It was the first half of 2008. For 15 years, the company that became BioClinica Inc. had developed a strong presence as a medical image management business in the clinical research solutions space. Mark Weinstein, the company’s president and CEO since 1998, had been on board for most of that run.
“It’s been a good business, a dominant business, but in March 2008, we decided to really broaden the business and go into a new area for us, what we call e-clinical solutions,” Weinstein says. “It’s technology and solutions related to clinical research. We were stepping beyond our core business and entering a new space, but our strategic plans were intact.”
Everything was smooth sailing until the fourth quarter of that year, when the economy slammed into a wall, plunging into its worst recession since the Great Depression. Weinstein needed to keep BioClinica on course, continuing to grow its e-clinical solutions business, but he now had to do it in a climate of extreme volatility and adversity.
“When that happened, we had to do what everybody did, which was figure out how to keep the business going and stay profitable throughout the downturn,” he says. “That was a big challenge because we had just stepped beyond our core business.
“The good news is, we did fairly well, we maintained profitability and continued to grow the new business, but our revenue ramp wasn’t quite what we anticipated when we went into the space.”
But keeping the ship on course wasn’t as easy as maintaining a steady heading. Weinstein and his leadership put in months of work behind the scenes to ensure that BioClinica could continue to grow. The company generated $68 million in service revenue last year, up from $62 million in 2010.
Know your strengths
When the recession hit, Weinstein and his team had to do what a lot of company leaders were doing — assess the business and figure out which areas needed which resources in order to help minimize the effects of the downturn as much as possible.
Weinstein knew BioClinica’s best bet was the company’s primary competency — clinical research. He and his team quickly came to the conclusion that the company needed to focus on new ways to employ what it does best.
“We know clinical research very well, and we always approached it from the management of medical images as it relates to information using clinical research results,” Weinstein says. “So we wanted to stay within clinical research, but we needed bigger markets to go after.”
Within the broader category of clinical research, Weinstein decided to pour more resources into technology. With the recession driving business volume downward, e-clinical solutions became more than a new area for BioClinica to explore. It became essential to the company’s ability to weather the recession and emerge from it in a position to continue growing.
“We knew drug development was going to continue, but the challenge we had was knowing that pharmaceutical and biotech companies, as well as the world in general, became kind of like deer in headlights for a while,” Weinstein says.
“So the question becomes, what do you do with your business to try and maintain profitability? Something I have always stressed to my people is that when you hit a down market, the last thing you want to do is exit that down market in a weakened state.”
You can’t adjust the flow of resources in your business without creating a domino effect. Scaling back timetables on projects, reallocating dollars and reallocating manpower all take a cumulative toll on the organization. Your reasoning might be sound, but if you don’t keep your people in the loop, all they’re going to see is chaos and upheaval. Morale will suffer and, in turn, so will your culture.
Weinstein says a CEO’s obligation to his or her people in a time of upheaval boils down to one word: transparency.
“Transparency was a big thing for me because it wasn’t just my issue personally; it was a company issue and a market issue,” he says. “I didn’t see it as everybody’s issue to try and solve it, but I was very open with everyone.
“In some ways, it was actually better from a communication standpoint than some other market situations you might find because everybody in the world knew things were changing. The issue was that we had to do our fair share as individuals and a company to respond to that.”
Weinstein relied on the company’s organizational structure as a vehicle for communication. He focused on developing solutions with his department managers, who then rolled those solutions out to their areas of the company.
The goal was to maintain as much of a sense of normalcy as possible throughout the organization. BioClinica was responding to an economic crisis, but Weinstein didn’t want that feeling to permeate the company ranks. He wanted his people to remain focused on driving growth and finding solutions.
“We started with our executive team and just worked the process,” Weinstein says. “It was pretty similar to what we would be doing in a normal budgeting process. The issue was, the situation was somewhat fluid due to the down market, and nobody knew how long it might last.
“It was a little scary there for a while, because the economy worsened faster than anything I could remember in my career. But I wasn’t alone in thinking that, and everybody understood that they had a role to play in being a part of the solution.”
Face your customers
You can put the best crisis plan in place, plot out every detail and allocate resources perfectly, but it won’t make a bit of difference if sales dry up. If your customers aren’t buying what you’re selling, you’re still in a world of trouble.
Weinstein knew he couldn’t just focus inward on his own strategies and processes. As the economy worsened, he had to look outside the company and make sure his people were still connecting with the people and organizations that purchase from BioClinica. He couldn’t strip mine the customer-facing areas of the company if he expected it to emerge from the recession in a healthy state.
