Issue Date: March 3, 2008
Chemistry and Northern Ireland
"My proposition was this: Can we build a service-type company for the big pharmas and the biotechs?" recalls Sir Allen McClay of the birth of Almac Group, the Northern Irish firm he formed in 2003. "It was a bit obfuscated. A little cloudy. But we set forth."
In fact, McClay was hoping to get back on track toward what was, for him, a clear vision. He wanted to create a chemistry-based company to serve firms bringing new drugs to market.
At the time, McClay had recently retired from Galen Holdings. He started Galen in 1968 to offer such pharmaceutical services, but after going public in 1997, Galen purchased Warner Chilcott Pharmaceuticals and started to become a drug company focused on the U.S. The firm was pulling away from his dream, and he was no longer in control.
"I retired on Friday and came back on Monday," he recalls, chatting in the Almac boardroom next to his office. He did not come back to Galen, however. He came back to purchase the service businesses that he had created—businesses he wanted to keep growing in Northern Ireland.
In Galen, McClay had built the first business in Northern Ireland valued at 1 billion British pounds. But he feared that what he created was at risk. "I felt we had some of the service businesses we needed," he says. "But the board didn't want to pursue that at all. I had a lot of people at Galen whom I knew and respected, and I didn't want to see that scattered to the four winds."
Five years later, Almac stands as a testimony to McClay's commitment to Northern Ireland in the face of the region's prolonged strife. At 76, he remains active as company chairman and says he has no thoughts of retiring despite the fact that he is an avid golfer with memberships in two of the world's most prestigious golf clubs, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush, both in Northern Ireland.
McClay, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005, has established a trust for the benefit of chemistry and pharmacy education at Queen's University, Belfast. The trust has donated approximately $40 million for a new library and the McClay Research Centre for Pharmaceutical Sciences at the university's Belfast City Hospital campus.
McClay admits, however, that his main subjects of interest when he was a student were English and the arts. He discovered chemistry when he apprenticed with the local pharmacist—a job he took, he says, because he would get paid. He went on to manage the pharmacy for two years and then went to work for Glaxo as a sales representative.
"There, I started to mix with people who were developing medicines and vaccines for tuberculosis," McClay says. "I had things kicking around in my head. I thought I would create something small in Northern Ireland in Galen. People around me saw what I was doing and started thinking bigger."
Chemistry has been and remains the key to Almac's success, according to McClay, who views scientific innovation as the company's anchor to Northern Ireland. "I shouldn't say this as a pharmacist, but the future is chemistry," he says. "Look at how this industry has developed. People ask if I fear chemists in India and China. I say no —we can use them. Let us create ideas here with good, creative chemists."
The future will also be characterized by genetically targeted therapies, McClay says. He points to the company's new diagnostics division and the growing use of biomarkers in drug development. "There is a sea change in pharma," he says. "It is all moving toward specialized medicine."
McClay says he remains interested in his first loves: the arts and literature. "I like poetry," he admits while pointing out a painting of a seascape he recently purchased in New Zealand. "If you look at that picture you will see a haze, and the water is moving. It appealed to me, and I had to have it," he confides. "I shouldn't say this, but the management board meetings can become boring, so I look at it."
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