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Outbreak Featured

8:00pm EDT June 28, 2001
People who say it's a dry heat in Arizona have never been to Phoenix after the monsoon season. That's right, there is a monsoon season in Phoenix.

Cleveland native Richard C. Adamany learned that the hard way when he exited the Sky Harbor International Airport just after the torrential rains ended in late August 1999. The balmy, 108-degree air and merciless sun made the city's barren landscape wave before his eyes. A concrete deck hanging over the airport doors trapped the heat, the moisture and the diesel fumes of the cars and buses taking busy travelers to rental car lots.

''We walked out and I thought to myself, 'This isn't going to work,''' Adamany says with a laugh. ''It was unbearable. Unbearable.''

Adamany and his business partner, Bennett S. Rubin, were in Phoenix to do a due diligence investigation. A company based there, Empyrean Bioscience, looked to be a diamond buried beneath the dry, cracked soil of the Southwest.

''We were looking for an opportunity to build some equity, build a company and use the talents and the abilities that we've both developed over a number of years,'' Adamany says. ''I found nothing that was as close to compelling as what I found with this product and its technology.''

Empyrean Bioscience is a company with auspicious beginnings. Several years before Adamany's arrival in 1999, Dr. David Thornburgh developed a consumer germ-killing solution called GEDA for his company, International Bioscience Corp., based in West Palm Beach, Fla. The unique formula didn't include alcohol or Triclosan, an overused antibiotic common in hand soaps and lotions. The solution was marketed, sold and distributed through Empyrean Bioscience as a hand sanitizer under the brand name Preventx, but had only limited success.

It wasn't the lackluster sales of the germ-killing hand lotion that sparked the men's interest. Instead, it was a variation of the GEDA formula, which was in the clinical testing stages for use as a contraceptive gel that could not only prevent pregnancy, but also kill gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, hepatitis B, syphilis and even HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The product, says Adamany, is poised to be a first of its kind.

''We believe it is an absolute homerun product,'' he says. ''I don't know of any product on the market that comes close to that.''

Adamany and Rubin were impressed with the GEDA formula and its market potential, but thought the company needed better direction to compete in the growing household germ fighting industry. Moreover, the men couldn't bide their time and wait for clinical and then FDA approval on the contraceptive gel while the company's other product line floundered.

Empyrean needed an aggressive marketing effort to sell other GEDA-based products before the contraceptive gel was deemed safe for use. That meant it needed to stand out in the aisles from its competitors.

''It's difficult to go to market as a one-product company,'' Rubin admits. ''Buyers (for retail chains) aren't interested in just one product. Secondly, from a retail consumer prospective, one product on a shelf really doesn't have a lot of impact. It kind of disappears on the shelf.

''The more products you have on the shelf with consistent packaging, you can grab the attention of the consumer more quickly, then be able to create a family approach and communicate the features and benefits.''

Sowing the seeds of change

First, a new headquarters was in order. Adamany is a Cleveland native who has held top executive positions at Solon-based Advanced Lighting Technologies Inc. and at Mr. Coffee, formerly in Bedford Heights. Rubin relocated to Cleveland from New York 15 years ago to join GE Lighting in Nela Park and later worked with Adamany at Advanced Lighting.

Once the two men joined Empyrean, they commuted to Phoenix for four months. It didn't take long for them to realize that the area was not going to house Empyrean's headquarters, and it wasn't just because of the weather.

''We needed that intangible Midwestern work ethic,'' explains Adamany. ''We have a wonderful team here of people that are all hard working. We're not sure we could find the same out in the Southwestern climes of Phoenix.''

Adamany still laughs about the time he was in the former Phoenix office and an employee rushed in with a look of horror on his face.

''We're gonna have a thunderstorm, I've got to go,'' the frazzled employee said.

The incredulous Adamany and Rubin just shrugged and let the skittish young man leave.

''We couldn't believe it,'' Adamany says. ''In Cleveland, we have thunderstorms all the time. It was one of those things where I didn't even want to hear why (he had to leave). We just didn't find the type of employee that could match the work ethic that we found here.''

''It's a laid-back, California-type work ethic,'' Rubin says. ''They're good people, it's just a different culture.''

Skeptical of the work force and weary of the 1,750-mile commute, last year, in less than three weeks, the men packed up and moved Empyrean to its Beachwood headquarters.

''We weren't planning on doing something this quickly,'' Adamany says. ''We got a lease, we signed a lease, we arranged for the move, we sold off a lot of excess inventory, we threw out a lot of stuff, we helped some other people get resettled and then we moved in. You have to be nimble when you're starting out.''

An agile business model

That nimbleness allowed the duo to quickly set up shop in Cleveland and begin to expand and improve Empyrean's product line based on the GEDA germ-killing formula. The lone hand sanitizer lotion had a bland, institutional label. Rubin revamped the look and launched a diverse antibacterial towelette line under the Preventx name.

Rubin also hooked up with Coleman sporting goods and licensed its name for a line of germ-fighting outdoor products that include a lotion, wipes and spray cleaner. The spray cleaner is the only item not based on the GEDA solution.

All of these strategic moves put Empyrean, under the Preventx and Coleman names, on the shelves of drug store chains including Rite-Aid, Eckerd and Walgreens, as well as big box retailers Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart.

But the products alone didn't persuade the overwhelmed inventory buyers for the big chains. After all, nobody had really heard of Empyrean. So Rubin and his sales staff put together targeted, flexible sales pitches and used shelf display ideas and enticements to make the buyer take notice of the fledgling Cleveland business.

''You're dealing with big companies,'' Rubin says. ''They have large egos and a lot of experience in their environment and stores. You don't necessarily want to go in and say, 'This is the program we had for Sears and this is going to work for you.' You have to say, 'Here is our general product line, this is how we understand your business and this is the program we think would work for you.' But then work with them and adapt quickly, get back to them with a program.''

In January, the two launched a national radio and print consumer advertising campaign to spread brand awareness of Preventx. The company was featured on nationally syndicated radio programs ''Delilah,'' which is heard by an estimated 5.8 million listeners in 250 markets, and ''Lia,'' which has 1 million listeners in more than 100 markets.

Future advertising is planned for national magazines and cable television stations.

Putting a charge into sales efforts

When the company reincorporated under the helm of Adamany and Rubin in March, its earnings outlook was bleak. It chalked up huge sales increases of more than 418 percent during 2000, but suffered losses due to heavy operating costs and a one-time litigation expense against International Bioscience Corp. over the royalties paid by Empyrean to market and sell the GEDA formula. This year is not expected to be profitable despite a sales increase of 260 percent over the previous quarter.

''It's really too early to make predictions for 2002, and I wouldn't make them anyway,'' Adamany says. ''If you look at 2000, it was really a transition year. That's when we first got there, and we focused on putting together retail programs and things like that. What we're really focusing on is this year.''

Luckily, the market for household germ killers shows no signs of fading. Thanks to news of Legionnaire's disease in a Cleveland Ford Motor Co. plant, hoof and mouth disease sweeping across Europe and sporadic, sometimes deadly, cases of E. coli popping up in fast food restaurants, it's hard to forget about germs and bacteria. And with international air travel becoming faster and cheaper, the threat of new bugs looms heavy.

''No longer are you isolated from the other things that are happening in this world,'' Adamany says. ''People want to protect themselves from that.''

Adds Rubin, ''It's a growth category for consumers. Retailers see that. They're not looking for one product, they're looking for product lines that help address those consumer needs and that will help them sell more products.''

How to reach: Empyrean Bioscience, (216) 360-7900

Empyrean Bioscience website