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Growing Globally

As the longtime leader of Pfizer Inc.'s HR, Rob Norton has been an instrumental piece of the company's global vision, expansion and cohesiveness.

Thursday, October 2, 2003
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Like thousands of other young men, Rob Norton was in a constant state of battle. It was the late 1960s and the Vietnam War was in full swing.

As a captain in the Marine Corps, he was responsible for managing and training soldiers, which actually advanced his interest in HR. But his initial attraction to the profession began in college, when he was studying labor economics. The rigorous coursework provided him with a strategic and analytical framework for human behavior.

Little did he realize that his academic and military experiences would prepare him for an HR career that would span 34 years.

Norton, the senior vice president of corporate HR at Pfizer Inc., a global pharmaceutical company that supports approximately 130,000 employees, has held more than a dozen HR positions at Pfizer since 1969 and has helped build the organization, through his people leadership, into the billion-dollar research-based corporation it is today.

It's in recognition of his leadership and his global HR vision that Human Resource Executive has named him one of this year's HR Honor Roll recipients. Here is a brief look at his life and his story.

Global Awareness

Norton graduated in 1965 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from Princeton University. Shortly after landing a job selling soap for Proctor & Gamble, he was drafted into the military. After a three-year tour of duty, he was hired in 1969 by the New York-based corporate personnel division of Pfizer, a provider of human, animal and consumer pharmaceutical products.

During the next five years, he held multiple positions, including HR director for Pfizer's materials science and chemical divisions. He was in charge of six West Coast locations before being transferred to Pfizer's international division. In 1974, he moved to Nairobi, Kenya, to serve as the director of personnel for the Africa/Middle East region, becoming the company's first HR executive to work in this part of the world.

"I operated in a highly decentralized environment," he says. "The diversity was incredible with multiple countries and cultures. There was a lot of tension in these countries. We had at least three revolutions."

Besides learning to dodge charging elephants, he says, the experience taught him the inherent value of different cultures.

As a result, he was promoted to vice president of personnel for Pfizer Europe in 1979. He relocated to Brussels, where the company was restructuring and downsizing its 9,000 employees while globalizing its business lines.

He struggled most when dealing with business units in the United Kingdom. "We spoke the same language so we thought we understood each other," he says, explaining that he worked hard at being even-handed with everything from perks to policies.

He then returned to the United States in 1982 as director of employee relations for the company's international division. Two years later, he left the company to head up HR at a smaller pharmaceutical firm -- the Rorer Group in Philadelphia -- where he learned to make rapid decisions and develop more confidence in his abilities.

But 18 months later, he moved back to Pfizer to accept his dream job -- as senior international HR executive. When the division evolved into the Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group in 1997, he was appointed its senior vice president of employee resources.

Building a Legacy

Norton's long list of accomplishments continued to grow. In his new job, he transformed HR's decentralized field offices into an aligned body that functions on a global scale and replaced the company's traditional year-end bonus for country managers with incentive-based pay.

Now they have to meet tough criteria like increase annual revenues by 20 percent and improve profit margins by 10 percent over five years. Initially, resistance was fierce but Norton's leadership skills converted many and the new pay system now is the basis for Pfizer's incentive-based pay plan worldwide.

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His efforts didn't go unnoticed. When the company combined its U.S. and international pharmaceutical businesses in 2000, Norton was named senior vice president of corporate HR.

Since then, he's been very busy.

Consider Pfizer's $90 billion acquisition of Warner-Lambert Co. in 2000. It was Pfizer's first acquisition, and grew the size of its workforce from 50,000 employees to 90,000 almost overnight. Norton recalls working seven days a week for six months out of the almost two-year process.

Under his leadership, the HR department designed many tools to ensure a smooth transition like managers' guidelines to decision-making and selection processes, a retention program and a comprehensive talent-assessment process. Soon, employee productivity increased and the company's earnings per share climbed by 25 percent over a three-year period, which exceeded Pfizer's original financial goals.

Last year, Pfizer also acquired Pharmacia Corp., which was composed of four merged companies. Once again, Norton integrated their cultures into Pfizer's, creating a unified workforce. At least employees seem to think so. Of the 90 percent who responded to a recent survey, 88 percent either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement: "I am proud to work at Pfizer."

As the business has become more globalized, Norton has recently begun searching for a doorway to establish HR's agenda. He recently formed the Human Resource Leadership Council, composed of 12 senior HR executives from Pfizer's different businesses.

"We use it to drive consensus and action plans," he says, adding that the council reports to Pfizer's leadership team. "It enables us to take a highly decentralized approach to people issues and bring them into a greater deal of alignment."

Norton's future projects are a little less daunting, considering he plans to retire early next year. Looking back at his HR career, he's proud, yet modest about his accomplishments.

"I'm leaving a highly focused and talented HR cadre and a reputation of integrity and focus," says Norton. "Those are two pretty good things to leave behind."

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