The Interview Issue: Peck’s first 12 months as Zoetis’ CEO have been unprecedented, thanks to COVID, but she won top honors for helping her animal health company adapt — and thrive

Kristin Peck, CEO, Zoetis

Krisitin Peck is the head of Zoetis, the Fortune 500 company in Parsippany that you’ve probably heard of — and certainly benefit from — but likely don’t fully understand just what it does.

Don’t worry, Peck has her elevator speech ready.

“If you have a dog or cat on your couch, or you like to drink milk or eat protein, we affect your life in some way,” she said.

She’s just getting started. You see, Zoetis — which began as a spinoff of Pfizer in 2013 — is more than just an animal health care company, though it does that very well. It’s a sustainability company built for today and tomorrow.

“When I think about the company, I think we serve a social purpose: To bring companionship to people and to create a safe and affordable food supply,” Peck said. “And the way we do that is through creating medicines, vaccines, diagnostics, devices, nutritional items for pretty much every species of animal other than humans, although we actually now do human products as well.”

Impressed? We were. So was Fortune. That’s why it named Peck as one of its 20 Top Businesspersons of the Year for 2020. And why we’re glad she agreed to talk with ROI-NJ as part of our Interview Issue, our year-end look at some of the most inspiring and intriguing people in business and government around the state.

Peck, who has been with the company since its outset, but assumed the CEO role on Jan. 1, talked with us on a digital call earlier this month. Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for clarity and space:

ROI-NJ: Let’s stay with the big-picture view of the company, which has facilities on every continent and in 45 total countries.

Kristin Peck: We have about 11,000 colleagues and revenues of $6.5 billion. It’s been an amazing ride to be part of Zoetis. We’ve been growing the company since 2013 — that’s 7% to 8% top-line growth per year. That’s above market growth. 

The one thing that differentiates us is innovation. We’re bringing new products to market constantly. It means we touch lives across the board. 

You can talk about our diversification of Zoetis by species, pets and livestock, but also by geography. If you look at our sales, 55% is pet care and 45% is livestock. And our sales are about 50% U.S. and 50% outside the U.S. 

So, we’re spread out across the world in a lot of ways. That means, when we hit recessions or pandemics, we’re a very resilient company. That was really the story in 2020. 

ROI: How did that help you during the COVID-19 pandemic, which seemingly stopped everything in its tracks?

KP: Livestock got hit very hard by COVID, but our pet care business was phenomenal. People adopted more pets, they spent more time at home with their pets and they notice more conditions with their pets. The diversification of the company has been core to our story since our (initial public offering). No matter what happens in the world, disease outbreak, weather issues — we’re diverse enough that we can make it up somewhere else. It’s a matter of adjusting.

Peck’s favorite New Jerseyan

“I’m obsessed with music. I like lots of genres of music, films. But my favorite concert I ever went to was my favorite artist: Lauryn Hill (of South Orange). She was incredibly innovative and disruptive in the music that she came out with. When she did her first solo album, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,’ which is actually the concert I went to at (Madison Square Garden), she tells story so compellingly and she just mixes genres and does cool collaboration. So, as just an artist, and probably one of my favorite people, would be Lauryn Hill.”

Peck notes this fact: The then-little-known artist who plays piano on some of Hill’s album is John Legend (he was 19 at the time — and known as John Stephens).

Peck’s favorite thing about New Jersey

“The parks. I’m an outdoor person, and I think New Jersey is one of the most beautiful states. I love the state parks. There’s a million I could list. More specifically: I would say it’s Palisades Interstate Park. I’ve been going with my family hiking there since COVID started. It sort of lets you lose yourself in nature and the majesty of the views. And it’s challenging hiking, if you’ve ever done it.”

People didn’t bring their pets to the vet for the first month or two of the pandemic. And then, vets very quickly innovated to curbside check-ins. So, very quickly, the pet business recovered. Livestock was a little more challenging. But what was amazing was the resiliency of our colleagues and our customers. We had to think very quickly about how we could ensure we maintain manufacturing operations and biologics facilities or pharmaceutical facilities, or diagnostics, reference labs — we actually do COVID testing for dogs and cats. And that required a lot of adjustment. But, I think one thing everyone across the world realized is that our colleagues adapted much faster than anyone expected. 

We obviously moved office people to work from home, but a large part of our colleague base around the world are in manufacturing sites and distribution centers, which actually had to change how we operated. We had some initial slowness in deliveries, but we figure that out within weeks, and we’ve been able to maintain that supply throughout.

ROI: You have facilities across the globe. How did you manage to organize the team when each country was facing a different set of COVID-related challenges?

KP: I have a cultural belief that you have to empower your local leadership. We set a core principle that our colleagues and our customers need to be safe, and they need to feel safe. But, then, empowered local leadership, because the situation truly was different. So, with the core principles, we let our local leaders decide what to do. I think any company which thought, ‘You can manage this from the center,’ quickly realized you cannot.

