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Remembering Sandi Leckie

In Uncategorized on October 20, 2016 at 7:21 pm

Sandra Gail Bowles was a child of the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto, back in the austere post-World War II era, before Parkdale became the current hipsters’ paradise. When Sandra was growing up, it was a self-contained village within a city, where residents paid rent, walked to their jobs at the Cadbury chocolate factory or the National Cash Register plant, and worshipped among the Group of Seven paintings, murals and sculptures in St. Anne’s Church. Local fellows sometimes drank Dow beer and smoked Black Cat Number Sevens in the Gladstone or Drake hotels, which was regarded as an unwholesome activity for a workingman. Wives stayed home. Pineapple-upside-down cake was a delicacy; Wilson’s ginger ale at the Woolworth’s counter was a treat. It was a monochromatic childhood, set to Percy Faith music on CBC radio. 1507bf6

Sandra’s father worked for City Hall, as a safety inspector of the children’s rides at the nearby Canadian National Exhibition grounds. His daughter, an only child, became very popular with the neighborhood girls and boys for brief periods, when the prospect of accompanying Sandra for a free ride on the Flyer roller coaster was re-introduced at the end of each summer.

She finished high school and studied nursing at Women’s College Hospital, an 18-minute streetcar ride to somewhere culturally remote from where she grew up. She graduated in 1967, Canada’s Centennial year and the Summer of Yorkville Village, an approximation of Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village. The blocks surrounding Women’s College were not much like Parkdale, and had storefronts with signs that said The Colonnade, the Mynah Bird, the Penny Farthing, the Wreck Room discotheque, and the “elegant new” Sutton Place hotel.

flyer_bmid80sAround that time, Sandra became Sandi, with an “i.” Married a man named Leckie, and they both quickly knew it wasn’t going to work out.

Left nursing — a job that will always wear you down, now as then — and took a sales position in the pharma business. She was good at it, in the way that trained nurses will apply their organizational skills and sense of humane purpose to tasks. Worked her way through the 1970s and early 1980s from bag-carrying positions at Parke-Davis into product management at Purdue-Frederick. Learned a bunch of things, including patient support programs, formulary and government stuff, career-survival during an era when women in the workplace were still being accepted by the old boys with bemused skepticism, or far worse. Out of the many duties a product manager might need to fulfill, Sandi really came to life when presented with responsibilities for advertising and marketing drugs. It matched her creative streak.

She took that talent and put it to work as an executive in the healthcare advertising business, with Terry Johnson, Rick Billinghurst and Dave Lindley at LBJ Advertising, and with Phil Diamond at Diamond Strategic Advertising. She might have been a model for several, if not all, of the characters in the “Mad Men” TV drama. She thrived in the work-hard/play-hard ethos of the ad biz, and elevated her peers through her unique attributes. She had been a good nurse because she was smart, diligent and empathic; she became a great healthcare marketer in part because she had been a good nurse.

In an environment where talent is capital, where outsized egos and personalities are a given, there were no surprises when Sandi determined she could create and run her own marketing company. She called it SpotLight Consulting, which will tell you something. Integrating her initials into the name made it clear who was in charge, but she balked at making the company eponymous. Sagely, the spotlight was reserved for making others look good.

SpotLight was an outstanding success in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sandi became known around Toronto as the go-to person for marketing services, physician relations work, research projects, and the just-discovered universe of continuing medical education programs. She earned a reputation for instantly getting it, for offering creative enhancements, for delivering and then standing back to let the client take all credit for the success. One meaningful validation: Even her former employers made use of her new company for assignments, frequently on a private-label basis. Clients required her help in exotic European and American destinations, wherever medical meetings took place.

She did well enough at SpotLight to pay for a new townhouse in a quiet and orderly suburban neighborhood that might have been regarded as the anti-Parkdale. She gardened all spring and summer, began to plan Christmas decorations as soon as the fall flowers died, kept immaculate care of her home, planned and threw great parties in living color, set to Neil Diamond music on an expensive sound system.

However, many of the traits that made Sandi a superb person and businessperson could also be regarded as limitations. She was loyal in relationships, fiercely so, and in the commercial world this is not always reciprocal. She was unhesitatingly generous, and some took  advantage. She enjoyed working with and for her friends, and a couple of times disappointment resulted. She worked hard to be positive and encouraging (there, again, was that white-uniform training), and several may have chosen to take that optimistic reflex the wrong way, as something to be answered with cruelty. Her focus was on her clients, and not on her T2 Corporation Income Tax Return, and the thing is, you need to watch both.

