Robert N. Postlethwait

For his outstanding accomplishments as an engineer and executive in the health-care industry, the Schools of Engineering are proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to Robert N. Postlethwait.

President, CNS Business Unit,
Eli Lilly and Company
BSChE '70

Postlethwait bust

On choosing a career

I was influenced very early on in two ways by my parents: My dad, a Purdue biology professor, had a significant impact on my thinking about a technical career, and both my parents always demonstrated a very caring and service-oriented outlook. I am convinced this pointed me in the direction of the health-care industry. Eli Lilly and Company, having a major investment in chemical manufacturing in Lafayette, was an obvious option for me. Studying chemical engineering at Purdue, I was able to do a summer intern job in Lafayette at the Lilly plant. From that point on, I was convinced that a career in pharmaceuticals would offer me the best chance of fulfilling the interests I have.

On his Purdue years

My senior year was complicated by the draft lottery. Many of us were dealing with a tremendous amount of uncertainty about our futures. The labor market was also extremely tight.


Interviewing space with major companies on campus was at a premium, and, needless to say, the whole period was very, very stressful. I was fortunate to be offered a job with Eli Lilly and Company, and, when my lottery number came out at 118, I was fairly secure in being able to start my career in Indianapolis. My wife, Kathi, who has a BS in chemistry, was also offered a job at Lilly in Indianapolis as an analytical chemist, so immediately after graduation we were married and relocated to Indianapolis.

Young Postlethwait bust

On his career

My wife and I did not set out for an international career; however, once out of the U.S., one thing led to another, and the international experiences were very rewarding. Our initial assignment was serendipitous in that the company was considering building an agricultural/chemical facility in Brazil that was very similar to the one I had just been involved in designing in the U.S. After considerable debate, Kathi and I decided to accept the position (both of us had just finished our master's programs at Butler University). While in Brazil, I changed careers from chemical engineering to marketing and business. After that, we went where the company offered us the opportunity to go. During the 25 years we have been with Lilly, we have moved 11 times and lived on three continents. Our older daughter, Megan, has lived in five different countries: Argentina, Brazil, Italy, the U.K., and the U.S.

On challenges for the future

The customer for the pharmaceutical industry is changing so quickly that anyone in a position like mine must have assurance that the people in the organization are very much in line with the strategy, supportive of the strategy, and totally competent to act independently in the best interests of the company and its customers, both short-term and strategically. Providing people the capacity to act is one of the major challenges I have to focus on. The era is long past when one or two people could understand the marketplace well enough to make all the decisions on a centralized basis and drive those through the organization.

On how he's changed

I approach issues now with a much more global perspective. I was a Lafayette boy. I had some sense of horizons beyond Indiana (my family had interesting sabbaticals to the U.K. while I was growing up), but it was very ill defined. Now I recognize how small the world really is. I have been exposed to completely different cultures, lifestyles, and standards of living. In Brazil we lived in the interior of Sao Paulo State for four years and witnessed a completely different quality of life and problems in daily living, which helps keep in perspective issues that my family and I face daily here in Indianapolis.

On Purdue education and learning

One thing that I am very proud of, and that always makes me feel good, is my chemical engineering degree from Purdue. It is a source of pride to have it on my curriculum vitae. I think over the years that the School of Chemical Engineering builds and enhances its reputation as being one of the top schools in the country.

One comment I would make on the B.S. program is that there needs to be significant focus on preparing graduates for a life of learning. We must, as professionals, continue to renew ourselves so that we have the ability tomorrow to add even more value to our enterprise or our customers than we have today. We should always be ready to celebrate milestones or achievements but then immediately move on. Continuing to learn and grow is one of the essentials of life and self-management.


President, Central Nervous System (CNS) Business Unit, Eli Lilly. Heads one of Lilly's three main pharmaceutical business units accounting for $1.2 billion in annual sales.
Vice President, Global CNS Planning. Developed focus for a new business area.
Area Vice President and Vice President, Pharmaceutical Operations. Helped reorganize Lilly's European operations.
Executive Director, Engineering. Oversaw growth in capital projects from $550 million to $1.15 billion.
President and General Manager, Eli Lilly Brazil, Sao Paulo.
General Manager, Eli Lilly Argentina, Buenos Aires.
Director, AgChem Marketing, Lilly International, Florence, Italy.
Marketing Advisor, Latin America, Elanco Products Co.
Project Manager, Brazil AgChem Mfg., Cosmopolis, Brazil.
Manager, Construction Nitration Project, Eli Lilly Brazil, Cosmopolis.
Manager, Construction and Operations, Eli Lilly Brazil, Cosmopolis. Built state-of-the-art chemical manufacturing facility at two thirds' estimated cost.
Project Engineer, Eli Lilly.
Staff Engineer, Eli Lilly.

BSChE '70, Purdue; MBA '74, Butler; Advanced Management Program, Harvard Graduate School of Business, 1988.