Nestlè Health Science’s Abigail Buckwalter on putting people first and adding value

Abigail Buckwalter can sum up her approach to fueling Nestlè’s success in three words: empathy, obsession, and agility. 

In essence, she says, companies need to be empathetic to their customers’ needs, to really “walk in their shoes,” but also committed to doing this on a near obsessive level, matched only by an ability to stay agile through innovation.  

She should know. Having worked for and with Nestlè for nearly two decades, Buckwalter was named CEO of Nestlè Health Science in October of 2023. She was part of the original entrepreneurial Nestlè Health Science team--when the organization was founded in 2011--and helped to define the corporate culture at the ground level.  

“I have been fortunate to be with Nestlè Health Science since its inception…as we’ve grown up in this industry,” she says. “And I think one of the universal truths, that’s core to our corporate culture and that I absolutely intend on carrying forward, is this uncompromising commitment to people first: our team, the individuals and patients we serve, and the healthcare professionals that endorse our products.” 

It's an approach that seems to be working, for Buckwalter and Nestlè Health Science. In 2022 alone, the company generated $6 billion in worldwide sales, and, since 2019, has completed over 20 impactful acquisitions of, or investments in, leading brand companies in the health and wellness and biopharmaceutical spaces. 

Buckwalter says that as the company’s product portfolio becomes increasingly diverse, the “people first” ideology is the “common ground” that binds all the different brand teams and cultures together. “It’s a simple, clear connective tissue, and we are unwavering about it,” she adds. 

“If we are doing our job well, nutrition, in general, is being advanced by the hour.” 

Nestlè Health Science is also unwavering regarding the importance the company places on innovation. And Buckwalter says the right kind of innovation – the kind that produces products that enhance people’s lives – is also born from the same people-centric ethos. Product development, therefore, is a process of “walking in the shoes” of individuals at every stage of life and being “obsessed” with bringing cutting-edge products to market that “truly make a difference” in their lives. 

“The way I like to approach innovation is that everyone should have an entrepreneurial mindset,” says Buckwalter. “I am always keeping my eyes and ears open to new ingredients, trends, and partnerships that can play a role in enhancing the health and wellness journey for people in ways that work both for them and with them. We try to make wellness second nature for people, meeting them where they are on their journey and fitting into their needs or wants as seamlessly as possible." 

Maintaining that vigilance isn’t easy but Nestlè Health Science flexes its ever-expanding portfolio of products to reach a diverse customer-base by remaining focused on what matters most—insights, prioritization, and execution. “That’s all by design,” says Buckwalter. “We’ve been built that way to allow us to be completely in touch with all those insights, so we can innovate products for infants to old age with our priority being to empower healthier lives.” 

Buckwalter is personally familiar with the important role nutrition plays at all of life’s stages. She says that as a mother of three small children, and a caregiver to elderly parents, she is keenly aware of the different health care journeys people experience at different times in their lives. “The transformative role that nutrition plays across life stages is so important to me,” Buckwalter adds. “Being super attentive, very present, and motivated in what I’m doing resonates with me both at home and at Nestlè Health Science—I’m inspired to make sure I’m spending my time on things that truly matter.” 

“The new consumer is more educated, and their expectations are high. If they’re going to spend hard earned money, it better work. Expectations on efficacy, no matter what your category, are super high.” 

One thing that truly matters to Buckwalter these days is to allow the various brands in Nestlè Health Science’s portfolio to connect with their respective consumers by retaining their authenticity. That’s resulted in a somewhat hands-off approach when it comes to tinkering with the brand identity of its acquisitions. Rather than trying to assimilate every detail of the individual brands into the larger corporate identity, Buckwalter says the strength of the model is instead in the fact that these brands can “leverage the breadth, expertise and capabilities of the totality of Nestlè Health Science.” 

Buckwalter says that’s exactly what motivated her in her own development—the importance of both holding strong to her core principles while also looking to learn from other leaders and people with different expertise. A quick glance of her resume might lead one to believe that her promotion to CEO was a quick and simple solid line to the executive suite. But that journey was the culmination of years of personal and professional growth – working at Nestlè Health Science when it was more like an all-hands-on-deck start-up, or taking assignments across three continents, and the result of a naturally curious person who “frankly said ‘yes” to a lot of things.” 

Some might say that Buckwalter is the personification of the corporate culture she has spent a sizeable amount of her career developing. Like her employer, she is resilient, multi-faceted and capable of “bold decisions.” Not being formulaic, seems like perhaps a winning formula. “I’ve had a lot of curveballs in my career that maybe you don’t see highlighted on LinkedIn,” says Buckwalter. “But those only accelerated my impact on the organization. They gave me confidence that I could do more and add value. And I’m committed to continuing to do that.”