Steve Somermeyer: Chemical Engineer, Corporate Executive, Connoisseur of Life

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Not many people can claim to have connected a passion for engineering, winemaking, Indy car racing, and fish. In fact, it’s likely that only one person has ever done so and in a way that is coherent. That unique individual is former Eli Lilly executive, racetrack volunteer, winemaker, and aquarist Steve Somermeyer.

“I’m a guy that likes to see patterns, to connect the dots,” Somermeyer says. “I also like to connect people. I learned early when studying physical chemistry at Iowa that teamwork is essential for success.”Somermeyer took the education and experience he gained at the College of Engineering (BSCE 1970) and forged a life that includes both professional success—three decades, plus, as a process engineer, management executive, and internal consultant with a multi-billion-dollar corporation—and intellectually and physically challenging avocations. His career at Eli Lilly’s world headquarters in Indianapolis began right out of the gate after he graduated from Iowa. But with 20 plant visits and 18 job offers in hand,

Somermeyer could easily have chosen a different path, but for a comment from his mentor, Professor of Chemical Engineering Karl Kammermeyer.

“I knew I wanted to work for a company that had the financial wherewithal to back people with good ideas,” Somermeyer says. “One day during my senior year, Professor Kammermeyer suggested I interview with Eli Lilly—that day. I was wearing jeans and a tee shirt, but I interviewed anyway, and I guess they liked what they saw.”

He began at Lilly as a process engineer charged with scaling up specific steps in the development of anticancer drugs, in particular enhancing the liquid/solid extraction process. As he pondered the most efficient, effective way to achieve this goal, it occurred to Somermeyer that tea makers have a similar challenge when they extract flavor from tea leaves. That broadminded, creative problem-solving approach helped him successfully adapt a food industry manufacturing process to the pharmaceutical industry. It also helped catapult him into management a mere three years after landing at Lilly.

As his roles evolved from managing a 150-person department to leading TQM (Total Quality Management – predecessor of Six Sigma) to implementing a 1,500-person division,

Somermeyer successively moved through three different reporting lines: the process engineering, production planning, and product management groups. Along the way, he earned an MBA from Butler University (1973). Combined with his engineering skills and professional experience, his business school education enabled him to fuse the efforts of the chemists in the labs with the goals of corporate executives.

“I was in product development before I was in management,” Somermeyer says, “and I could talk the lingo of the chemists. In management, I was working on big changes and major projects, but I was right about the chemistry and engineering often enough that the researchers listened to me.”

Somermeyer spearheaded a dramatic culture change at Eli Lilly when he introduced the concept of “heavyweight teams” which broke down barriers between traditional disciplines and resituated employees into teams that focused on projects.

“People no longer lived in the Chemistry Building, they now lived in Evista or Zyprexa™ teams,” he says. “The project teams met weekly, and as soon as a compound graduated to the project team, the researchers no longer were involved with it.”

Somermeyer acknowledges this was a difficult adjustment for some employees.

“They had gotten promoted under the old system,” he says, “and now the organization was measuring them with another standard.”

But strong leadership and humor can go a long way in helping to finesse corporate change. Each time a new compound shifted from the lab to the project team or development was terminated and the researchers moved on to focus their attention on another compound, senior management hosted a combination graduation party/wake, including an obituary for the compound, but with celebratory cake and candles.

Ninety-hour weeks began to take their toll during the TQM implementation, however, and in 1989 Somermeyer told his vice president, Dave Dennen, that he needed a change. CEO Vaugh Bryson agreed, and recognizing Somermeyer’s talent for connecting projects and people, as well as his creative problem-solving skills, the company pitched the idea of a new role: working with local politicians and business leaders to enhance the Indianapolis community. Somermeyer agreed, and Lilly “loaned” him as a consultant to the Indianapolis mayor’s office for a year, paying his salary.

“Lilly has always worked to ensure the local community thrives,” Somermeyer says of the company that was founded in Indianapolis in 1876 by a veteran of the Civil War.