SpotLight wound down around 2005, which was a painful process for Sandi, yet, paradoxically, a wonderful thing for one company, Chronicle, where she stepped into the role as Sales and Marketing Director. The benefit was twofold: she was a valuable resource to clients, and the Chronicle people also got to work with and learn from Leckie every day.

“I’m not young,” she warned on her first day in the new job.

“You aren’t old,” someone replied.

“That’s true,” she nodded, the nurse taking note of a clinical fact.

So, this is what the Chronicle people learned from the gift of spending time with her during the ensuing decade.

  1. Be interested in people. Learn the name of the person who sells you your lottery ticket, and tell him your name. Find something you have in common.
  2. While you’re at it, you might as well be kind. It takes less energy to be positive and helpful then it does to be an asshole, and occasionally something good might result.
  3. It’s okay to love your work, to be good at it, to be smart and to take things seriously, especially if none of that stuff is fashionable. Look at it as a sneaky way of being a rebel.
  4. The main thing is: Always be professional, because, you see, there isn’t any other way to be.

There were other instructions, naturally, but those all things fall under the categories of Business Strategies and Tactics, or Undergraduate Biology, or Stuff Already Described in Textbooks and on Websites. Leckie’s forte was well beyond any of those things. It will sound exaggerated, but she knew how to make policemen and authority figures disappear, just by smiling. Whoever did that? How was it even possible?

What was seldom obvious about her was how much of an effort it sometimes took for Leckie to be Leckie.

Remembering other people’s children’s birthdays and favorite meals, and being available to hear about other people’s bad day at the office, and spending money on little presents for those who might wonder why they were receiving gifts, all came at a personal price. She would recharge on a weekend at her friends Tom and Susan’s place in Muskoka, or for a couple of weeks in a rental apartment in Florida, or on an afternoon with a book in a folding chair at Cherry Beach. But it could not have been easy being Leckie 24/7, and it wasn’t. Through her most productive years, she found enjoyment in slot machines, and a glass of wine, and a cigarette to go along. That, too, was Leckie, though not the version of which she was most proud.

That Better Leckie was fascinated by everyday things, exhibiting both childlike wonder and adult charm.

She knew the charm was a magical commodity, but minimized it as her just need to “be terribly entertaining.” She beat the drinking, with courage, and for eight years helped a wide circle of people in her A.A. community. In the end, it was the cigarettes that got her, that stress-relief habit acquired back in nursing school. She died of lung cancer on August 14. A memorial will be held on November 8 from 1 to 4 pm, at the Florida Room of the Estates of Sunnybrook in Toronto. A fund is being established in her memory to enable children with severe skin diseases to attend a summer camp, Camp Liberte. If you’d care to contribute, please write to: health@chronicle.org.

It will astonish no one who knew her that she worked to her final day to plan every element, every last detail of her own memorial event, because it meant everything to her to think that her friends would be happy and think well of her.

Well, of course, she did. Of course, she did.

Of course, Sandi Leckie would.


Shunning Shkreli: Go Ahead and Loathe the Most Hated Man in Pharma* (*But Only If You’ve Never Shkrelied)

In Uncategorized on November 11, 2015 at 5:16 pm

AP_turing_pharmaceuticals_daraprim_protest_jt_151013  It takes a special je ne se quois to stand out as the world’s most unpopular pharmaceutical executive. It requires more than simply being the worst-behaved child in the detention room, or having the longest fork in the all-you-can-eat buffet line, or possessing the thickest expense-claims file in the Canadian Senate.

It is no small achievement to lay claim to the title of Ultimate Despised Figure in the one business the public most loves to hate: to gain status as, in the critics’ view, the smelliest varmint in the skunkworks.

What does it mean to be worst of the worst? True to typical CEO form, some of the economy’s most successful leaders are known to rankle. (Look, you can’t please everyone.) Others drive harder and become magnets for hostility. (When you cook an omelet, you need to break a few eggs, friend-o.)

That said, there is nothing—but nothing—to prepare anyone for Martin Shkreli.

Mr. Shkreli is the founder of Turing Pharmaceuticals, although it would be wrong to assume that he follows any previously known tradition of drug company entrepreneurship. After all, Dr. Paul Janssen founded a drug company and became revered. Abe Plough started his company and won respect. No one is ever going to confuse Martin Shkreli with Dr. Janssen or Mr. Plough.

Mr. Shkreli is a Millennial, but hardly the sort found living on a futon in his mom’s garage. At 32 years of age, he has been a Wall Street macher for nearly half his life, having learned the trade of hedge fund management early on from mentors such as Jim Cramer, the famed stock-trader/TV presenter. Turing is already the second Life Sciences company Mr. Shkreli has created in four years, after Retrophin Inc. (More about those two organizations in a moment.)

