen or been a part of but I will tell you that CHPA if anything is becoming more valuable over time. Our company has been associated for a while, it was almost resistant 15 years ago getting more involved but the people have strengthened the participation of the manufacturers, has deepened and therefore the brainpower in the room when OTC issues are being addressed has become stronger and therefore more valuable to everybody. But I will say to the regulatory environment, it has become more complex, more difficult, more change than ever before and it is just really critical in our business that you're able to stay out ahead of our regulatory whether it's local and that's the other thing.

Mike Donnantuono: We used to think about the FDA, you mentioned monograph reform, the amount of local state legislation on issues ranging from environmental considerations in OTC products, from take back sustainability issues, for us being a lip care company as our flagship line, having the sunscreen changes and what's acceptable, what kind of testing, these things without CHPA and peers that can help us really understand the various choices we have and moving forward as changes occur, it's like walking into a room filled with wonderful consultants in a very complex industry. And I think there's a lot of things that whether it's large or small companies, there are trends and regulatory trends in particular that affect us all. If you're asking about the value with CHPA, it's really interesting to me, I absolutely believe that one of the great roles that CHPA plays and particularly when you're in the OTC but still drug arena and now that CHPA is operating in a nutritional arena and in the devices arena, there is a credibility because of the responsibility with which CHPA its members address our industry but also the industries that affect us.

Mike Donnantuono: I mean, you take a look at nutritionals and the claims that have been made there and really quite the stretch and the reach and CHPA sometimes even will agree with the FDA that there needs to be increased regulation and in part to keep others from undermining the trust that the consumer should have in our industry and in any healthcare product that they take. CHPA plays a major role, Anita your own efforts with the education foundation, they've just taking a look at all of the drug information and the safety in particular, whether it's because products are being misused, extra morphine, pseudoephedrine, you guys have done campaigns that have proven and attested to really help stem the tide of some things. And beyond that, simple drug safety, I think of your children, keeping, in the family, drugs out of reach of children. There's just-

Anita Brikman: That's right. Up and away and out of sight.

Mike Donnantuono: There you go. And I think it's just I like the fact that I think that the players in that room will not allow other players to be irresponsible and only attuned to their own bottom line. And I think that's become increasingly so in that room and that's tough. I'm not sure I see a lot of industries doing quite as much, I don't want to call it soul searching, that's a little bit of a reach, but self-consciousness of what the meaning of their actions really are, I think the people in that room increasingly so are reflecting that and that's a good thing. As part of the CHPA benefits by the way, I also want to say this too, associate members, you never know when you're going to need them is the funny thing.

Anita Brikman: So just for those that don't know what that is. They're not the makers of our products, right? But they are people that you work with.

Mike Donnantuono: That's right. And they can range anywhere. And I'll just tell the story of just a couple that come right off my mind, I mean, I knew these people because they would ask for quick meetings, 10 minute meetings of various conferences, and they help support the organization and they often bring information to the organization that even if you don't do business with them, just understanding their areas of expertise and they're sharing that with us in public presentations, things like that, that's part of the value.

Mike Donnantuono: But having people that you've seen kind of vetted, other people in the industry are using, when suddenly the need emerges, I know at one point I had been introduced several times to a business insurance organization that was a member of CHPA and they've worked with a lot of OTC companies and when my CFO in an operating committee meeting made it clear that he was dissatisfied with our current insurance company and was putting the thing up for bed, all I did was throw their hat in the ring and said, hey, I have no skin in this game, they seem to be pretty solid based on what I know, but they've had the business now for about a decade. But again, just knowing they were there, knowing my company had a need and knew them for years, put them together, got out of the way and they wanted the business. So, I mean, even if it doesn't pay off immediately, the connections that you make there, they can really be efficient.

Anita Brikman: Last question, most important question right now. What's next for Mike D?

Mike Donnantuono: Oh well, first thing is I got to take care of two bum hips at some point and I know if Europe clears I tend to go eat and drink there for a little bit as soon as we're able to go back there. But I think what my goal is at this point, and as I said, the metaphor of repotting the plant and trying to make it grow in a different way, you can do the same thing for a certain number of years and if I feel like I still have energy and any skills to give, ideally I'd love to find a way to work on social policy, failing that, there's a couple of causes in mind that I hope can use my skills too.

Mike Donnantuono: I'm not in huge rush to get onto it but hopefully within a year or so, I'll be getting much more serious about not just winding it back a little and getting away from 60 hour weeks but really trying to do something meaningful and different from what I've done before. I don't want to characterize it as more meaningful but hopefully it is in my mind if nowhere else. And if not, I won't be golfing but if I can't find a place to put my skills I'll probably read the 200 books I wish I'd read.

Anita Brikman: Wow, that's a tough one to top. Mike Donnantuono, thank you for being with me here.

Mike Donnantuono: Oh, my pleasure Anita. I hope it's worthwhile for somebody who's listening, it's always worthwhile talking to you and I will miss you and the other folks at CHPA. I mean, I would say that I was not only hesitant but I really would have never expected to have the affection that I have for your organization and it's done nothing but grow as the people have evolved and as the organization has increased its mission, you guys are incredibly impressive. And as I said before, I'm direct and I don't praise like that lightly. So good luck to you, you've done a great job and I really do wish everyone the best moving forward.

Anita Brikman: Thank you Mike, be well.

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Mike Donnantuono Headshot
Former President, Blistex

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