A conversation with Robert Thomas, SVP of Corporate and Government Affairs, Elekta
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your career path? Professionally, I started out in technology sales with an IBM affiliate. I quickly moved to medical device sales, and then moved up the ranks into leadership in the medical device sales community. From there, I transitioned to government affairs. Half of my career has been medical device sales, the other half in government affairs and advocacy, about 15 years in each bucket. Here in the U.S. we have a fast-food chain called Denny’s. I always say my career in public affairs is like a meal at Denny’s: nobody plans to go to Denny’s, but we all end up there at some point. I didn’t plan to be a government affairs professional, I just ended up here.
Many view public affairs as an abstract concept. How would you define public affairs? What is the difference between public affairs, public relations, and lobbying? Anytime you advocate for something, you’re lobbying. No matter what side of an issue you’re on, you believe you’re doing the right thing for the country by advocating and lobbying for your point of view on the issue. In terms of public affairs vs public relations, public relations is a more media-centered field, whereas public affairs deals more with elected officials and policy influencers – not necessarily people who work in a legislative capacity, which is lobbying, but instead a wider body of influential people at agencies or policymaking shops that you work to get support from to try and change an issue holistically.
What impact can you see the new government having on business and trade? What changes do you expect to see? Are there any new opportunities? Here in the U.S., with every new Administration there are new opportunities and new challenges. I think that the Biden Administration will be receptive and appreciative of collaboration on trade issues. I think there are going to be some opportunities in the trade arena, as well as on climate issues. This Administration will re-invest in climate-based business, which is always of interest to SACC members. But just like with any Administration, there were opportunities and then there were challenges. The Trump Administration took a firm “America first” type of approach, which created some wins for rural communities but caused collateral damage to our international trading partners.. But when it came to the regulatory and tax issue areas, for the most part the Trump Administration’s actions were appreciated by companies. Under President Biden companies are bracing for higher fees and regulatory environments, as well as higher costs of doing business, while continuing to fight our way through the unbelievable challenges of the global pandemic. History will be the judge of what was effective and what wasn’t, and it could be different depending on the issue.
Could you tell me a little bit about Elekta PAC? How does it work? A PAC is a Political Action Committee. Here in the U.S., a PAC is the only legal and fully transparent way for a company’s business interests to be represented politically, and also allow a company’s employees to be involved. A PAC is made up of funds from voluntary contributions by employees who understand what we do and choose to participate by making a contribution that goes into the Elekta PAC account. That money is used to support candidates for elected office. For Elekta PAC, that means people running for the U.S. Congress. We decide who to contribute to based on their committee assignments in Congress, primary issue areas, and alignment with Elekta values. Our PAC manager proposes candidates for support to the Elekta PAC Board, who then votes to decide which candidates can be supported using Elekta PAC funds. What we’re trying to do, and what the PAC helps us to do, is build relationships with candidates for federal office on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans.
When I started in government affairs at Elekta, I was tasked with building their Washington office. Before I joined Elekta, there wasn’t a Washington office to do what my team and I do. But a situation occurred that really showed the importance of having a dedicated team in D.C. Elekta’s signature product line is the Gamma Knife. It has saved hundreds of thousands of lives; it’s an unbelievable technology. I have met so many patients who are here today, including Members of Congress, because they were treated with the Gamma Knife. But our competitors used legislative affairs and lobbying to cut our legs out from under us, and almost put us out of business here in the U.S. Elekta didn’t have a D.C. office to stop it, and as they say, if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu. And when I started, I was the only head of a Washington office that didn’t have a PAC. A PAC is a standard tool for Washington offices, and the only legal and transparent way to engage politically. The reality is, you need lawmakers to know why you care about something and how it affects the patients. A PAC helps us do that. And like I said, the money that employees contribute is completely voluntary. My team and I have the only jobs in the company where we have to ask other employees to pitch in to help pay for it. But Elekta PAC is very strong because our employees understand the need, and as an organization we’ve done very well.
How has the pandemic affected your business? Well, on the business side, Elekta is doing very well, globally and specifically here in North America. The success that we’re having is, in part, because of all the work that was done throughout recent years. We’re appreciative of our success right now – our customers, hospitals, and clinics, and eventually the patient. As to the specific question of what has changed on the public affairs side – I used to spend my day at events, a normal day involved representing Elekta at all kinds of different things like speaking at public events, being on panels, going to meet with or visit some Members of Congress, and having business lunches. All of that has stopped. It just isn’t happening right now. Of course, the work that we do goes on. But public affairs and lobbying is really about trust, and trust comes from relationships. You can only go so far in a virtual environment when it comes to developing those relationships.
You’ve been a Board Member at SACC-DC for several years. What value do you see in SACC? As a company founded in Stockholm, Elekta has long been a supporter of SACC. Elekta has a good story to tell, and we try to be very involved to tell it. Our technology and innovation originates in Stockholm, but since Sweden is a majority-export economy, they rely upon the rest of the world to buy their products. We have almost 1000 employees in the U.S., and the products that we’re selling can save lives. When it comes to treating brain cancer, our products are the gold standard. We are able to treat tumors of the brain like a chronic condition. For example, I’ve met dozens of people where we’ve treated them 10-20 times, all with the Leksell Gamma Knife, improving their quality of life. So, it feels good to do what we do, and it really is a story that SACC likes to tell about Sweden’s relationships with the U.S. We fit very well within the SACC community.