From startup to $1B company, Gordon Vanscoy steers PANTHERx through constant change

 

Gordon Vanscoy changes the organizational chart at PANTHERx Rare every six months because, as it evolves, the business requires different skills sets, mindsets and, perhaps, a different group of people handling those tasks.

That ability to be flexible in an industry of large players is key to its success.

“To introduce a new business to try to compete with CVS, to compete with Express Scripts, to compete with Walgreens, is a daunting, if not impossible task,” the chairman and CEO says. “This is clearly the David and Goliath story, where not only have we been able to compete but, in fact, we’ve been successful and we’ve actually grown to, I believe, attain the admiration of those companies.”

The rare disease pharmacy has come a long way since Vanscoy founded PANTHERx in a garage in Beaver, Pennsylvania, in 2011 with three former University of Pittsburgh students. The managing partner came out of semi-retirement to do so, because he knew that the government wanted to provide incentives for drug manufacturers to expand their research into rare, devastating diseases.

The company direct-delivers extremely limited-production, difficult-to-ship, life-saving, expensive, orphan medications to patients with extremely rare disorders, while providing clinical, nursing and financial counseling.

Today — thanks to years of rapid growth and four appearances on the Inc. 5000 list — PANTHERx has more than $1 billion in annual revenue. But with only 300 employees, it still has the ability to quickly adjust.

Vanscoy also in 2018 identified a need, developed and launched a second company, RareMed Solutions, which provides pharmacy services to patients on behalf of rare disease biotech manufacturers. With 75 employees, the startup’s growth trajectory is surpassing the early days of PANTHERx.

Constant evolution

With each growth phase at PANTHERx, the skill sets necessary to manage and lead the organization are different. Vanscoy says the company doesn’t want to be over-reactionary and change on a whim, but doing so can be a strategic advantage.

“We’re constantly changing with the market, we’re constantly changing with our business model, and you’ve got to change leadership to coincide with that,” he says.

That’s why the PANTHERx team has evolved from a bunch of mavericks who sometimes created friction for each other and didn’t know what they didn’t know, into a team of industry-leading, disruptive, skilled, experienced professionals who seamlessly work together, he says.

In addition, Vanscoy chose the right business partners to start the company, minority partners who have shared his vision throughout the company’s iterations, including the need to reinvest in the business.

As for Vanscoy, the rapid growth is a constant, but his role has evolved.

“I continue to focus more and more on the external environment, trying to see the forest, not just focus on the trees,” Vanscoy says, adding that he’s developed a team of leaders who don’t require constant supervision.

He finds that being a virtual CEO, who commutes back and forth to Naples, Florida, is advantageous.

“It gives me the luxury of not developing personal biases because I can see people more objectively,” he says.

Some employees find the rapid growth — and the change that must come with that — challenging.

“You need to accept that when you launch a company, the talent that you have isn’t the same talent that you’ll need, in terms of leadership, a year from now, three years from now, five years from now,” Vanscoy says. “The organization often outgrows the comfort zone of some of our associates as we continue to add structure and continue to add sophistication.”

Vanscoy tries to develop his employees and have them reap the rewards of growing with the company. In fact, because he and his executive team had difficulty recruiting the appropriate talent to match PANTHERx’s growth, he utilized his relationship with the University of Pittsburgh, where he’s been on faculty for more than 35 years.

Five years ago, he helped create and launch a master-level program that blends business and pharmacy. A number of PANTHERx’s and RareMed’s leaders, including Vanscoy’s son, Gannon, have gone through that program.

Panther also created a fellowship program, partnered with schools of pharmacy to provide internship experiences and developed internal programs to train people and get them to focus in areas the business needs. In addition, the company will be opening a fourth location east of Pittsburgh in fall 2020, because some employees have trouble getting to its facility near the airport.

But, Vanscoy says, despite your best efforts, there will be times when employees no longer fit in the organization. He says they may be great people who contributed immensely when they started, and in their first year or two, but if the company changes and they won’t, you’ll need to make some hard decisions.

Sometimes that turnover comes when the employee decides to pursue a different career opportunity; other times, you have to end the relationship, he says.

