Dennis Gillings Quintiles Co-Founder

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Dennis Gillings built a $4.2 billion global enterprise out of an idea he had as a PhD student in a trailer home at the University of North Carolina in the late 1970s. 

Those in the pharmaceutical industry told him it would never work—he was a statistician and had no experience in the industry.

Today, that company is Quintiles. It's one of the most significant players in our region's economy, employing 17,500 well-paid local "knowledge workers" and helping to spur a cluster of pharmaceutical companies in the region—82 operate in Research Triangle Park alone. Globally, Quintiles is the cream of the crop of contract research organizations for the pharmaceutical industry. It commercialized each of the top selling drug products on the market in 2013; its executives have testified before Congressional committees; and Gillings himself was appointed by British Prime Minister David Cameron as the World Dementia Envoy, leading a global council to raise money to combat Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of dementia.

As he prepares to step down as chairman from the company he built over 33 years, the British-born Gillings has had time to reflect on a journey "tremendous" in many ways. That word was peppered throughout his closing speech at yesterday's CED Life Science Conference in downtown Raleigh, where he shared the company's history and provided advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and predictions about the next 10 years in the life science industry. His goal is for the region to enjoy as "tremendous" a journey as his own. 

Here are the three ways he suggests entrepreneur's approach their businesses to do so.

Be visionary.

Gillings attributes Quintiles ascent to good timing and good vision. The Triangle's universities were providing the right education to the right kind of talent to build a company in the medical field. And he saw where the biopharmaceutical industry was heading—it would be global and entwined with the formation of the European Union. The regulatory environment in Europe would soon be a lot simpler to navigate.

So despite the company's relatively small U.S. footprint and just $4 million in revenue, in 1987, he pushed the company to expand to Europe.

"Everyone advised me it was too quick," he said. But Gillings saw the business as global from its beginnings. 

"Recognizing a big market that was going to come about was a very important step. We had to be full service, not just statistical consultants," he told the crowd. That meant also investing in information technology—regulators would soon rely on the collection and analysis of data, so Gillings pushed Quintiles to think of the drug development process as an information one.

By the company's first IPO in 1994, sales reached $90 million. His goal was then to hit $1 billion in revenue by the end of the 1990s and Quintiles reached it in 1998. Gillings's belief in vision can be summed up by his favorite quote by Wayne Gretsky: "I don't skate to where the puck is. I skate to where it's going to be."

For life science entrepreneurs, that means watching the revolutions in genetics and information technology and the convergence of the two. New therapies can be created at a molecular level, and analysis of electronic health records and population data can help evaluate and predict health outcomes and risks, allowing for evidence-based medicine or personalization of therapy as well as better preventative care.

Social media is also important, he said, citing the global impact of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Be a financier.

Visionaries are only successful if they understand finance well or have a trusted colleague or advisor who does. A good financier knows how to predict storms and weather them. For example, though Quintiles stock price multiplied by 12 in the 1990s, the Internet crash caused the market to turn against the company. Good financiers helped Gillings decide to privatize. 

Investment banks at the time said services companies can't go private but he had the financial wherewithal to buck the trend and lead the deal to privatize himself. That leadership helped him bring in equity partners to complete the deal. Once private, Gillings led the charge to invest more than $1 billion in information technology, growing the company to the point that it could once again file a public offering.

His advice: "Understand financial mechanisms and strategies and be prepared to raise money when there is a market opportunity."

Be an architect.

Build a strong leadership team that can handle a company's complexity as it grows. One of Gillings proudest accomplishments is the depth of experience and leadership in Quintiles' executive team, evidenced by the accolades listed above.

What makes a good architect? "Know when to talk and when to listen and remember that employees value quality and integrity as highly as customers do," Gillings said. "They see through crass statements."

A difficult and emotional decision during his career was to step down as CEO when the company chose to go public again in 2013. He knew it was best for the company after 30 years. Equally challenging was the search for a new CEO that could take the company even further than he did. He found that in now CEO Tom Pike, with whom he's formed "a good partnership."

Another important quality of an architect? The ability to create excitement. 

"If you're excited about the opportunity, you can make other people excited about it too," he told the crowd. "Excitement inspires people to give their best. It also makes life fun."