Bob Lavoie, Last of the Independents

Bob_Suzanne3The pharma business has always had its share of various recognizable types.

Before there were MBAs expounding on ROI, consolidators and in-licensors, financiers and bean-counters, and senior executives who arrived from HQ with incomprehensible directives, there were visionaries and coasters, mentors and a couple of nearly forgotten rascals, golfers and curlers by the busload, thin men in long white coats shouting “Eureka!”, and even one Belgian humanitarian named Janssen.

Through the years, however, there was never a category capable of defining Robert Lavoie of Montreal.

Bob Lavoie was not like everybody else. He created and built a worldwide brand, Ombrelle sunscreen, along with a portfolio of products and a sustainable national business, on his own, using scant capital. He began Dermtek Pharmaceuticals with little more than four wheels and a home office — along with his instincts, persistence, and the item that proved to be his ultimate resource, which was the stuff in his heart. He worked hard, played hard, and did not apologize for loving life.

He possessed the imposing physical form and the shaved pate of a TV wrestler, and the appraising, benevolent eyes of a starving artist. He approached the creation of medicines with an aesthetic sensibility. Efficacy is always a given, but if a product didn’t look right or feel right, or not live up to his vision, he would scrap the lot, take the financial hit, and begin again. He could never explain his style of perfectionism to Bay Street, but the good news was that as an independent business owner, he never had to.

He was, appropriately for the founder of a dermatology company, comfortable in his skin. When he once came across an ad for a hair restoration product that featured a bald father and his balding son under the headline, “Now You Don’t Have to Look Like Your Father,” he shook his head sadly. “What,” he wanted to know, “is wrong with looking like your father?”

His father met his mother in Bermuda during the 1940s, where he travelled to take an immersion course in English. The student, Jean-Louis Lavoie, was Quebecois; the teacher, Joan Marie Smith, was Irish. They married.

Bob entered the world via Quebec City in 1946. Jean-Louis was a tireless entrepreneur, which in post-war Canada meant you sold things door-to-door. One of the products he represented was a plastic overlay meant to be placed over a monochrome television screen, that purported to convert your black-and-white set into living colour. They cost a couple of bucks apiece, and Jean-Louis could barely keep up with the orders.

There could only have been some sort of Franco-Hibernian alchemy in the Lavoie household.

The five kids each became accomplished. Brenda is an acclaimed graphic designer; Jack writes, sings, records and performs music while running a large landscape-architecture business; Paul makes documentary films and founded an award-winning multinational ad agency; Michele Cherbaka made a career in nursing and helping others.

The Quebec City of Bob’s adolescence in the ‘50s and early ‘60s was characterized by Elvis on the radio, sock hops, and the genial prolonged boredom that marked the era. To pass the time, groups of lads would square off in the parks on summer weekends, emulating the “rumbles” observed in the movies and in the popular magazines. The usual tribal divisions were in place, and the goons from St. Patrick’s, the English high school, would enact scenes from West Side Story against the toughs from the rival École, who were happy to reciprocate the attention. Bob attended St. Pat’s, with his buddies Gerry Hickey and Dennis O’Dowd, and many good times were had across the cultural divide, taunting and punching, and receiving insultes et coups de poing.

Much later, Bob would wonder why he raised fists against the kids from the francophone high schools, observing, “I’m French myself.” He let the memory of cousin-whomping-cousin linger for another minute. “It’s crazy,” he concluded. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

That became one of his signature catch-phrases, and he’d use it to summarize current developments in commerce, medicine, gastronomy, music, and politics, all with the same verdict. It’s crazy; it doesn’t make any sense.

Bob’s first job was selling newspaper ads for the Quebec City Chronicle-Telegraph. Out somewhere trying to hustle up business, he came across a man who drove a very cool car. Bob thought to ask the man what he did for a living that enabled him to own a vehicle such as that. The man said, “Why, son, I’m a pharmaceutical representative,” and Bob suddenly saw what his future would look like.

He applied for a job at Westwood Pharmaceuticals of Belleville, Ont. and Buffalo, N.Y., which became the dermatology division of Bristol-Myers Squibb. They hired him, provided a not-especially-cool car and a heavy sample bag, and put him on the road to detail dermatologists. He became a top salesman and a familiar figure in the specialty across the country.

Seven years later, Louis and Sylvia Vogel invited him to join TransCanaderm, a Canadian startup in dermatology that licensed products from U.S. and European suppliers. Bob honed his skills, and company revenues soared.

Time passed and once again he developed a seven-year itch, and began thinking about launching a company that might develop and market its own line of original Canada-created skincare products. That idea would become Dermtek Pharmaceuticals. The company was born out of the rumpus room in his Montreal home in 1986.

He worked his tail off. He’d set off down an ice-covered Highway 401, from Montreal to Windsor, Ontario, to the accompaniment of Peter Gzowski droning on the CBC’s AM-radio stations, with Sebcur T samples in the trunk, and a bag of fresh grapes and plums as his seat-mate. He didn’t mind the solitude, and quite enjoyed the fruit. “It keeps you alert and energized during the drive. You’ve got to try it,” he would proselytize.

Some key dermatologists encouraged Bob in his mission. A group of west coast physicians, led by Drs. Stuart Maddin and David I. McLean, thought the world could use a better sunscreen, and believed that an agent known as avobenzone would be useful against a broad range of sun wavelengths. European regulators approved the Parsol 1789 version of the compound in 1973, but the U.S. FDA would drag its heels for the following 15 years.

Bob took advantage of the lull to create a Parsol 1789 formulation he trademarked as “Ombrelle.” Brenda Lavoie designed the distinctive branding and packaging. It became the first-to-market designer sunblock, and created an entire category.

