SmartPeople: Eric Low
Eric Low is chief executive of Myeloma UK, a charity that has seen survival in myeloma improve at a faster rate than any other cancer in the UK over the past 10 years
I don’t normally eat breakfast when I’m at home. I get up at 5.30am and work on emails for about an hour before driving the 40 minutes to the office. On the way I generally pick up a coffee and occasionally a pain au raisin. If I am travelling it’s a different story – I always try to have breakfast as you don’t always know when you’ll next eat.
As the CEO of a small but very busy charity I sit on numerous Boards and committees, all of which demand a huge amount of my time. Some of these are based in the USA/Canada as well as Europe, so with the time differences it stretches out the working day.
My day is the proverbial ‘box of chocolates’. It’s hugely diverse and is typically made up of back-to-back meetings, teleconferences, phone calls and replying to emails. Our strategic plan is truly bench-to-bedside and beyond, covering basic research all the way through to providing information and support to patients, fundraising, HR and finance. So one meeting can be about IP, contracts and working with a huge pharma company on a research or clinical trial idea, the next could be speaking to a patient about their treatment options having failed all those currently available, or a doctor who wants money for research.
I’m out of the office a lot of the time so when I’m in I try to spend as much time as possible meeting with the team. This is hugely challenging on a number of levels and is without doubt one of the toughest parts of my job. I very rarely have lunch when I’m in the office. It always shocks me how quickly my day goes. After about 8.30am, I don’t come up for breath until at least 5pm.
Myeloma is a tough cancer and working with a broad range of stakeholders is no easy task as they all have their vested interests, aims and objectives. But our work does a huge amount of good; our Myeloma Infoline takes more than 4,000 calls every year and provides a truly incomparable service for people affected by myeloma; more than 500 patients have been recruited into clinical trials set up within our network in the past few years; and we have worked successfully to ensure every new treatment for myeloma (to date) has been approved for use in all four nations of the UK. In doing this, we are having a positive and tangible impact on the lives of people affected by myeloma by making sure they have access to clinical trials, new drugs and the information and support they need.
When I’m in the office I leave no later than 5.30pm. I travel a lot and am away from home more than I’m there, so with two young kids it’s important to spend as much time as I can with them. Once they’re in bed, and I’ve eaten – probably too much to make up for not having had much during the day – I work for at least a couple more hours. I carefully select the work I do at home, choosing small and easy jobs, rather than bigger or complex projects – otherwise I would never sleep!
What is your goal?
I would like to see myeloma become a cancer that people live with rather than die from. Survival in myeloma has improved at a faster rate than any other cancer in the UK over the past 10 years so significant progress is being made. That said, there is a very long way to go – almost everybody diagnosed with myeloma will die of it, and for the 20% of patients with high risk disease, survival may only be one or two years. Our commitment to achieving our goal will be relentless. We will never stop.
How did you get to where you are today?
Very, very hard work, passion and a total commitment to doing the best for patients. I have also had the privilege to work with some amazing healthcare professionals who have been hugely helpful and influential and I have had incredible support from our Board. Above all else, it’s the needs of patients and their families that drives me.
It’s a very long story. I love my job and it’s a great privilege and honour to have it.
As a child, what did you hope to be?
An entrepreneur, living abroad and with much more money than I have now. However, I always knew I wanted to help people. My parents, who had no money when I was growing up, helped so many people less fortunate than them. That had a huge impact on me.
If you had to swap jobs, what would you do?
I’m not sure, but I often think about what I would do differently if I were Jeremy Hunt, Simon Stevens or even David Cameron. In reality, I would probably be a consultant and do my best to help as many other charities across many different disease areas.
Who is your role model?
Professionally, I have been fortunate enough to have been surrounded by some brilliant people who have inspired, helped and guided me in so many ways. On a personal level, my parents have been outstanding role models.
What’s your tip for a good work/life balance?
I don’t do work/life balance well although I am a strong advocate of it. You must have a very clear vision of what you want to achieve and be relentless in your commitment to achieving it. Surround yourself with a core team of bright and capable people that share your vision or dream. Don’t listen too much to detractors or negative people, and be a skilled negotiator and politician.
Why should someone join the sector?
There is no other industry like it – it has all the upsides of working in a dynamic and demanding commercial environment but also the compassion and empathy of working for a cause that transforms the lives of people.