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Paul Burg

World War II survivor uses street smarts to advance his lab supply company

August 9, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 32


Commuters who listen to National Public Radio on their way to work are used to hearing short sponsorship announcements from large charitable foundations and well-known corporations. For them, the new spot from "Spectrum Chemicals & Laboratory Products, a supplier of USP-, NF-, FCC-, and ACS-grade chemicals for research and production" must stand out as pretty different.

But Paul Burg, Spectrum's 71-year-old founder and chairman, has made a career of standing out from much larger competitors. Along the way, Burg created a sizable player in lab chemicals that he is now preparing for life on its own.

An immigrant from Eastern Europe, Burg likes to say that he survived both the Fascists and the Communists. He grew up in what is now Ukraine, living through World War II in a Jewish ghetto. After the war, Burg and his parents moved to Romania, where they found themselves under a Communist dictatorship. During his years there, Burg learned chemistry in Bucharest and married Rodica Cohen, a chemical engineer.

In 1963, Burg and his wife came to the U.S. as political refugees. They settled in Chicago, where Burg found work at the science materials firm Lapine Scientific, eventually becoming manager of its chemical department. Burg left Lapine in 1971 after watching two companies--Merck & Co. and the Baker & Adamson division of Allied Chemical--exit the lab chemicals business. "A void was created, and I, being trained in the ghetto, saw this opportunity and capitalized on it," he says.

Operating in the shadow of better established firms such as Fisher Scientific, J.T. Baker, and Sigma-Aldrich, Burg often resorted to unorthodox means to get Spectrum noticed. He bucked a fairly genteel system by advertising lab chemical price differences between Spectrum and its competitors. He has arranged to have Spectrum catalogs--first paper and later CDs--distributed with chemical buyers' guides such as ACS's Chemcyclopedia. And he has pursued the business of supplying USP-grade chemicals to the sometimes controversial compounding pharmacy market.

Today, with annual sales approaching $100 million, Spectrum itself is well established. The company runs four U.S. warehouse and manufacturing locations from headquarters in Gardena, Calif., and recently opened a facility in Shanghai. Its online catalog lists 15,000 chemicals, including an industry-leading 750 USP-grade items.

Still, Burg doesn't consider Spectrum a direct competitor to the big boys of laboratory supply. It is woman-owned--by Rodica--and a government-registered small business. "We are not at the very large accounts," Burg says. "We serve small to midsized companies, of which there are thousands, that find Spectrum's uniqueness and customer service extremely attractive."

Although he and his wife are still in charge, Burg is taking steps to position Spectrum for a future without them. Its president and Burg's heir-apparent is Elizabeth Ferguson-Brown, a chemist who has been with the firm for 16 years. Spectrum recently hired Larry Hilton, a veteran of companies such as Essex Chemical and Sterling Drug, as director of marketing. Burg predicts that he and Rodica will step back in a few years following an initial public offering of stock.

Burg is proud of Spectrum's new generation of executives, who are upgrading computer systems, bolstering customer service, and generally giving the firm a more corporate polish. "This company doesn't depend on me anymore," he says, belying the survivor's moxie he still exhibits.

Like other Eastern European immigrants he knows, Burg is both politically right of center and an advocate of the openness of expression that he believes the U.S. stands for. Burg's outspokenness and his entrepreneurship seem to come together in Spectrum's backing of NPR. "I believe NPR is an institution that we as citizens of a free country should be proud of. The fact that you can debate certain ideologies or beliefs on the radio is very much appreciated," he says, adding that he wishes the tone of the radio network were not quite so liberal.

At the same time, Burg figures that many of the university and drug company scientists who buy laboratory chemicals are NPR listeners. Although the promotional spots began only in May, Hilton says Spectrum has already received numerous phone calls from people commending it on the sponsorship. The spots are running on the East Coast now and will be expanding to the Chicago area and the West Coast soon, Hilton adds.

In addition to his corporate responsibilities, Burg is active in Jewish causes. "I suffered half my life from being Jewish," he explains. He and his wife were in Israel last month to inaugurate the new Rodica & Paul Burg Analytical Chemistry Laboratory at the Israel Institute of Technology, also called the Technion.

Burg is a fitness buff who considers one of his main accomplishments the completion of a three-hour marathon while in the 50-plus age bracket. "I did it by imagining that the Fascists and the Communists were running after me," he says.



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