“My role was to help T-up some major initiatives for the next city administration, which followed some years later.”

During the year of Somermeyer’s tenure, City Commissioners passed 110 resolutions, implementing more than 80 of them within three years.

Somermeyer adds that he “gained a lot of appreciation for the talent-rich environment in the private versus the public sector in which people have to make major decisions with limited resources.”

When he ponders how he developed such adaptable, collaborative problem-solving and communication skills, Somermeyer hearkens back to his days as an engineering student at Iowa. Beyond his academic learning, he also honed teamwork skills as a member of Theta Tau, a college delegate to the Democratic National Convention, and part of a four-person team that doggedly searched and eventually found the Mecca stone (“three feet deep in a stream near Cedar Rapids”). He also acknowledges strong family support. The Hamburg, IA native notes that his father and three brothers also were chemical engineers, and his mother and one brother share his status as an Iowa alumnus. When Somermeyer almost flunked out his first semester, his father drove to Iowa City and he and Karl Kammermeyer sat down with the young man and posed this question: “Are you going to give up or buckle down and do it?” And faculty members such as Professors of Chemical Engineering J. O. Osborne and Art Vetter, and Professor of Astronomy James Van Allen underscored the lesson that innate curiosity about the world can be a powerful, lifelong motivator.

That lifelong curiosity has driven Somermeyer well beyond his professional success into local vineyards and wineries, onto the track of the Indianapolis Speedway, and through the fish- (cobra-) infested waters of East Africa. After growing up in a family that made its own wine, Somermeyer’s adult interest in winemaking expanded to include the role of taster and judge at local, national, and even international competitions. He combined the expertise gained from thirty-some years as a judge with knowledge about fermentation gained early in his career at Lilly, and for the last ten years, he has worked part-time as an assistant winemaker for the award-winning Indianapolis winery, Chateau Thomas. As is appropriate for a chemical engineer, he takes the lead with the blending process.

Somermeyer’s connections to car racing began in 1970 when his fascination with the mechanical complexity of race cars led him to the world-renowned Indianapolis Speedway. At the track, he knocked on doors and introduced himself to members of the family that owned it. Impressed with his initiative, the owners allowed him to leapfrog the traditional rungs required of volunteers—parking cars, taking tickets, working in the garage—and immediately started him working with the drivers and crew members in the pits. During 43 years as a Speedway volunteer, Somermeyer’s impact has grown dramatically, and today his role as Coordinator of the Facility’s Command Center includes everything from controlling traffic around the Speedway to guiding the winning car into the winner’s circle to unplugging toilets to securing medical personnel for the occasional childbirth at the track.

“I’m also the guy who sometimes has to make things disappear,” Somermeyer says. “When Mario Andretti kept leaving his golf cart in a no-parking zone, I made it disappear.”

Somermeyer’s drive to discover and solve problems found yet another outlet in his avocation as an expert in aquarium fish. The hobby began many years ago when the 10-gallon aquarium his young children surprised him with for Christmas spent the next six months in a closet. Upon reconsideration, however, Somermeyer decided to set it up with a few fish, which promptly died.

“I decided right then and there I wasn’t going to get beaten that easily,” he says.

He began researching aquarium fish, and when he realized he could even raise fish, he decided to become an expert in fish husbandry. In 1982 after attending a lecture by an expert on African fish, Somermeyer decided to learn to scuba dive. Six weeks later, he was in Burundi making his first open water dive in the crocodile-, hippo-, and cobra-rich Lake Tanganyika. Today he oversees 90 aquariums in his house and is well-known as an expert on raising certain species of the Cichlid family, which practice very sophisticated prenatal care.

When asked how he manages to juggle all his interests and commitments, Somermeyer says he’s “blessed with needing little sleep.”

He adds, “Heck, you have to go for it. If a door opens, run through it. Or open the door yourself. I may have bumped my nose now and then, but I was trained at Iowa to rely on my creativity and the creativity of others and to push past your limits. You can learn a lot by going beyond what you think are your limits.”