Doug Williams and the people who created Enbrel could have stopped Amgen in its tracks.
There's no doubt Amgen wanted Enbrel, Immunex's hit rheumatoid arthritis drug, when it bought the Seattle biotech company last month.
But Amgen wasn't just paying for that. It wanted to hang onto Williams, a scientist-turned-executive, and the world-class scientists loyal to him, people with the know-how to make more Enbrels. So the Thousand Oaks, Calif., company gave Williams a high-powered job as head of its Seattle operation and offered him a spot on its elite executive-management committee.
"The deal clearly could have gone south if Doug had left and a half-dozen other key people went with him," said Kirby Cramer, a former Immunex director who was in on merger talks. "When you buy a company like Immunex, you're buying intellectual property. And if the intellectuals leave, what property do you have?"
The latest job for Williams, a longtime Immunex employee, has been to make sure the intellectuals he's worked with don't walk out the door. He also has to connect them to former competitors at Amgen, make sure scientific programs don't get stalled and do some unusual things for a scientist, like talking to politicians and the news media.
So far, he said he's been successful on the retention front — about 95 percent of the employees offered jobs with Amgen have chosen to stay.
Former colleagues describe Williams as an outstanding scientist and unusually good listener but not a commanding boardroom presence. In a field of smart people and big egos, he is known for deflecting credit to scientists who work for him, trusting their judgment, and balancing those with a keen eye for when experiments are failing and should be stopped.
Williams describes his work in concise sentences, with more facts than generalities. He can be personable and self-deprecating, joking that he's a bureaucrat, even though in a flannel shirt he can still fit in the lab. He says he's a "devout coffee drinker," sometimes losing count of how many cups he drinks a day. Going without gives him headaches.
Mike Widmer, a former Immunex vice president of biological sciences, said Williams hasn't made many enemies in his career, partly because of his personable style and partly because he didn't "stomp on people" to get ahead. Widmer said he believes Williams has been able to hang on to so many scientists because Amgen seems willing to pay for their work. Many scientists emotionally invested in their experiments are willing to give him and the new company brass a chance.
Williams is well aware many employees have been on an emotional roller coaster. He's been reaching out.
"I have a lot of respect for the people who actually work in the lab," Williams said. "It's my perspective that the people who know these molecules best are the people in the trenches, and you've got to listen to them. But having said that, there are times when people get too close to molecules, and it requires some oversight."
Williams was born in April 1958, grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts, and got interested in medical science at an early age. His father had cancer, and he tagged along on hospital trips, intrigued with what the doctors were doing to try to save him. He got his Ph.D. at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and took a postdoctoral fellowship at Indiana University. There, he learned hematology, the study of blood and blood disorders, in a world-leading lab.
While at Indiana, he got to know some scientists at Immunex who shared an interest in stimulating the growth of white blood cells to help the body fight infections related to cancer treatment. He was recruited to Immunex as a staff scientist in 1988. Williams was instantly in action because his specialty was Immunex's top priority at the time.
He had been there since, rising through the ranks. He took a serious leap ahead in 1994, when he was 36, filling part of the void when company co-founder Steve Gillis left.
Cramer said Williams did well enough in that job and was so well-regarded in employee surveys that he was one of three internal candidates being groomed to become an Immunex chief executive.
"Doug really proved to be a fantastic hire — as a brilliant scientist and as someone with the rare ability to translate the details of science into sound business," said David Urdal, who recruited Williams to Immunex and is now chief scientific officer of Seattle-based Dendreon.
Williams played a role — one he downplays — on a team that defended Enbrel after it failed as a treatment for sepsis. Several of the scientists believed Enbrel's animal-testing data proved it deserved another shot in rheumatoid arthritis. The result was a blockbuster drug.
But mostly, Williams has made his reputation in day-to-day dealings with scientists.
"A really good chief scientific officer is one who can recognize the good ideas in the organization, support and encourage those ideas, and know how to prioritize them," Widmer said. "Doug was very good at doing that and focusing them to become products."
Williams lives near Edmonds with his wife and two daughters, 13 and 9. He's an artistic glass blower and occasionally plays golf.
At Immunex, he looked out his office through the Alaskan Way Viaduct, but now he has a bright seventh-floor office overlooking Elliott Bay. He says his biggest challenges are trying to understand Amgen's business as well as he knew Immunex's, and trying to get far-flung scientists to click.
Williams talks about Amgen's size and resources as the world's biggest biotech company and says he wants to take advantage of it.
"What I want is to see more pipeline opportunities reach the marketplace," Williams said. "I really don't care whether they come out of the Seattle pipeline, the Thousand Oaks (Calif.) pipeline or the Cambridge (Mass.) pipeline.
"Having the opportunity to meet a lot of the Enbrel patients and see what the drug has done for them is a motivational thing. I want to do it again."
Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or email@example.com