“We wanted to make sure that customers didn’t see us as retreating, so we deemed anything customer-facing to be highly critical with regard to resource allocation,” Weinstein says. “Things like development work might have changed, the rate of change of some of our products and services might not be as fast as we would have liked otherwise, because we had to gauge what the business could support and afford.
“But we didn’t want to do anything that would have affected aspects of the business that are client-facing.”
When the full force of the recession hit, Weinstein and his management team started to receive inquiries from customers as to the financial stability of the company. Weinstein looked up on it as an opportunity to reinforce confidence in BioClinica.
“We deal with all of the top pharma companies — the top 25 in the world plus 75 percent of the top 50,” Weinstein says. “In any given month, we’re sending invoices to about 170 pharma companies. So we did have more inquiries than usual relative to making sure that we did have financial stability, because drug development is going to be the key to their success. The last thing they needed was one of their vendors associated with their clinical research having financial difficulty.
“The way you quell those concerns is through simply being honest. You need to be open with people about where you stand.”
If you try to sugarcoat an issue or dance around a problem, it will come back to bite you. It’s only a matter of when.
“At the end of the day, we are all measured from the outside market from a financial perspective,” Weinstein says. “So for me to say something is happening that is not going to happen, I am delaying something that is going to be causing a much bigger problem if people have valued me based on expectations that are going to change. You really need to manage the expectations.”
However, managing customer expectations can be more easily said than done, especially if the matter involves an employee who wants to make a big impression.
Sometimes, younger employees who are eager to make their mark or simply haven’t mastered the art of managing expectations, will overpromise on a project, which could damage your firm’s reputation. Depending on the size of the account and the influence of the customer, such a misstep can potentially have long-reaching consequences.
“Sometimes, you can have a person who sees a risky situation with a project, but rather than be the bearer of bad news, they’ll tell the customer that they can get the project done without mentioning the risk level involved,” Weinstein says. “That type of situation can end one of two ways: Either you get it done and you’re a hero, or you don’t get it done and you have very poorly managed the customer’s expectations.
“So I always tell people to err a little bit on the side of losing the excitement of being the hero and more on the side of helping the customer to understand the risk you are undertaking. That way, nobody is disappointed.
“Clinical trials never happen as you plan them. As a vendor, one of our roles is to fix problems when they occur. To tell the clients that there will not be problems is not the right answer in most cases.”
Your customer-facing people have to know what constitutes a major risk. As BioClinica continued to grow in the e-research field during the recession, defining the boundaries of what made a given project a suitable risk came down to judgment calls at the executive level.
Ultimately, any decision on risk tolerance is an educated guess. You research the numbers, you measure the resources you can put into the project and you gauge the expectations of the customer. Beyond that, there are no guarantees. You can only trust the judgment of the people around you.
“We’ve amassed a tremendous amount of experience in our business, and anytime you’re able to rely on people with experience, it’s to your advantage,” Weinstein says. “I feel very comfortable that I can sit down with the right group of people, and I feel confident that we can figure out pretty quickly whether the project under consideration presents a risk that is appropriate for us.
“You can take the risk, but make sure everyone involved understands the level of the risk. The customer could always tell you that they don’t want to take that type of risk.”
If you have to walk away from a project because the risk is too big, it’s never an easy decision. But if it comes to that and you’ve built your corporate culture on a bedrock of integrity and honesty, the right answer should be obvious when you get on the phone to the customer.
“It has to be part of the fabric of who you are as a company,” Weinstein says. “If you’re talking about walking the walk like you talk the talk, I really do require that here. It can be difficult because those are never easy decisions. You want to minimize the number of decisions like that. But you simply have to stay true to the fabric of what you are as a company and who you are as a person.” <<
How to reach: BioClinica Inc., (267) 757-3000 or
The Weinstein file
Born: Washington, D.C. Raised in Richmond, Va.
Education: B.A. in economics, University of Virginia; MBA, College of William and Mary
First job: I filled foundations with dirt in a new housing development. I did it by hand, one shovel at a time, then tamped it down so the concrete foundations could be poured. I was 15 at the time, and that as much as anything convinced me that I needed to go to college.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
As saying I’ve always enjoyed is, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ The path your business takes between here and the realization of your vision is not a straight line. There are a lot of curves and road switches. You have to constantly re-evaluate where you are headed. A good vision two years ago might not be a good vision now.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
I am a big believer in having a strong ego rather than a big ego. A strong ego elicits feedback and makes people want to share things with you. A big ego just turns people away, which is never good. You need input from a lot of different people to run your business the right way.
What is your definition of success?
Seeing the people around me thrive personally and professionally. I am not responsible for the personal lives of the people who work here, but I can help foster a balance between their personal and professional lives. If you have a good personal life, it will help you have a better professional life.