Students get career tips from CVS top man


Jonathan C. Roberts was on his way to Washington last Wednesday “to meet with the government and give them some ideas on how to better manage health care costs.” But before he left, he made a detour to address the Hawks Business Club at Hendricken High.

Roberts, who is executive vice president of CVS Caremark Corporation and president of the company’s pharmacy services division, is no stranger to the school. Both of Roberts’ sons, Jon and Patrick, are graduates of the school, but this was his first appearance before the business club

And, while Roberts talked about CVS’ bold decision to end the sale of tobacco in its stores, costing $2 billion in sales and $300 million in profits, his talk in the school’s theater was more of a fatherly chat than a tutorial on the company’s business strategy.

“We’re a health care company,” Roberts said, “the biggest in the country, and how can you call yourself a health care company and sell tobacco?”

Before going any further, Roberts asked how many of his audience of about 125 boys were considering a career in business. When just about every hand was raised, Roberts assured them, “there are a lot of different things to do in the business world; you’ll never get bored.”

He attributed his ability to climb the corporate ladder to a variety of factors, the greatest being work.

“You outwork everyone around you. There’s no substitute for hard work,” he said.

Roberts’ career started with Peoples Drug Store in Washington. That chain was acquired by CVS and opportunities opened up to work in different sectors of the business. While some jobs were lateral moves and not ones he would have picked, Roberts took on the challenges. It was a maneuver he advised students to take.

“Don’t think there is just one way to rise through the company,” he said. And, he observed, “The more you know about a company, the more valuable you become.”

Roberts’ ascension at CVS took him from area vice president of stores in 1997 to senior vice president in five years. He went on to become chief information officer for Caremark and then went into purchasing where he was executive vice president of pharmacy purchasing, pricing and network relations. He worked another two years in the company’s pharmacy benefit management division before being promoted to his current position two years ago.

“I never really worked to move up, but to do the best that I could,” he said.

Stress is also a part of the job.

As the leader of a division with 30,000 employees, Roberts knows he will be faced with problems. “It’s part of the job. I’m not sure what’s going to go wrong,” he said, “but I’m certain it’s going to go wrong.” He said he makes a clear division from work and home.

“When I’m home, I’m home … you need to make time for yourself,” he said.

Yet part of the job is being under pressure, and it’s an aspect he likes.

“Stress is part of the interest of the job; it keeps you going,” he said.

As for climbing the corporate ladder, Roberts cited his own experience. He advised to “pick a person you think is doing well and look to move with them.” Roberts urged students to get goals for themselves and once in a job, to think of their career and let their employer know of how they would like to progress. He also talked about leadership. He said influencing people and getting them to take ownership is more effective than telling them what to do. He said it is important for a leader to listen and to know the technical skills of a job in order to build a team.

“So, what skills are more important to being successful in business?” asked Beth Thompson.

Calling it critical, Roberts cited communication, both verbal and written skills. Being an English teacher, Thompson was pleased with his answer.

Roberts was also asked what its like to do business in Rhode Island.

“I think there’s the opportunity for Rhode Island to do a lot more to be corporate friendly,” he said, adding, “There’s not a lot of options here for young people.”

He doesn’t see CVS ever moving its headquarters from the state.

“I think Rhode Island is a great state but it could be more business friendly,” he said.


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