Dennis Gillings is proof positive that in the pharma industry, some of the best minds in business originate in academia. Starting
out as a professor of biostatistics at the University of North Carolina, Gillings built a global enterprise around a simple
thesis: Progress in science creates opportunities in information. The niche on which he leveraged that premise was the conduct
of clinical trials, an essential but often cumbersome step in the long path of a drug toward market approval. Gillings foresaw
that these complex trials could be done far more efficiently—saving drug makers time and money—if it was approached as an
information management process.
"In a clinical trial, there are few second chances, so a customized, predictable, accurate, and accessible technology platform
is critical to success. That, and the confidence of the regulator was our basic value proposition to the customer—and it worked,"
The facts are self-evident, with the company progressing from just five employees operating out of Gillings' home in Chapel
Hill, N.C., in 1982 to its status today as the world's largest manager of clinical trials and related analytics, with more
than 20,000 employees based in 60 countries. No Big Pharma can ignore the business precedent Gillings has set in raising the
quality bar on clinical trials, expanding the capacity to test diverse patient populations across geographies, and doing it
faster and at less cost than conducting the function in-house.
This explosive growth has required Gillings to adjust his approach to leadership, though certain fundamentals remain. The
most important is inner self-confidence, the practical day-to-day expression of which is the instinctive capacity of knowing
when to talk—and when to listen. Another is to challenge bureaucracy by being excited about opportunity, because without that behavior from the CEO, the institution has less capacity for change. "Every successful
company has to strive for a balance—between a core cultural identity that helps anchor your market leadership and the change
in attitude that facilitates transformation to anticipate what that market throws at you."
There is no alternative, says Gillings, because increased competition means that achieving dominance in one market segment
is only a temporary reprieve. Rival threats require a strong defensive position through investment in adjacent businesses
and parallel markets. Otherwise organic growth will slow and complacency will set in.
Staying ahead in turn demands an early start. Quintiles first began looking at new growth markets in the mid-1990s, targeting
Asia as the base for clinical trial work before anyone else did. "We took a big risk in anticipating industry demand by funding
the infrastructure for a regional clinical management operation, such as building a training network with the National University
of Singapore. The investment has paid off handsomely in an era where global trials have become the norm and Big Pharma is
seeking a foothold in countries with rising incomes and significant unmet medical need. Quintiles is now pursuing the same
investment-led approach in Africa.
On a personal level, what has affected him most is realizing that "hands on" doesn't necessarily work as well for a CEO responsible
for thousands of people, as opposed to just five. "Over the years, I've had trouble adjusting to the fact that the boundaries
of my own job must be flexible; that it's actually good that what I am doing today may be different than was the case five
What's next for the industry? Gillings thinks the big shift is toward a smaller, more flexible innovative core in R&D. "The
era of the vertically integrated company active in dozens of therapeutic areas with a fixed cost structure is over. Instead,
we are moving to the virtual organization, with variable costs and a reliance on outside partnerships to manage and share
risk. The trend means for us the ability to keep improving the technology base around clinical trials and to promote not an
add-on service but a total solution that can be adapted across the enterprise. There will be many more ways to be a drug company;
what still matters is what you do for the patient." – William Looney