Where Dr. Janssen made his reputation by creating therapies and Mr. Plough by selling them, such fusty, labour-intensive activities are anathema to Mr. Shkreli. He is the kind of opportunistic businessman who will spot and pursue situations that the traditionalist might be inclined to dismiss.

For ex­am­­ple, five years ago, he perfected what we will call the Shkreli Shuffle, a proud­ly braz­en money-making gambit previously uncommon in the annals of Life Sci fin­ance. In this unique procedure, Mr. Shkreli filed statements with the U.S. FDA urging the regulator to reject a new diabetes treatment, and a cancer detection test, apparently for the sole purpose of driving down the share price of the two publicly traded companies tasked with commercializing the wares. His investment house used the lull to short-sell the stocks. This was no service to patients who may have benefited from the timely availability of the products, or to the companies and their investors who suffered financial reverses from the delay. Conversely, Mr. Shkreli and his trusty balance-sheet made out just fine.

No one questions the man’s acumen—although several are investigating his compliance with securities laws. His first company, Retrophin, is suing his subsequent outfit, Turing, alleging trading violations; federal attorneys are reportedly contemplating charges.

Undaunted, Turing made headlines recently after buying the rights to pyrimethamine (Daraprim) from Impax Laboratories. The Rx is a warhorse used since 1952 to treat toxoplasmosis, cancer and AIDS, but Mr. Shkreli aimed to price it like a new biologic, quickly lifting the retail price to US$750 per dose, from US$13.50. Of course, various other drug companies have been quietly raising prices on older medicines for several years, to the accompaniment of muted grumbling from stakeholders. No whispered resentment this time. Nothing about Mr. Shkreli is ever destined to elicit a quiet response.

Patient groups raged at the news. Politicians railed. Chanting protesters encircled the Turing headquarters, equipped with placards. Social media commentators pilloried Mr. Shkreli, who unwisely responded with his own profane Twitter invective. In the process, the entire pharmaceutical and biotech sector was sullied, leading to Turing’s expulsion from the major trade groups, a sharp decline in the benchmark share price index of the entire drugmaking category, and new hearings about pricing, soon to be conducted by the United States Congress.

Pharma has never been a beloved industry among the public, but Mr. Shkreli has found himself tagged as the embodiment of each of his predecessors’ and competitors’ past and current sins. As a parvenu and a Wall Street guy new to the ways of the life sciences environment, he is not at all well positioned to contextualize, and his clumsy efforts to explain things have brought considerable disrepute and discredit to the biopharma industry and all within its orbit. Quoth he: “Dozens of drug companies have done what I’ve done.”

No, Mr. Shkreli. No, they haven’t.

ap_damien Martin-ShkreliIt’s too easy to further demonize this fellow (not least because he physically resembles the actor who played Damien in the 1976 film, “The Omen.”) Thing is, if his flawed understanding, near-complete lack of judgment and unfortunate personality had not lit the fuse, another drug company executive likely would have been cast in the role of cartoon-villain. And when certain business practices relating to supply and pricing are indefensibly crude and ill-considered, it seems convenient to have a prima facie miscreant, a fraternity-brother approximation of J.R. Ewing, to serve in the capacity of human lightning rod.

That may be the logic behind PhRMA’s unprecedented disavowal of Turing, and BIO’s abruptly having tossed the company from its membership roster. More practically, though, they and we must owe a small measure of gratitude to Mr. Shkreli for his foolhardy pricing model, which served to define the outer limits of responsible behaviour by capitalists who make and sell medicine.

By rushing to undertake patently unacceptable actions, he has inadvertently performed a roundabout service to his industry peers, by encouraging each of us to assess and purge our more Shkreli-like impulses, and to come to terms with that unworthy inner voice that sometimes whispers dangerous entreaties. His contribution to our cause is as negative role-model, instructing us to disregard the little Shkreli that might sometimes stir inside the best of us.

Inversion Insanity: Drugmakers form a herd, try to run away from home

In Uncategorized on October 2, 2014 at 3:15 pm

Six generations ago in a German town called Ingelheim-am-Rhein, a man named Albert Boehringer started a small chemical company. It grew, and became a global pharmaceutical group. To this day, the company thrives as a privately held enterprise known in acknowledgment of the founder, and the place of origin, as Boehringer Ingelheim.

BI is not the only pharma company that succeeds while maintaining its roots, and continues to carry out its mission in or near the locale where the founder set up shop. Think of the eponymous Laboratoires Pierre Fabre, the two-billion-euro enterprise which, since its beginning in 1962, remains nestled in the Midi-Pyrénées locale of Castres, population 43,000. Among other distinctions, Monsieur Fabre oversaw the town’s cherished rugby team, Castres Olympique. Since his death last year, the company is owned by a foundation that was established for the admirable purpose of providing safe drugs to the developing world.