David McLean recalls: “Yes, the formulation was good. The marketing was better. Brilliant package. Great outreach.”

The outreach part was pure Bob. He would turn up at random outdoor events in a decorated Range Rover, with his son Michel and his son’s friends by his side, and they would pass out product samples to an amused public. Today, this practice is known as “pop up” or guerrilla marketing, and there are graduate school courses taught in the discipline. But Bob was an early adopter, if not an inventor, of these methods, which occurred to him because he thought they might be effective, also because they seemed like fun. (Two more frequently-heard Bob exultations: “How fun is that?” “What fun!”)

If he was an Artist by temperament, and a Businessman by practical instinct, Bob’s third calling was Merry Prankster, ever in search of the legendary lost mine of joy.

He discovered it at the North Lake Fish and Game Club, established in 1896 somewhere near Pointe-Au-Chêne, Que. He found it again in his Nuns’ Island penthouse, and he hit the motherlode of fun in the Laurentians town of St-Sauveur, where he purchased and restored a mountaintop Modernist home that eventually became the centre of a family compound.

He sold Ombrelle to L’Oreal in 1997, for what was presumed to be a lot of money. The transaction changed Bob’s circumstances, but it didn’t change Bob. The deal intensified what was already an inclination toward generosity, and he thought nothing of handing over use of his cars or condo to anyone who expressed an interest. His wardrobe got a little flashier. He spent some time with the Nuns’ Island celebrity dentist, Dr. Elliot Mechanic.

A particular low-point for Bob was after Jean-Louis died. He met a friend for a drink at the West Island Holiday Inn. He hadn’t shaved, was exhausted, and he looked terrible. Then, abruptly, the mechanism that triggered the fun function kicked in. “Let’s go up to St-Sauveur, I’ll make dinner,” he suggested. His friend had some colleagues in tow, and he had promised to provide them with a meal. Bob’s solution was, “We’ll bring them along.”

So, the quickly assembled quartet shot up the Autoroute 15 at dusk. One hour later, Bob welcomed the strangers to his home and led a tour of the grounds. He began preparing supper: a fresh fish recipe he had learned from Dr. Wayne Gulliver of St. John’s, Nfld., paired with a few favorites from his wine-cellar. His mood brightened. Give Bob the opportunity to be generous, and he would grab it and run with it, and nothing made him happier.

Last summer, he married his soulmate, the love of his life, Dr. Suzanne Gagnon, near the big house in St-Sauveur. They were surrounded by their blended and extended families, including Suzanne’s mother, and Bob’s two closest high school friends, Dennis and Gerry, and their wives. It rained throughout the ceremony, making everyone draw even closer. The music summed up the occasion: C’est si bon. Non, je ne regrette rien.

A few months earlier, he had received the extremely rare Award of Honour from the Canadian Dermatology Association, in Saskatoon, which filled him with pride and emotion. Michel was excelling at his expanded role at Dermtek, and Bob’s daughter, Marie-Claude, was thinking about returning to the business after several years as a stay-at-home mom. Bob had just celebrated his 70th birthday, and (once again befitting the founder of a company that makes anti-aging products), he could have passed for being 15 years younger.

Lately, Bob had allowed himself a bit of reflection on what it all meant. Dr. Maddin mentioned Ombrelle in his 2015 book on dermatologic discoveries, and he gave Bob credit for popularizing a product that has protected millions of people from sun exposure, and has surely prevented casualties. Bob revered Dr. Maddin, kept his photo displayed in his home, and the words meant far more than just the obvious validation.

He seemed to cherish his family and his friendships even more recently. He spoke regularly of his grandchildren, and was pleased with a postcard campaign he devised that featured himself, and Michel, and Michel’s newborn son Brandon, all sharing the hereditary Lavoie grin and glabrous dome. Always affectionate, he now greeted both the females and males in his circle with ardent kisses. It was as if he woke up one morning in 2016 and it dawned on him that he had created two things he’d never counted on: a legacy, and a legend.

Bob died suddenly in his aerie, high atop Nuns’ Island, late in the evening on Friday, June 17, 2017. He had celebrated his 71st birthday a few days before. He spent the day chatting on the phone with friends, driving his Tesla, managing his business, and making plans. He was going to pick up his mother-in-law, Jeanne-D’arc Voyer, and drive her to St-Sauveur. Later that week he planned to be off to Fredericton, to attend his gazillionth meeting of the Canadian Dermatology Association. After that, to his cherished North Lake, where he had invited his friends Wayne and Mitch and their wives to unwind, and maybe catch a few fish.

His absence was felt during the CDA meeting. He always stood out during the receptions: the pro-wrestler’s body encased in an immaculate suit, and those kind pale eyes. Middle-aged doctors, who knew Bob since residency, learned the news and began to cry. This happened again and again.

Some will insist the pharma business should owe nothing to personalities. They will argue that the life sciences should only be about formulae and modes of action contained in product monographs — and never about the women or men who make or market the cures.

Bob Lavoie might have disagreed, but he was aware that he started out with a natural advantage: all that stuff in his heart that made him different and set him apart.

He invented some medicines and he made some money selling them, but he knew all about another thing that doesn’t have a DIN number, never gets included in formularies, doesn’t involve a listing fee, and never comes with an expiry date.

That would be love, an item you can only give away.

It’s crazy, is what Bob always used to say. It doesn’t make any sense.

One thought on “Bob Lavoie, Last of the Independents

  1. So sad. Thank you for sharing with me Mitch. Very thoughtful of you. I enjoyed Bob’s company and was truly saddened to read this news. Peter PS – further evidence of the importance of enjoying ‘the moment’.

    Sent from my iPhone


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s