Max C. Downham
International College of Surgeons
For his outstanding leadership in international business development in the food and pharmaceutical industries, and for his service to humanity.
Sweet Success: Farm Boy to Engineer to Executive
“If I’d tried to predict your career,” one of Max Downham’s mentors told him once, “it would have been impossible or next to it.”
A farm boy from Carroll County, Indiana, Downham took a path through Purdue, the Navy, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and a career spanning nuclear medicine, the successful launch of the sweetener NutraSweet, and the International College of Surgeons. He didn’t set a career path for himself, but he relishes the opportunities for change and growth that his professional life have made possible.
Downham had a high school chemistry teacher whose influence spurred him to pursue his interest in math and the sciences through a chemical engineering degree. “Certainly Purdue was in my mind because of its reputation,” he says, “and I was a beneficiary, fortunately, of a full naval ROTC scholarship. Purdue had an open slot.”
On campus, Downham’s chemical engineering curriculum introduced him to nuclear engineering, a discipline he found intriguing. “For whatever reason,” he says, “that interest carried over into the Navy, where I rode a destroyer and dealt with nuclear weapons one way or another, and into my early post-MBA experience in industry, where I went to work for a small firm called Nuclear-Chicago Corporation, which focused on in vivo nuclear medical imaging and in vitro testing.”
When pharmaceutical company G. D. Searle acquired Nuclear-Chicago, Downham—who was drawn to the business side of engineering—found himself reporting to CEO Donald Rumsfeld, now U.S. secretary of defense, who made Fortune magazine’s list of the country’s 10 toughest bosses while executing a financial turnaround of Searle and pushing a new sugar-free sweetener, NutraSweet (aspartame generic), forward for FDA approval. Downham headed corporate planning under Rumsfeld and went on to become corporate secretary. “My learning curve,” Downham recalls, “was almost vertical. Working with Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Robson [executive vice president] was a highlight of my business experience.”
After winning FDA approval for NutraSweet, Searle offered Downham the opportunity to market the product internationally through the autonomous NutraSweet Company. “We did something that had never been done before: branding an ingredient,” says Downham. “A lesson I learned is that if you have a really new good product with a lot of potential, it must not be hampered by other existing product lines. There’s always competition for resources.”
Joining the International College of Surgeons
Downham retired from NutraSweet in 1995 but didn’t want to stop working (still doesn’t, he says). His background in nuclear medical instrumentation and pharmaceuticals, his international perspective, and his civic leadership, particularly through years of membership on the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago Board of Directors and service as chair of the Board of Directors of United Way of Illinois, attracted the attention of the Chicago-based International College of Surgeons (ICS), which was seeking an executive director.
“One of the things I’ve discovered in my life is that I feel a little bit better when I’m trying to help out and do some good for others,” says Downham. “So I was attracted to this position.” He joined ICS in late 1996.
“Our overarching vision,” he says, “is to improve the lives of patients around the world through the development of our members and the advancement of the field.” And the organization’s mission? To teach, research, communicate, and lead. The only surgical society affiliated with the World Health Organization, the ICS federation counts approximately 8,000 general surgeons and surgical specialists, from more than 100 countries, as members. ICS surgical teams have gone on humanitarian missions in countries around the world, from Bolivia to Malawi to Pakistan.
Change, Uncertainty, and Peter Drucker
The common thread running throughout Downham’s career is change. “The challenge that I found at Searle and NutraSweet is that not everybody thinks the same, not everybody embraces change readily,” he says. “The challenge was to get the necessary agreement, in many cases when other people were focused on their existing products or just basically on how things had been done before.”
A multiyear consulting relationship_with management expert Peter Drucker—_a highlight of Downham’s career—provided instructive perspective on change and uncertainty. “At NutraSweet, we always worried about what would happen if another competitor came along with a product as good as or better than ours,” Downham says. “We were a one-product business and very vulnerable. We could go down as fast as we went up. Basically, Peter said that you’ve got to find a way to scan your competition to minimize the element of surprise as fast as you can. He said we’d figure it out. He never told you the answers but asked you a lot of questions that made you think about it for yourself.”
Asking questions, being open, assimilating information—these are ways to become comfortable with uncertainty, Downham says. “Today’s graduates have to be aware of what they know and what they don’t know, and they have to be willing to constantly learn. I think they should find something that they really like to do and enjoy. Success is more likely to happen that way.”