It’s reassuring to think that the pharma industry was built by visionaries such as Herr Boehringer and Monsieur Fabre, and that there are still viable locales where the industry flourishes, such as Ingelheim-am-Rhein and Castres. And it seems especially important to take note of these names in 2014, which may go down as “The Year We Learned About Inversion.”

The word “inversion” may have several meanings: the anatomical (as in toenails, nipples), the chemical (referring to hydrolysis of carbohydrates), or the rhetorical (“You say what?”)

To be clear, the inversions that have made recent headlines have little to do with linguistics, and everything to do with international corporate tax codes.

Spearheaded by precedents such as the rock-bottom tax rate the multinational Valeant Pharmaceuticals group enjoys by maintaining its headquarters-of-record in the Province du Quebec, U.S.-based drugmakers earlier this year began a stampede to merge with foreign domiciled competitors. This was done for the purpose of tithing less to Uncle Sam, who demands a 35 per cent slice, and preserving profit for more appropriate purposes. (Here you might imagine Scrooge McDuck in his money-counting room, throwing stacks of currency up in the air because he likes the sensation as they fall back and land on his head.)
The flurry of inversions and attempted inversions reads like a roster of the most familiar names in our sector.

Pfizer, the industry leader, hoped to unite with AstraZeneca, and move its headquarters to the UK from New York City, where they’ve been ensconced only since 1849.

AbbVie proposed to buy Shire and transfer its charter from Chicago to Jersey (that is, the Isle of Jersey; not the place where Chris Christie, pictured below, governs.)
Mylan of Pennsylvania somehow figured that by buying Abbott Laboratories’s generics business, it could begin filing tax returns in Holland.

Auxilium Pharmaceuticals wants to merge with QLT of Vancouver — although Endo Pharmaceuticals now has its sights set on Auxilium. Endo inverted earlier this year through acquiring Paladin Labs of Montreal, at which point it shifted its head office to Ireland.

This most recent rush to beat the traffic out of town may have been touched off earlier this year when that wily old inverter, Valeant, began its takeover moves against Allergan. Currently Allergan hopes to head off the unwanted advance by linking with Salix, which is merging with Cosmo Pharmaceuticals SpA, an Italian drugmaker that maintains a tax address in Eire.

Head spinning? You’re far from alone. As Prof. J. Richard Harvey Jr., of Villanova University’s law school tells the New York Times: “There is likely a herd mentality going on where pharma companies are afraid they will be put at a competitive disadvantage if they don’t find a suitable foreign merger partner.”

Of course, as the professor might have added, part of the problem with a herd mentality is that the herd often plunges over the precipice, or else slams into a solid object. In this case, the collision came in the form of a to U.S. Treasury Department rules, just announced by Washington. To interpret the legislation: President Obama isn’t about to allow the inversion tactic to continue depleting his federal tax coffers, at least not when Congressional mid-term elections are only weeks away.

Regardless of where this issue now stands, it’s impossible to experience, without feeling cheapened or queasy, the spectacle of Life Sciences organizations anxious to make tracks from their communities, solely for the purpose of putting a slick move on the taxman.

We know the arguments on both sides. For C-level management of publicly traded companies, value creation for investors is, and must be, Job One. We all get that — just as we get that capitalism continues to create and bring to market many wonderful things that have enhanced human health, and therefore capitalism is to be entirely encouraged.

But the Inversion Insanity of 2014 shone a light on the unacceptable face of capitalism, just as it displayed the least lovely side of our industry. For, you can turn your back on your community through a simple directors’ resolution, and you can always reinvent yourself in a distant terrain. But, as Messrs. Boehringer and Fabre likely concluded back in the day, all you’ll leave behind is your soul.

Inversion begs the question: If you’re prepared to abandon your roots and identity just because it seems momentarily to be the prudent thing to do, what else are you prepared to abdicate? One traditional defence often issued to justify drugmakers’ high margins is, “Profits fund important research.” Now several of the companies that have championed inversion are also devaluing the importance of R&D programs. They may be likened to farmers who don’t care for the work of planting, regard harvesting as a sweaty and unpleasant chore, and see agriculture as a demeaning sideline to their main business, which is… what, exactly? Chasing away trespassers? Watching the Weather Channel?

What would you tell such rusticated connivers? Exactly what we now say to those of our friends who followed the herd of inverters:

Look. Why don’t you quit screwing around, and just do your damn job? And, while you’re at it, you may as well just pay your damn taxes.