Neil Matheson’s first job was as a PE teacher in his native New Zealand - but his career has swivelled to another side of health, becoming CEO of healthcare communications firms Huntsworth Health and Axis Healthcare Communications. Matheson first entered the pharmaceutical industry as a sales rep for Ciba-Geigy in 1983, moved to the US with Adis International before starting his AXIS Healthcare Communications firm in 1999. He sold AXIS to UK firm Huntsworth plc in 2007, becoming Global CEO of Huntsworth Health in 2009. US-based Matheson has served on the Boards of the American Lung Association, St Mary’s Hospital, and the Alumni Of The University of Otago in America; enthusiastic about promoting New Zealand in the US he has also been involved in the Ambassadors Shield rugby match with the NZ Ambassador for the past 15 years. His newest - and Nurole-appointed - role is as Chair of Atlantis Healthcare, a private equity-backed firm focusing on health psychology and behavioural change programs.
You started your career as a PE teacher - how did you end up in health comms?
I have a diploma in physical education and taught for a couple of years at a boys’ school in Auckland, but I realised it wasn’t going to be a lifelong career for me. I loved the idea of imparting knowledge to kids - but I’ve always wanted to build things and achieve bigger goals - sitting in a staff room in a high school with 30-year veteran teachers who had only experienced the institutional world doesn’t always motivate you to do such lofty things!
I wanted more of a challenge, so I joined the pharmaceutical industry as a sales rep, calling on doctors and pharmacists. After two other roles I moved into medical publishing, and became GM of the New Zealand operations of Adis International; three years later they asked me to go to the States in 1989 to help build the US business.
When they sold Adis in 1994 I wanted to stay in the US and I founded OCC North America and then in 1999 I started ApotheCom, which became part of a larger umbrella organization, AXIS Healthcare, which comprised 5 specialised healthcare comms agencies. I sold to [Lord Chadlington’s industry giant] Huntsworth in 2007 establishing a US presence for Huntsworth and a European presence for AXIS. I ran Huntsworth Health globally between 2009 and 2017 growing it from a circa US$45 million business to US$180 million.
How has your comms experience fed your board roles?
Whilst you’re in the thick of things, growing and expanding a business, you don’t often sit down and think, ‘I’ve learnt a lot’, or ‘wow I’ve got a lot of knowledge and information that I could impart to others.’ So when you pause and think, ‘where am I, and what do I do now?’ you realise you actually have knowledge and experience that enables you to consult with clients and help them solve their business problems and the ability to mentor and develop people who have aspirations to achieve great success. The transition from being a leader by example to being an advisor and provoker of thoughtful decision-making is an easy one.
I’ve been really stimulated by the realisation that the knowledge is there and it’s valuable. You don’t go around saying, ‘I’m getting really smart now, I can help somebody’, you just go about your business - but when you’re in a position to join a board you can become a mentor and advisor to the executive team and really help them grow the business and themselves.
What’s your board style?
With Atlantis, the CEO and I get on very well, and I see it as a mentoring role: I’m quite happy rolling up my sleeves to help. I’ve seen a lot of boards where the members are very pompous and sit there and pontificate, but never really do anything to help the business or the executive running the business. I think boards should fully understand the business and be able to provide support for management - not to do the job of CEO or CFO but challenge them to be the best they can be.
I’m very driven by teamwork and motivating teams: when you are a member of a team that celebrates the successful implementation of a plan or the delivery of a project together, it’s far more exciting and rewarding.
How do you think behavioural learnings - as is in use at Atlantis - and AI will affect the future of healthcare?
One major problem that healthcare has never really challenged itself to address is the fact that people inherently don’t want to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing—and many simply don’t take medicine – they are chronic non-adherers. This healthcare behaviour is quite astonishing and the horrific obesity problem and associated diabetes epidemic we have worldwide is evidence that people don’t really care about their health. Atlantis is in a really good place to help tackle this issue as it comes at the problem from a behavioural psychology perspective - they understand how people’s health persona’s, perceptions, and beliefs impact their healthcare behaviour how to develop programs that precipitate behavioural change. There’s a lot of opportunities there.
What can the NHS learn or adopt from best-in-class private healthcare companies abroad?
I think the challenge is not so much how do you provide the best quality care - everyone’s striving to do that - but how to get people to take more responsibility for their own health, and understand that they might have to pay some of the cost of care. There’s a belief, when it comes to healthcare, that it should be free; we don’t hesitate to start saving to buy a house or to send our kids to University, but when it comes to health no one saves or puts money aside to pay for care when they need it. But they will pay for aesthetics like Botox or Juvederm. That’s the real challenge for payers—getting people to engage and take some responsibility for cost control.
The world’s rapidly ageing population is putting a huge toll on healthcare systems both public and private; personalized medicine means more drugs targeted to smaller groups of people changing the whole pricing model for therapies – there are a lot of different dynamics driving the need for significant change in the way healthcare is delivered and paid for. We have to remember, though, how lucky we are to be living in developed countries, where the healthcare systems are pretty robust and access to quality care is not a problem—irrespective of the public and private payer issues.
How did you find the Nurole experience?
I think Nurole is a really good concept and platform, filling a void and meeting an unmet need. The sourcing of experienced people to become board members is an interesting challenge: when I first wanted to be considered for a board position, it wasn’t easy to know who to call. But someone introduced me to a position at Nurole, and once I registered and my name was in the system I was asked if I would like to be considered for the Atlantis position.
How did rugby inform your career/management?
Growing up in New Zealand, rugby was a religion, my dad was a player, coach, and administrator so my brothers and I followed in his footsteps. I played for some amazing teams with great coaches and it taught me a lot about how people with different functions can focus on their task whilst interacting with each other to implement a game plan that leads to success as a team. I really enjoy the comradery of rugby too - playing together as a team, and then celebrating a win together as a team - builds relationships that make the team more than just a group of players on the field together. That translates into business too: if you have talented people who respect each other’s roles and get along really well at work, and share downtime at an occasional picnic or barbecue, it motivates people to achieve great things together.
And now for some quick-fire Qs:
‘Peak Performance - Business Lessons from the World’s Top Sports Organizations’ by Clive Gilson and, ‘Life’ by Keith Richards (Rolling Stones).
‘It is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt’.
Thanksgiving. No gifts—just a time to be thankful for everything you have in life.
What do you do to have fun?
Play golf, eat good food and drink good wine with my wife, travelling and enjoying other people, cultures, and of course their food.
When does your alarm go off and how many hours of sleep do you have on average?
I don’t use an alarm. I wake up at 4.30am every morning. I try to get to bed by 9pm which gives me 7-8 hrs sleep. 4.30am comes from all those years working with a UK-based company and wanting to have as much time as possible to talk with my UK colleagues before the end of their day (there is an 8-hr time difference with San Diego). It’s nice and quiet in my home office at that time of the morning—the dogs are all still sleeping and our 15 year old gets up at 7.15am for school so I get a lot done in the early hours before everyone decides to start their day.
If you are looking for senior executive and non-executive director roles, Nurole's innovative recruitment platform can help.