CEO Profile: Keith Valentine of SeaSpine

Keeping company with the likes of Keith Valentine will keep you on your toes. While he revels in collaboration, if you’re on the other side of the table, watch out…he really likes to take market share.

Valentine, President and Chief Executive Officer of SeaSpine Holdings Company since May 2015, was instrumental in building NuVasive, Inc. into a billion dollar spinal implant supplier and before that cut his leadership teeth at Stryker Corporation and Sofamor Danek.

But before that, he was in high school…and he didn’t have just any teacher.

“My father was transferred to Michigan while I was in high school and one of my teachers was Rosemary Brown, who happened to be the husband of John Brown, the CEO of Stryker,” remembers Valentine.

“Several years later I graduated from Western Michigan University with a B.B.A. in Management and Biomedical Sciences and then went for an interview at Stryker. My last meeting that day was with John Brown, who ended up telling me, ‘You know, Keith. I think your best reference is waiting for me to come home for dinner.’”

Fascinated by the business world, Keith Valentine accepted an offer from Stryker and in 1990 moved from Kalamazoo to San Jose, California to work in the company’s endoscopy division. “It was a great introduction to general surgery and orthopedics with the fastest growing division of Stryker.”

Early in Valentine’s career, an executive who left Stryker, Rogan Fry, reached out for Keith Valentine to join him at Danek. “I began in the company’s spine business in January 1992. Those were the days when the size of the market opportunity was unknown, and the growth was incredible. I came aboard eight months after Danek went public and was on board as we acquired the largest OUS [outside of U.S.] spine business—Sofamor.

“Rogan Fry, who directed Stryker’s international business with me, was a great influence on me. He emphasized the value of establishing clear accountability with distributors and having honest conversations with people. He was able to walk the line between being a manager and being a friend.”

“While at Sofamor Danek my team and I were responsible for the successful completion of clinical trials for BMP [bone morphogenetic protein]. Looking back at my time with NuVasive, I can say that I am proud that a small group of individuals were able to bring the company from zero to almost one billion in sales. Presently, although I inherited a business with declining sales (some parts of the business were down 20%), we were able achieve double digit growth rates.”

Enduring the Crucible of the Pedicle Screw Lawsuit Era

One of Valentine’s most formative experiences was the Pedicle Screw lawsuit era which nearly destroyed Sofamor Danek and the nascent spinal implant industry.

“The mid-1990s was one of the hardest times in the industry because of all the pedicle screw litigation. The screws were only 510(k) cleared for use in the U.S. in the sacrum, not in the pedicle…but most spine surgeons were using them in the pedicle. But Sofamor Danek survived the onslaught.”

When times get tough, the tough lead.

“Over the course of the eight years in Memphis, Danek became Sofamor Danek and was then acquired by Medtronic, I learned to appreciate the nuances and value of excellent leadership.”

The Importance of Friends, Alex Lukianov & Pat Miles

“One of the executives that created the #1 U.S. market share position in spine was Alex Lukianov from Sofamor Danek. He recruited both myself and Pat Miles to NuVasive in late 2000.”

In many ways, Lukianov was getting the band that made Sofamor Danek #1 in spine back together at California-based NuVasive.

Valentine was eager to work with Alex again, and had already been working with Pat for many years. Over the next 15 years, Valentine held several executive roles at NuVasive including Marketing, Development, Operations and ultimately President and Chief Operating Officer.

“I was truly fortunate to work for Alex Lukianov. He taught me the value of driving an accountable culture that is centered around having stretch goals as an organization. As you achieve those goals you celebrate them; if you don’t achieve them then it is visible to the organization and you must create a recovery plan. This kind of transparency trickles down to the entire organization. Pat was the best driver of marketing and development in spine. He was a student of the requirements for good spine surgery, and it was reflected in NuVasive’s products. We were a team that held each other accountable and didn’t avoid the hard conversation.”

Stuart Essig Comes Calling

Today, everyone knows Stuart. But in late 1997 he was a relatively unknown 37-year-old hotshot at Goldman Sachs when a struggling artificial skin company in New Jersey asked him to be their CEO. To be perfectly clear, the “opportunity” Essig was evaluating was to head up a company with $14.7 million in sales and $17 million in losses. And, by the way, he had exactly zero operating experience.

