Starting with a new company, taking the controls of an expanding plant and relocating to the Midwest from Puerto Rico. Those were just three of the issues facing 56-year-old Jose Gonzalez when he walked through the doors on that first day as senior vice president and general manager of CSL Kankakee nearly one year ago.
Within a handful of months, however, Gonzalez — like the rest of the nation — was forced to navigate through a new set of issues. The leader of the Bourbonnais Township manufacturer of biotherapy medications was charged with guiding this plant and its workforce through the multitude of issues presented by the COVID-19 virus.
Developing partnerships with other companies to help develop a COVID-19 vaccine, continuing to produce CSL’s life-saving products and putting together the names to the faces of an expanding workforce — which now numbers 1,800 — only added to the tasks facing Gonzalez.
But no one could have anticipated what took place only months after taking the helm of the massive 138-acre complex near the intersection of Illinois Route 50 and Armour Road.
Gonzalez joined CSL from Amgen, where he served as executive director and plant manager for drug products at the facility in Juncos, Puerto Rico. Prior to Amgen, he held manufacturing and engineering roles at Covidien, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett-Packard and W.R. Grace.
He and his wife, Mimi, are parents to three grown children.
Gonzalez, who now resides in unincorporated Kankakee — a far cry from landscape and climate of Puerto Rico — sat down for a nearly 90-minute interview with the Daily Journal and discussed his first year at the plant, COVID-19, the CSL workforce and his impressions of Kankakee County.
How would you describe your first year at CSL Behring?
“It’s been extremely challenging,” he said, “but rewarding at the same time. We have the opportunity to transform the entire site … but not just the site, but also the operation. That makes this a challenge, but I like a challenge.
“… I’m here to make decisions for the best of the site, but not just for the Kankakee site, but for the best of the company as well.”
And with each decision he and plant leadership make, Gonzalez said, their goal is to improve outcomes for the patients, the company and the site. This is a different model for CSL.
“CSL locations had very much been an island. Decisions were made to look out for the island rather than the entire network.”
What goes through your mind as you travel to work each day?
“The biggest thing that goes through my mind are the hundreds of families who depend on this operation and the millions of patients who depend on our products. That’s a lot of weight on your shoulders.
“I can be tough to keep your mind straight, to concentrate. CSL has a good set of values. Not too many companies have that.”
He said he also thinks of how fortunate he is to be given the opportunity to work for CSL and live in a community like Kankakee County.
Would it be fair to say you have had a baptism by fire as you near the end of your first year?
“Yes. You could say that. Definitely. But that’s expected with this kind of job. The key is to be ready to manage the process.
“Deep down I knew what I was getting into. I was very happy where I was at. I had to be willing to get out of my comfort zone to advance. I’ve had a good career, but I’m having more fun now. I knew what I was getting into. COVID-19 has not helped that stress in any way, shape or form.
“… People were nervous when that first positive case happened here. But we followed our strategy. We followed our process.”
Gonzalez said he has yet to miss a day of work. He believes it’s good that people see that happening from those in leadership. He tries to walk through the plant daily — something he does as much for himself as the workers.
“If I don’t get around, it drives me nuts.”
Describe your style of leadership?
“Servant leader. I think of myself as being at the bottom on an inverted pyramid. I’m at the bottom so I can help support everyone else. I want to tell people ‘you are not here to work for me. I’m here to work for you.’ My job is to support the hands that make this product.
“But being a servant is easier said than done. People are not use to that concept.”
Since September, what three things have you learned about the CSL workforce?
“Dedication, loyalty and resiliency. I see it every day. The people here are passionate about what they do. They have great loyalty to the company. This past year hasn’t been easy for me, but it has certainly not been easy for them as well.”
What have you learned about yourself?
“That I’ve been able to get out of my comfort zone. I’m glad I did. I realized I have a lot of tools in my toolbox. Sometimes we underestimate what we have lived through and we can pull those tools out.”
COVID-19 has been a terrible illness, but what opportunities has it provided to CSL?
“In our respiratory area and influenza therapies, it has created opportunities. COVID attacks respiratory capabilities, so in that sense it has been good for our respiratory portfolio. The demand of influenza products has increased and that likely will continue for the foreseeable future.
“… We are working in collaboration with companies who are our competitors in the quest for a therapy against the virus and its impact on patients. CSL is involved in a number of efforts worldwide to respond to this pandemic and be part of the solution. The need for our products hasn’t gone down, COVID or no COVID. We still have to ensure our supply of medications.”
How stressful is it to maintain a proper work environment with these outside forces at play?
“Very stressful. The demand for our products does not go down despite everything going on. Patients need these therapies to live. That’s another brick on our shoulder. How do you tell a patient we don’t have your product?”
What are your impressions of Kankakee County — good and bad?
“It’s a good place to live and raise a family. Many of our new hires are considering Kankakee County as a place to live. I share the belief that we should live close to our operation.”
Regarding the bad impression, Gonzalez said the county doesn’t show itself well to those outside its boundaries.
“I’ve noticed people from outside don’t have much good to say about Kankakee County. We need to work on that.” Gonzalez would like to see a group representing the region’s large employers come together and bring government leaders with them to work together to improve the region’s shortcomings and well as its image.
“We want to make this place attractive for people to come here.”
In terms of plant expansion, where is CSL in this process?
“This is my most common question. Regarding the expansion vision, some plans have changed,” he said, without offering specifics.
“We are always looking at what we are doing. We want to slow down on some things and speed up on others. We are taking the time to ensure our long-term success of CSL and Kankakee County. We are heavily committed to Kankakee. The Kankakee plant is a key to the success of the CSL network.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many aspects of the business. Circumstances are continuously changing.
“Since circumstances are ever-changing, the situation and impact on business may change. … Our mission is to serve patients, but we have to run a business to do that.”