ROI: Let’s take things back to the U.S. and New Jersey, where you are the local leadership. You started in the role about six weeks before the state shut down. Talk about your first year as a CEO?

KP: I will say it was not what I expected it to be (she said with a laugh). But, by my nature, I’m an optimist. You have the hand you’re dealt and that’s your opportunity. This year, I’ve learned overcommunication was the key to my success. In times of uncertainty, people want clear leadership, they want to know what’s going on. I think I’ve been able to do that while being authentically me, bringing my full self.

At Zoetis, Big Data means big opportunities

“Data analytics and artificial intelligence seemingly are impacting every sector. Just listen to Kristin Peck, the CEO of Zoetis, a Fortune 500 company that is a global leader in animal health.

“Digital and data is core to what we do as a company and has been — and it’s accelerating,” she said. “To give you a few specific examples: We’re the world leader in genetic testing for livestock. That’s Big Data. That’s mapping the genome of an animal into helping inform a producer if that animal is more likely to get ill or more likely to get diseases. So, you can breed animals that are healthier — and there will be fewer animals that are likely to need antibiotics or get metritis or disease.

“But, really, where we’ve been expanding it is diagnostics. We just launched a product, Vetscan Imagyst, which is the first artificially intelligent diagnostic that does fecal. So, when your dog goes to the vet, they take a fecal sample to analyze. Today, that means a manual look under a microscope or it means you have to send it away. We can now prep it quickly, put it on a slide, take a photo and upload it. Then, using artificial intelligence, we can tell you whether or not that animal has a parasite and, if so, what parasite. And it takes a photo, so the vet can better engage the pet owner who thinks their pet is fine.

“So, artificial intelligence is critical. We’re also in that space in livestock. If you think about ear tags for cows that can monitor their health and tell when they’re sick or ready to breed. And we also help companies in the beef space, which is really about analyzing just how to keep animals healthier, longer. I think that really is what consumers want. And I think it’s the really the future of livestock. So, both on the pet care side and livestock side, digital and data is the future of animal health.”

I’m a working mother. So, I’m managing two kids trying to figure out the virtual school thing, too. And I think that helped me be more understanding or empathetic to the situations that everyone’s facing. I often say we’re all in the same storm, but we have different boats. And therefore, we need different things depending on who’s on our boat and what our boat looks like. 

I may have a nice house where I can work from a guest bedroom. Some people have a small apartment with two kids who are homeschooling. These are very different scenarios with different expectations.

ROI: Let’s talk more on communicating, and the challenge of not being able to communicate face to face.

KP: I looked at my first year and realized I had the opportunity to connect with my colleagues and my customers in very different ways. I’ve actually been able to visit, virtually, more markets than I originally planned. I can do three- to four-hour market visits and I can also quickly jump on a call with the leadership team in a market who accomplishes something great when, historically, I would have been on a plane or sent an email. 

So, I’ve seen it as an interesting opportunity to engage with more people more effectively and faster.

ROI: We should not have to talk about this — but we do have to talk about this: You are a female CEO, which is far from the norm. A female CEO of a Fortune 500 company is even more unusual — even though every study shows having women and minorities in leadership positions makes companies more profitable.

KP: I’m incredibly proud to be a female CEO. I embrace that. Some people prefer to just say CEO; I’m proud to be a female CEO. And I feel like I have a real responsibility to pave the way for the next generation of women leaders at all levels. And I take that responsibility very seriously. 

So, as I look at what we’re seeing, the nice thing is, actually, we are increasing the number of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies and (Standard & Poor’s) 500 companies. So, I think it’s changing, but I see it as just an awesome opportunity to create equity of opportunity. And one of the focus areas we’ve had as a company is publishing our diversity metrics, letting colleagues know where we stand with all of our diversity metrics, and then setting aspirations. I think it’s really about creating equity of opportunity for women, for minorities, for lots of different groups. 

ROI: How so?

KP: You have to create an inclusive culture where everybody thinks they can and feels they can bring their full selves to work. This goes for women, as well as minorities and even white men. The reality is: Diverse companies are not better-performing unless those diverse companies allow every colleague to bring that diversity to every meeting. 

I’m grateful that I work in a company that had diversity as a cornerstone of everything we did. And I’m proud of the work we’ve done this year to move ahead in creating an even more inclusive environment and culture in our company and holding ourselves accountable to increasing that.

ROI: Year One — a year like no other — almost is in the books. What do the coming years look like?

KP: We definitely have goals and milestones. Our goal is to continue to grow faster than the market on the top line. We’ve been able to do that every year, and I certainly hope we do that every year that I am here. At the end of the day, it’s all about driving innovation for our customers.

The good news is that, when I look at my pipeline, I’m excited at the opportunities there. I really feel confident that we can continue to drive growth. As I look into next year, it’s about accelerating the growth. We’re bringing some awesome new technologies, including monoclonal antibodies. We’re talking about them for humans, we already have them in pets and we’re launching new ones, one for dogs, one for cats.

My goal is to continue to innovate and bring new technology and new solutions to customers, and I’m very optimistic on the future.