Health care exec also served as dean of Loyola’s business school
Robert L. Parkinson was the chief operating officer at north suburban-based Abbott Laboratories before becoming chairman and CEO of Deerfield-based Baxter International for almost 12 years.
Parkinson also was dean of the business school at Loyola University Chicago, where he had earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and served as chairman of the university’s board of trustees for six years.
“Bob Parkinson was generous with his time, talent and treasure. I was always struck by the way he engaged with everyone — no matter who you were at the university — listening attentively and really trying to connect with the individual by showing compassion and care,” said Wayne Magdziarz, Loyola’s senior vice president and chief financial officer. “He lit up when he had the chance to engage with your students. I think he always saw in them a hope-filled future.”
Parkinson, 68, died of complications from pancreatic cancer on Dec. 19 at his home, said his wife of 43 years, Betty. A Northbrook resident since 1980, Parkinson had been diagnosed in early November, his wife said.
Born in Davenport, Iowa, Parkinson grew up on a family farm in Taylor Ridge, Illinois, near Rock Island. He graduated from Alleman Catholic High School in Rock Island and then earned a bachelor’s degree from Loyola in 1973 and then an MBA. He worked in the university’s housing office as an assistant hall director, and through that job met his future wife, who was a resident assistant.
Parkinson started his career at Evanston-based American Hospital Supply as a staff accountant. In 1976, Parkinson joined Abbott Laboratories’ finance department. He later oversaw European operations and, in 1993, was named senior vice president of chemical and agricultural products.
In 1995, Parkinson was tapped to be senior vice president of all international operations and he shortly afterward became executive vice president of
Abbott’s international operations.
In 1998, Parkinson was one of three finalists to become Abbott’s CEO. Instead, the company promoted Miles White to the job, and it simultaneously promoted Parkinson to be second in command, as Abbott’s president and chief operating officer.
Parkinson left Abbott in 2001. In 2002, Loyola hired him as dean of its business school.
“He viewed that as one of the greatest gifts of his career, because it was so different from being in the (for-profit) sector, and it was nice to be able to give back to his school,” his wife said.
While dean, Parkinson focused heavily on job placement for the business school’s graduates. He also established certificate programs for sports management and health care management, and he strengthened the school’s ties with the Chicago business community.
In 2004, Parkinson returned to the health care industry as successor to Baxter CEO Harry Kraemer, who stepped down after the company repeatedly fell short of its earnings projections while facing intense competition in the blood therapies business.
“Clearly we have to get back to spending on R&D,” Parkinson told the Tribune in 2004. “But that’s not to say there aren’t ample opportunities to bring products to the market in the meantime.”
Parkinson worked to rebuild Baxter’s credibility with Wall Street. He also oversaw the $4 billion acquisition in 2013 of Sweden’s Gambro, which at the time was the world’s thirdlargest manufacturer of kidney dialysis equipment, as well as a separate deal at the same time to acquire an investigational drug to treat hemophilia.
The deals made Baxter’s portfolio “as strong today as any time in our history,” Parkinson told the Tribune in 2013.
The biggest move that Parkinson made during his tenure was spinning off Baxter’s biotech business as a new company, Baxalta, which a year later merged with British bio-pharmaceutical company Shire. That left Baxter to focus on medical products.
However, the spinoff also left Baxter with a slowergrowing revenue base and resulted in layoffs. Parkinson decided to retire from Baxter at the end of 2015, during a period in which restless, activist investors had increasingly agitated for changes, including seats on the company’s board.
Parkinson joined Loyola’s board of trustees in 2005. He became the board’s chair in 2013 and served in that role until his death.
“As a board chairman, he was thoughtful, incredibly smart and a solid strategic thinker,” Magdziarz said. “He had a keen ability to bring out the best in university leadership and always asked the right questions. He challenged us to always do better and never accepted the status quote as an acceptable state.”
In 2018, Parkinson and his family gave $20 million to establish Loyola’s Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health, which is aimed at offering a bachelor’s degree program in public health, along with another dozen or more programs.
In addition to his wife, Parkinson is survived by two sons, Matthew and Robert L. III; two daughters, Erin Parkinson Stober and Rebecca; one sister, Connie; and three brothers, Tony, Brian and Mark; and seven grandchildren.
Services were held. Loyola will hold a mass of remembrance in Parkinson’s honor in early 2020.
Robert Parkinson was a former dean of the business school at Loyola University Chicago.