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George Rathmann
George Rathmann
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George Rathmann Interview

Founding Chairman, Amgen

June 17, 2000
Scottsdale, Arizona

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  George Rathmann

You had a significant career at other companies -- especially 3M -- before you started your own. How did you come to leave 3M and go off on your own?

George Rathmann: I actually went to go with Litton Industries. And what had happened was that while I was at 3M, they became excited about a lot of different parts of 3M. I had a problem holding a job at 3M. I never was in the same job for more than three years, and then there would be somebody that would say, "Why don't you try this?" and I'd do that. And that was part of 3M too. It was very dynamic.

At 3M things changed there about every three years. It started out in polymers, and that's elastomers and rubbers and plastics, and then I went to physical chemistry, including acoustics and other things. And then it went to health care and tapes, and then it went to photographic products. And along the way I had several years on a rocket propellant program, because about that time Sputnik had gone up, in 1958, and the head of the company, Mr. McKnight, was concerned about the fact that we better make our contribution to the national good and help with a propellant program. And so all of those things evolved. The last one was the photographic area. I decided to leave the science role completely and start to go toward a business direction and try to bring an x-ray film that we'd invented into the marketplace, which we did. And the company we worked with was Litton. So I went to Litton as the President of a division that marketed the x-ray film for 3M. Then I left Litton to go to Abbott Laboratories. That's when I went to Abbott. And after these 30 years of those various big business experiences, when I had a chance to start Amgen, it was just one of those things. I was fascinated by the science, and it could be a very dangerous call, I suppose, to let fascination decide your career path. But I never regretted it, and it turned out. I believe that's a good principle anyway. If you really like something, you ought to do it. So I started at Amgen, leaving Abbott Laboratories at that time. That was after 30 years.

George Rathmann Interview Photo
That was after 30 years of work experience in a big company. Suddenly taking on the thought that maybe I could do something in a small company. It was small all right. I was the first employee. That's about as small as you can get.

Things have changed since then. How big is Amgen now?

George Rathmann: I would probably misstate it, but it's certainly 6,000 people, plus or minus a thousand.

Back to Abbott, what are you most proud of having accomplished there, and how long were you there?

George Rathmann: I was there five years, and as always, there were some wonderful, wonderful people there, which is a good part of a happy career. Two or three individuals that had started the diagnostic effort decided they needed someone who could head the scientific part of the diagnostic effort. So I was in charge of R&D, and became Vice President of R&D. I was proud of several aspects of what I did. I think I was a factor in having them recognize that the true potential of diagnostics were far beyond the several products that they had discovered early and were concentrating on. Also, the true potential was even more important than just taking the next step, incremental improvements in those products. It was just, "The sky's the limit. This is going to be a diagnostic age."

What were the products?

George Rathmann: The product that they first started with was a hepatitis diagnostic, which was a wonderful product, and a small device for doing certain kinds of chemistries. And what happened after that was we came out with cancer products, and other types of diagnostics across the spectrum of anything and everything you could do diagnostically: for spina bifida, diagnostics for various types of cardiovascular problems, a whole spectrum of infectious disease diagnostics, including additional hepatitis diagnostics. And it was just a matter of a very, very talented bunch of people that were now unleashed, so to speak. Instead of being restricted, and kind of the idea that "You better stay with the thing you know the best," the sky's the limit. "Let's try and be the biggest diagnostic company in the world." And of course they are today. There was a period of -- I was only there five years, but the transformation was wonderful. I was given the opportunity, and the company decided it wanted to have a very strong diagnostic effort, and we became the fair-haired boys of the company. The Chairman, I remember, just used to think we were the delightful people in the company. We were called Abbott Diagnostics Division, which is ADD, and he prided himself, when he described us, as the people in the "After Dark Division," because, as my boss said, all the people there were just the hardest working people the world has ever known. We did burn the midnight oil. And that's hard to do, hard to maintain that in a large company. You have to have great leadership, and a couple of people there were remarkable leaders, and I was the beneficiary of that.

That must have been a difficult decision, whether to stay at Abbott, or start this new enterprise, Amgen.

George Rathmann: When you have two good alternatives, you don't sweat it too badly. That's a lot better than the really tough decision between two terrible alternatives. So that was the point that -- the company did offer to start a recombinant DNA program for me to keep me there, because they saw I was fascinated by recombinant DNA. And I thought it was a brilliant call to say, "We'll set up a company. And no, you don't have to follow all the rules and regulations of Abbott. You don't have to be inhibited by a lot of bureaucracy, because we know these young companies are going to have to be dynamic. You can make it as dynamic as you want. You need outside investors? You can have outside investors. You want to go public? You can even take it public. All that we'd like is we maintain 52 percent ownership of your company, and that's a reasonable request." And I thought it was very reasonable. I accepted the job. So I didn't go off to this company, Amgen, that was about to form. I said, "I'll stay," but after about three days, I decided it really wasn't going to work, because the 52-percent ownership would inhibit people from believing that we had "the sky's limit." And although Abbott was a wonderful company, I just thought it would be better to start fresh with a brand new company. I knew I was going to be competing with Genentech and Cetus and other biotech companies that had started, and they were run that way. They were independent companies, and they were very dynamic. So we started Amgen as a dynamic company in the same mold, and had the benefit that these other companies kind of showed us how to do it.

I didn't know much about recombinant DNA. I was certainly in the dark. I just liked the thrill of the thought that you could actually make human proteins. Now, for the first time, you could create them. They could be safely made, and made commercially interesting. So although there weren't very many examples of that, it was clear that's where the science was going. And of course, the other part of the science was that you'd actually have a basis of looking at and having a true molecular understanding of the human being, instead of, as biology had been up 'til that time, "There's a factor one and a factor two and a factor three," all the way up to factor eight in the coagulation family. And not a single one of those chemicals could have been identified by the people who had named them. By the time recombinant DNA came along, you could pinpoint the exact chemical structures of every one of those things. And every other molecule in the body was available for that decoding, and that's exactly what made it exciting. So I wanted to do it, and I decided I'd better do it with an independent company. So it was a fairly tough call, but what made it easy was that after I worried about it for a while, I finally decided to do it on a friendly basis. Came back to Abbott and got a $5 million investment from Abbott to help us get started. And $5 million from Abbott, that was the ticket to success, because immediately the venture capitalists all lined up. And we raised $19 million because they said, "If that tightfisted, conservative organization in the Midwest put in $5 million, that must be a great start." So we raised a lot of money. And that made the difference. That made Amgen successful enough to pass up all the previous companies that were already out there.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Sounds like you were quite a salesman, too.

George Rathmann: Well, that's been said, but I don't really think so. There was a certain amount of selling that went on. My dad was a salesman, but he had more charm than I did.

The technique that I learned to use was data. What I could do in going back to Abbott was I knew the company by that time, I'd had five years there, so I had analyzed the company and said, "Here's where recombinant DNA might work. It might work in your pharmaceutical division. It might work in the diagnostic division. It might help you in Ross Labs and some additions to Similac. It might help you in your chemical program. We could do something with subtilisin and possibly have a diet pill improvement, or possibly do it by recombinant DNA." Most of the things I talked about have come to pass, but Amgen's relationship with Abbott was actually limited to a diagnostic one. We didn't do a lot of the other things. But I was pretty effective because I was full of knowledge, and the power of the science was not -- they didn't miss that -- that we could have impacted every one of those fields. And eventually recombinant DNA did, by the way.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

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