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William Poole: Travels of a pharmacy industry veteran

William Poole has the kind of build that suggests he could play a wicked tennis game, sprint a quick 50 or run 20 miles a day. In fact, Poole has traveled many miles–though not necessarily on foot. In his 22 years at American Cyanamid Co., he worked in places from Puerto Rico to Pakistan.
Now, his travels have brought him to Rochester, where in January he became Fisons Corp.’s new president.
“I spent my whole career with another company,” he says. “This is really only my second job.”
Poole, 48, began his pharmaceutical career more than two decades ago as a sales representative in Canada for Lederle Laboratories, a division of American Cyanamid.
“I went into sales because I thought it would reward me for hard work and success,” he says.
After three years, Poole moved on to various marketing jobs in the States at American Cyanamid, doing everything from forecasting to designing literature. Those three years in marketing provided Poole with the best training in his career, he says.
For a few years, Poole was product manager for Latin America, marketing diverse products including oral and injectable antibiotics, and antidepressants. As an area manager for the company’s medical business, Poole traveled through India, Pakistan, New Zealand and Canada.
After working as a general manager and vice president, Poole became president of American Cyanamid’s Mexican operation. During that period, Poole, his wife and two daughters shared a house with an armed guard. Being an American, working for an American company and living in a nice house did not put the Pooles on friendly terms with the natives in a country of haves and have-nots, he says.
American Cyanamid then promoted Poole to vice president of the company’s Davis & Geck Division, and vice president of the medical device division. In 1991, Poole became president of Davis & Geck, the world’s second-largest suture business.
Poole’s bottom-up career path is part of what makes him a strong, focused leader, says Paul Southworth, president of NMC Medical Products Inc. renal products division.
“(Poole) started with the customer,” he says. “It’s an adage that’s true. We’re all in business to first satisfy the customer. He always had a sense for the customer in all of his dealings.”
Poole’s former colleagues at American Cyanamid also describe him as personable, energetic and displaying a great sense of humor. No matter how tough a situation became, Poole remained upbeat, says James Sands, vice president of human resources for Davis & Geck.
“When a business has its ups and downs, and the guy at the top has that kind of attitude, it becomes infectious,” he says. “That’s Bill.”
American Home Products Corp. last summer entered into negotiations to acquire American Cyanamid, and by that time Poole already was a candidate in Fison’s CEO search. Poole says the negotiations and eventual acquisition had no bearing on his decision to leave.
In January, Poole stepped into a CEO position that had been vacant for a year. While the company hired Poole to run its U.S. operations, a recent reorganization placed him in charge of operations for North America, including Canada and Mexico.
As soon as Fisons moves operations from a small manufacturing unit in Bedford, Mass., to Rochester, all operations except sales and marketing will be located at the North American headquarters.
Fisons, a unit of Ipswich, England-based drug manufacturer Fisons PLC, employs more than 600 people in the Rochester area and 1,100 nationwide. Poole says he is just settling in and getting to know some of them.
But Poole hardly is new to the pharmaceutical industry, for which he sees a precarious future.
President Bill Clinton and his health care plan heightened public awareness of managed-care alternatives and increasing costs, he says. Since before the national debate, drug companies have been taking a beating.
“The pharmacy industry is usually mistakenly blamed for causing high health care costs,” Poole says. “But if you look at the total costs of health care, pharmacy costs are well below 10 percent of the whole.”
If the cost of treating patients is rising so rapidly, logic says the marginal cost of medicine cannot be the culprit, he contends. In addition, pharmaceutical companies made an agreement with the government to keep drug costs to U.S. Consumer Price Index increases, which they have worked hard to do.
“Cost control with the pharmaceutical industry started well before Clinton took office,” he says.
As a result of managed-care influences, Fisons and other companies are changing how they market their wares, Poole says. When Poole was a pharmaceutical rep, he called on hospitals, drugstores and physicians, primarily specialists.
Today, drug companies must not only call on the doctor but on the managed- care organization, whose goal it is to get maximum benefit from a pharmaceutical at a minimum price, he says. Drug companies must explain why certain products would be good for the organization’s drug formulary, disease management and other programs.
In addition, generic pharmaceuticals are making headway in the industry, Poole says. Fisons has one generic competitor.
All the pressure to cut costs eventually will come down to cutting employees, he says, and that means cutting the number of people out there trying to discover new products.
