J. Michael Pearson

Graduation Year: 1981

Degree at Duke: Bachelor of Science

Major/Program: Mechanical Engineering Materials Science

Career Highlights:

  • CEO, Valeant Pharma

J. Michael Pearson started his Duke journey as an undergraduate student double majoring in mechanical engineering and materials science and mathematics. He describes his years at Duke as one of the best four years of his life because of all the wonderful people, the terrific education, and of course basketball! He met his wife Christine S. Pearson at Duke when he was a senior and she was a freshman at Duke’s School of Nursing.

Pearson recalls how fun and memorable it was for every engineering student at Duke to participate in a design contest, where they had to throw an egg from the top of the red-brick engineering building, Hudson Hall, without breaking it. He appreciated how Duke was wonderful in teaching students the balance between work and social life. He was very happy to learn that there are still lots of social activities at Pratt, such as the E-socials and the E-lympics, and believed these are the things that will be remembered the most over the years.

If he had to live his life again, he said that he would spend less time at work and more time to play. “These are all trade-offs you have to learn, and the early years of work are tougher; you need to do well. The quicker you learn these trade-offs, the fewer mistakes you will make. No one does this for you, you have to control your life yourself, make decisions individually, and assume responsibility.”

Pearson graduated from Duke in 1981 summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He was then offered a job as an engineer at what was called AT&T Long Lines during that time. A year later, looking for more excitement, he went on to the school of business at the University of Virginia, where he won the Shermet award and earned his MBA in 1984. Thereafter, he pursued a career of 23 years at McKinsey and Company, a global management consultancy firm, serving as a director, member of the board of directors, head of the global pharmaceutical practice, and head of McKinsey’s mid-Atlantic region.

When asked how the transition from science and engineering to business was for him, he answered that Duke had provided him the best training for that purpose, teaching him logical thinking and problem solving. As a CEO, he was required to solve complicated problems and to come up with creative solutions. Engineering is a major that precisely teaches you these skills along with hard work and discipline, Pearson explained.

In 2008 he left McKinsey and joined Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc., a multinational specialty pharmaceutical company focusing on neurology and dermatology therapeutic areas, as the chairman of the board and chief executive officer. At Valeant he has been able to make the company a stock-market favorite, raising the sales to $2.5 billion and acquiring 21 companies in less than four years. The Wall Street Journal listed Pearson as one of the best CEO’s in 2008.

With his company’s R&D division in Durham and two of his children studying at Duke as a freshman and a sophomore, Pearson visits Duke more often now. Keeping his ties to his alma mater, he is on Fuqua’s Board of Visitors, sponsors an athletic scholarship for Duke students, and contributes to Duke basketball financially. He has made a gift of $15 million on behalf of his wife to Duke’s School of Nursing in recognition of their recent advancements towards improved health care. This generous gift has enabled the school to name its building after his wife.

Originally published in DukEngineer. Written by Nooshin Kiarashi, a 3rd year PhD student in Electrical and Computer Engineering.