Why the CEO Behind the EpiPen Controversy Remains One of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women

Mylan CEO Heather Bresch in her office at Mylan HQ in Cannonsburg PA
Mylan CEO Heather Bresch in her office at Mylan HQ in Cannonsburg PA
Andrew Hetherington

Fortune’s annual Most Powerful Women list isn’t typically all that controversial. But there’s one woman on our 2016 ranking, out today, who has lately been depicted as more villain than heroine: Mylan (MYL) CEO Heather Bresch.

Bresch, who has become embroiled in scandal in recent weeks over her 500% increase in the cost of Mylan’s EpiPen, first landed on Fortune’s MPW list in 2012, shortly after she became CEO of the generic drug company. Back then she ranked No. 47 on the 50-person list; today, she comes in at No. 23, just one spot down from her rank in 2015, when she faced a different controversy—one surrounding her bitter love triangle of hostile takeover battles. (For more on that, see my profile, “Why Wall Street Loves to Hate Mylan’s CEO.”)

Some might wonder why Fortune chose to keep her on the list at all, or why we didn’t drop her further down the ranking to reflect the universally negative backlash her actions have provoked. After all, just last week a Mylan spokesperson had to deny rumors that Bresch was resigning, after protesters had called for her to step down. Mylan also repeatedly declined to fact-check information included in Fortune’s bio of Bresch as part of this year’s MPW list, saying, “She does not want to participate.” (Fortune’s list ranks the most powerful women in business regardless of whether they choose to cooperate or not, and we verified our facts with other official sources.)

Here’s the short answer: The Most Powerful Women list is a ranking of just that, the female executives with the most power and influence in business today. There are no criteria for whether they wield that power virtuously or not. If anything, the revelations of the EpiPen price hikes have illustrated just how much power Bresch has—in business, in the pharmaceutical industry, and in the households of thousands of families who rely on EpiPen to save the lives of their loved ones who suffer from anaphylactic allergic reactions when they eat peanuts or get stung by a bee (among other potentially fatal triggers).

But strictly by the numbers, Bresch’s record and stature speak for themselves, putting her unquestionably in the highest echelon of business leaders—male or female. She is still the only woman to ever run a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical firm; had Mylan not inverted to the Netherlands last year, making it ineligible for the 500 (which ranks U.S.-based companies), it would have ranked slightly below eBay (EBAY) on this year’s list. In 2015, Mylan reported $9.4 billion in revenue, an increase of more than 50% from when Bresch took the reins at the company in 2012.

Bresch has also been good for Mylan’s stock price historically. Though Mylan’s shares have been punished amid the EpiPen firestorm and general pharma stock selloff—down 25% year to date—they have returned 88% since she became CEO, double the returns of the company’s biggest rival, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (TEVA), over the same period. Not including dividends (which Mylan doesn’t pay), Mylan’s stock has also outperformed the S&P 500’s 74% rise during that timeframe. By comparison, in the previous nine years under Bresch’s male predecessor, Mylan’s stock only rose 48%.

That performance is particularly impressive coming from a woman who never dreamed of becoming CEO when she first took a menial labeling job at Mylan some 25 years ago, fresh out of college. Since then, she has literally worked her way up from the basement of Mylan’s factory in West Virginia to her palatial corner office at the company’s current headquarters outside Pittsburgh. Indeed, the only reason Bresch fell a spot in our MPW ranking this year is because of a newcomer to the list, Progressive (PGR) CEO Tricia Griffith, whose insurance company has more than twice as much revenue as Mylan.

Yes, EpiPen—with its serial price increases—was integral to Bresch’s career trajectory. Until she was recently accused of price-gouging patients, Bresch wore EpiPen’s success as a badge of pride: Mylan executives give her all the credit for recognizing the potential of the epinephrine auto-injector when Mylan acquired it among a bundle of Merck (MRK) drugs in 2007. (Bresch was put in charge of the Merck integration.) Back then, EpiPen had little brand recognition and less than $200 million in annual sales; by 2014, Bresch had quintupled its revenues to $1 billion per year—making EpiPen Mylan’s first blockbuster drug.

She did it by pouring marketing dollars into the product, and by flexing her own political muscles (her father is U.S. Senator Joe Manchin) on Capitol Hill, lobbying for new state laws to allow or require schools to carry extra EpiPens in case of emergencies; such laws now exist in 47 states, up from about 11 when Bresch started her campaign in 2012. Still, those same efforts, which Mylan was touting in press releases just a couple of weeks ago, also took on a sour note this week when the New York Attorney General announced he was investigating Mylan for potentially violating antitrust laws to get EpiPens into schools.

A poster commemorating EpiPen's $1 billion annual sales milestone is displayed in Mylan CEO Heather Bresch's office in Canonsburg, PA, with the slogan "Extraordinary leadership, extraordinary results: Doing good & doing well at the same time."
A poster commemorating EpiPen’s $1 billion annual sales milestone is displayed in Mylan CEO Heather Bresch’s office in Canonsburg, PA, with the slogan “Extraordinary leadership, extraordinary results: Doing good & doing well at the same time.”Photograph by Jen Wieczner — Fortune
Photograph by Jen Wieczner — Fortune

Yet as the EpiPen storm around her continues to rage—and threatens to get even worse before blowing over—Bresch appears to be pushing on with her ambitions to grow Mylan into a diversified pharmaceutical company that makes far more than just generic drugs. Mylan also just completed its $7.2 billion acquisition of Meda in August, and expects to grow sales 12% to 22% this year, to up to $11.5 billion. At that rate, Bresch may rank even higher on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list next year.

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