Keep the culture, maintain the service

With rapid growth comes the need to spend time maintaining your culture, Vanscoy says. If you grow too fast, sometimes the talent you bring in can contradict or dilute your culture.

A campaign called 1PANTHERx helps mitigate this. It refocuses and reminds employees that the business’s mission is caring for people, because if they don’t get that care from the company, they usually don’t get it anywhere.

When Vanscoy started PANTHERx, his primary motivation wasn’t profit, so he finds it easy to put the mission front and center. He also takes quality service very seriously.

PANTHERx serves those living with rare diseases, which means the disease population is fewer than 200,000 people. The company sometimes provides drugs that need to be kept at temperatures that cannot deviate by more than four degrees. Or medication with weight-based dosing could be injectable and targeted toward pediatric patients.

An ability to provide quality service to patients with difficult needs is why PANTHERx exists. Therefore, when it came in at No. 2 on an independent patient satisfaction survey for the first time, Vanscoy and his team reacted. They re-examined the company’s service model to enhance quality.

When you have a dip in customer satisfaction, you need to add structure to try to regain control. It’s hard to find that balance, and Vanscoy admits he probably added too much immediately after — PANTHERx started to act like a large company with too many rules and too much rigidity.

When that began to stifle creativity, he backed off some of that structure.

PANTHERx is also fortunate to have the ability to take on as much business as it can manage in the rare disease market, which is worth north of $60 billion. A natural result of so many business opportunities and an ability to always grow is the need to tighten the filter for the type of business the company accepts.

“We didn’t just slow down,” Vanscoy says. “We increased our focus to our sweet spot.”

The company is continually homing in on the customers it can serve best.

“I’m not talking about turning down one or two opportunities, I’m talking a significant number of opportunities that just weren’t perfect for PANTHERx,” he says.

In addition, Vanscoy has been approached by a number of people who want to buy PANTHERx, and as the business has become more successful, rumors about its future are inevitable.

“The rumors are out there because people perceive, ‘Well, they’re going to cash in,’” he says. “The reality is, we’re not at that point yet. There’s just so much more opportunity for us to grow this company and have fun in the process and do the job correctly.”

The heavy lifting has already been done. PANTHERx’s reputation has been developed. Patients know the company. Many biopharmaceutical companies have relationships with it, where it is the exclusive provider of their medication. And Vanscoy is steadfast in his commitment to PANTHERx’s mission and his joy at growing the company and filling its parking lots.

“It’s just phenomenal, being able to provide careers for this number of people — creating career paths for our associates — and serving more and more patients living with rare and devastating diseases,” he says.

 

Takeaways:

  • As the company grows, develop your people along with it.
  • Understanding when and how to adapt is crucial.
  • Know what’s critical to your culture and make that a priority.

 

The file:

Name: Gordon Vanscoy, Pharm.D., MBA
Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: PANTHERx Rare, RareMed Solutions

Born: McKeesport, Pennsylvania
Education: Bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and MBA, University of Pittsburgh; doctor of pharmacy, Duquesne University

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it? My dad worked 30-plus year in the mill, but he also worked on the side as a plumber. I would go out on jobs with him, starting when I was 7 or 8 years old, and I did that until I went to college.

He was the epitome of a mentor. It’s where I learned a lot of my people skills — how to treat people and how to have fun in the process.

What was the hardest management skill for you to learn? The value of networking. You don’t realize when you’re young, as you’re developing, how important the people around you will be and how small the world of your particular business is, even across the country. Your reputation is everything.

Where might someone find you on the weekend? I live part of the time in Florida, so they would probably find me next to my wife — we’re inseparable — in my boat on the Gulf of Mexico, listening to either Kenny Chesney or Jimmy Buffett, with a cold drink in my hand.

Is there another job you’d like to try? I love what I do; it’s not work. I take calls 24 hours a day. Work and my outside life blend together, and I love it that way. I want to be aware of issues as they arrive, not the day after, the morning after, the weekend after.

But I’ve always admired the Supreme Court justices — their wisdom and ability to actually shape this country, more than any president has — so that would be a cool job to have.

On a lighter note, when I ran a drug information center for UPMC, I used to do a lot of TV spots about medications and such. I wouldn’t mind having Sanjay Gupta’s job, CNN chief medical correspondent.