The opportunity was Integra LifeSciences.

How did Stuart do?

When, in 2012 Stuart handed the CEO reins to Peter Arduni, Integra’s sales were $830 million, profits were $41 million and the company’s market value was $1.1 billion.

It is no exaggeration to say that Essig’s stewardship and leadership of Integra over those years is among the great success stories in the medical product industry.

Of course, Stuart stood on the shoulders of giants most notably Integra’s founder Richard Caruso—and then the great team he assembled, also with Caruso’s mentorship and direction.

Among the 60+ acquisitions that Intergra’s put together during Stuart’s tenure was a market basket of spinal implant and bone graft companies—SeaSpine, Theken Spine, Therics and GenSci/Isotis Orthobiologics, among others.

In 2014 Integra made the strategic decision to spin this market basket of products off as an independent public company. SeaSpine had not lived up to its potential and being part of the Integra family was not going to fix things. Time to see if SeaSpine can make it outside the mothership.

But, first, SeaSpine needed a leader. So, Stuart called Keith.

Valentine remembers his reaction to the offer to lead SeaSpine as a newly public company—in other words, to be a first time CEO in the Wall Street fishbowl. “I was cognizant of the fact that this was my first opportunity as a CEO and I was pleased to have had some mentoring from Stuart Essig, Ph.D. Despite his incredible success at Integra he doesn’t have a big ego. In fact, he has great humility.”

“Kirt Stephenson was another valuable voice in my ear. He was saddled with being on the front line when the company announced the spinout. But he handled things with aplomb and had not only a deep knowledge of the spine market, but a love for the SeaSpine name because he created it.”

Valentine’s Leadership Style

At Valentine’s urging SeaSpine has gotten into the habit of holding townhall meetings. “These open forums provide a chance for many in leadership to update the organization on key initiatives as well as goals and objectives. It also provides transparency to our results and key performance metrics which each person has a role in achieving.”

“The fun part is now that the business has transitioned and has numerous growth opportunities, we can take more ownership. Fortunately, we have loads of opportunities to take market share. I like taking market share.”

To do so, says Valentine, he must empower managers to drive their business. “I want managers to know that their decisions will be supported if they embrace accountability and ownership. I encourage the old adage, ‘Ask for forgiveness, not permission.’”

Asked to describe the SeaSpine brand, Valentine noted, “We want to be known for organically driving innovation and partnering with the right opportunities in the field—meaning exclusive sales distribution opportunities so as to provide better spine procedures. We truly want surgeons to be intimately involved in product design in order to move the needle on innovation.”

Driving SeaSpine’s Market Share and Future

With a track record of 10-12 new products, Valentine is making sure that SeaSpine will have a busy, impactful 2020.

“We will be launching approximately 10 products next year that will range from Access Systems to ALIF and TLIF procedural solutions that address both anterior and posterior lumbar conditions of the spine. Additionally, we will launch Next Generation Posterior Cervical products and new interbody solutions along with key MIS implant offerings.”

Asked what he most wanted people to know about SeaSpine, he stated, “Our work is truly about the people in the organization coupled with how we work with surgeons. Our motto is that we take pride in helping change patients’ lives through our product offering. Specifically, it is ‘Stronger Together.’ And no, we didn’t pilfer that from Hillary Clinton…we were living by this motto in early 2015, long before the election slogan. Our company is 400 people strong and it’s our passion to work with surgeons to design innovative and market share taking products.”

And at the end of the day, what keeps Keith Valentine “up at night” about industry is…”How a company of our size can most effectively compete and navigate in this marketplace. When I was at NuVasive in the early years the focus was on how to distinguish ourselves with the ‘big giants’ all around us. In order to maintain the exciting growth that SeaSpine has achieved, we must continue to challenge ourselves.”

Valentine’s advice to his fellow executives: “Knock down obstacles so that other, talented leaders can be successful in their roles.”

On the home front, Keith Valentine has had the pleasure of raising three children with his very supportive wife, Lynne—where he, no doubt, has employed his accountability strategy. “My daughter has just graduated from nursing school and works in an oncology unit at Providence Hospital Portland. My son is at UCLA studying business and economics degree, and my youngest son will soon be graduating from high school.”

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