Eyewitness to Recent Delaware History

Eyewitness to Recent Delaware History

This article originally appeared in the University of Delaware magazine. Used with permission.

The CEO from Sweden didn’t waste time. It was 1999, his pharma company had already merged with one of Delaware’s largest employers, and relocation threats loomed large for the 2,400 employees of Wilmington-based Zeneca.

As the final headquarters decision grew near, Astra CEO C.G. Johansson held meetings with the governors of Pennsylvania and Delaware, intent on securing a big incentive offer. 

“In Sweden, we have an expression called ‘spice the pudding,’” Johansson is said to have told then-Delaware Gov. Tom Carper. “And we would like you to spice [it] with an extra $15 million” in relocation assistance. “C.G.,” the governor replied, “that’s a lot of spice!”

An eyewitness to the full exchange, John Riley, AS68, recalls the ensuing laughter and the ultimate success of the AstraZeneca merger, which Delaware secured with $8 (not $15) million. It’s a typical behind-the-scenes tale from Riley’s recent autobiography, Delaware Eyewitness, which traces five decades of state history through such anecdotes. “

The events of my life…have overlapped with one of the most dynamic periods of social upheaval, economic growth and transformation,” he writes. “This book has been my attempt to make sense of it.” 

A man of humble origins, Riley grew up with eight brothers and sisters in an 800-square-foot home, where his hot-tempered father struggled with addiction, and his mother maintained “a troubled but constant loyalty to the man who made her life so difficult.”

Riley never expected to attend college, much less work alongside Delaware’s corporate and political elite, but he credits his education and upbringing for laying the foundation for his success. “UD’s impact on my life was never-ending,” he says. “It’s where I met my wife Sharon [HS69], and it opened my eyes to the rest of the world.”

His post-college journey would take him to the Army during the height of the Vietnam War, and then return him to the heart of corporate America. In Delaware, he worked as a salesman for Xerox, as a county politician, lobbyist, professional sports manager and as head of government and public relations for Hercules during the chemical giant’s dramatic decline and ultimate sale. 

The experiences all shaped the Blue Hen’s outlook, offering him a unique but universal lesson on leadership.

“To be successful in negotiations—in business and in life—you have to see things through another person’s perspective,” he says. “You need empathy for another’s position. If you have that, you’re always capable of finding a solution.”