“The last bastion is R&D, which is pretty much held sacred,” he says. “I’m afraid that’s the next area pharmaceutical companies will look to downsize.”
Fisons has and will continue to concentrate on the research, development and marketing of respiratory drugs acquired from Pennwalt Corp., Poole says. Fisons in 1988 acquired the Pennwalt Pharmaceuticals Division in Henrietta.
Pennwalt Pharmaceuticals originally was an independent company, R.J. Strasenburgh Co., incorporated in 1900 and acquired by Wallace and Tiernan in the late 1950s and by Pennwalt in 1969.
Parent company Fisons PLC, after several years of financial and personnel woes, was healthier in 1994, according to year-end releases. The company’s operating profit before extraordinary items rose 17 percent from $101 million to $118 million. Separate figures for Fisons’ U.S. operations were not available.
Intal, introduced to the U.S. market more than 20 years ago, is the company’s best- selling product, Poole says. Following Intal is Tilade, an anti-inflammatory asthma drug introduced in 1993.
Some products not part of the company’s strategic plan have been let go, he says. Fisons PLC in 1993 sold its U.S. and Canadian consumer-drug businesses to New Jersey-based Ciba-Geigy Corp. A manufacturing contract between Fisons and Ciba-Geigy expired in January, resulting in 23 retirements and 48 layoffs, all expected.
The company is not likely to make changes on its current drug lines, Poole says.
Fisons last month reached an agreement to help protect its precious R&D arm, he says. A Swedish pharmaceutical and medical supply company, AB Astra, agreed to acquire Fisons’ Rochester and U.K. research and development operations for approximately $125 million.
Fisons retains rights to certain respiratory products, delivery devices and respiratory compounds in development.
No personnel changes will be made, Poole says; Fisons will operate as usual. But the agreement will free the funds for Fisons to concentrate on market penetration for respiratory drugs, including the pursuit of acquisitions, while Astra sucks up the high R&D costs.
“Now the (Fisons) R&D people have a company that is ready and willing to spend more money,” he says.
Fisons already is using value-added programs to compete in the pharmaceutical- unfriendly environment, Poole says. Value-added programs take drugs beyond their initial value as a medication.
One example is the Asthma Explorers Club, a program designed to make children with asthma learn about their disease, and learn not to feel different from other children. Approximately 65,000 children belong to the club.
Another example is Open Airways with the American Lung Association, a program that takes inner-city children to camps for asthma sufferers, he says. Fisons also sponsors other programs and events, such as the Corn Hill Run scheduled for this year.
Fisons uses these opportunities “to bring value to the community (and) responsibly try to differentiate ourselves,” Poole says.
In sum, it is still too soon to tell what the effects of health care reform at all levels will be, he says. But the best alternative is free trade and competition.
“I think the way the industry was taking care of itself was addressing a lot of the issues,” he says.
Poole is adjusting well to the Rochester weather. After spending several years in New Jersey, which has muddled seasons, he says he is happy to return to four seasons like he experienced growing up in the Roxboro area of Montreal.
Poole played hockey, baseball and football throughout his childhood. He did not attend college immediately after high school, but became a mail boy at Canadian National Railway Co. He worked his way into materials management at the company until one day he simply quit and became a professional ski instructor for a season.
By the next fall, at age 21, Poole followed his desire to play football at the college level. He enrolled at Boston University and secured the quarterback position–11th-string quarterback of the freshman team, that is.
“Do you know what it’s like to be 11th?,” he asks with a laugh.
When he discovered his study skills had become a little rusty, Poole quit the team to work on his grades. He returned to play his sophomore year. By the middle of his junior year, Poole finally had become BU’s starting quarterback, a position he held through his senior year.
After graduation, Poole returned to Canada for a one-season stint with the Montreal Alouettes professional football team. When the team cut him, he joined the Lederle sales force and began his career in pharmaceuticals.
Poole says he will not be doing as much traveling as in the past, though Fisons’ headquarters in England will become a frequent destination. He also says he has not been as active as he had been, playing squash and racketball on a regular basis. Once he settles into the new job, he would like to try kayaking or canoeing on the canal.
However, Poole still works on his golf game. Southworth describes the not-so-former athlete as a hell of a driver, and a hell of a player.
“He’s very competitive, but he is mostly competitive with himself,” Southworth adds.
Poole sets demanding standards for his employees as well, both Southworth and Sands say. He pushes people to not only create their visions, but to follow through carefully and quickly.
Poole has only a short reply to the “demanding” label.
“I believe in getting results,” he says, “and I like to succeed.”

[Rochester Business Journal Profile, 4/7/95]

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