As President Clinton got ready to announce at the White House last month that Celera Genomics Group had discovered the genetic directions for building and running a human body, the company's chief executive filed in with hundreds of others and took a seat to the side of the stage, three or four rows from the rear.
Tony White could have had a spot at the podium, one that Celera President Craig Venter shared with Clinton. But it was his way of remaining behind the scenes, a curiously anonymous chief executive in a spectacularly visible company.
Staying in the shadows also belied his role in one of science's monumental achievements. The sequencing of the human genome has been compared to the completion of the periodic table of the elements and the moment of its announcement with the landing of men on the moon.
But it was White, a salesman by training, who orchestrated the race to map it largely because of the opportunity to sell.
From pushing for the development of the machine that sequenced it to forming the company that did it to choosing scientist Venter to run it, it was White, former company director Joseph F. Abely Jr. recalled, who led Celera's parent company "to come to grips with the human genome."
Still, White remains one of the least known minds in biotechnology, an industry hurtling into a future where the building blocks and worker bees of life's cells are being used to develop everything from drugs designed to choke cancer to cotton that grows in color.
White, 53, also may be among the industry's most unlikely captains. Raised alternately amid a Cuban revolution and North Carolina poverty, he wandered through economics studies at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee before graduating without distinction.
Raised amid uncertainty, he became a master of gut instinct, a man who built a career at conventional, old-line businesses by breaking with convention.
White's successes include turnarounds at medical-supply company Baxter International Inc. and PE Corp., the Celera parent company he now runs. Those successes largely have been based on avoiding the propensity of some CEOs to become wedded to a single -- and ultimately outmoded -- plan. They also have been based on a disdain for cumbersome detail that forces him to focus on the big picture, relying on experts for the rest.
Now, the man behind the curtain in the sequencing of the human genome is using the same instincts as he maps where to take his company next. It is -- once again -- a bold plan.
"This guy is a free-swinger," said Vernon Loucks Jr., former CEO at Baxter, where White worked for 26 years. "He isn't afraid once he's got an idea to go after it, and he did that with Celera in spades. That's Tony's game."
White was born in Havana to a Cuban mother and a North Carolinian father who met after his mother came to the state in the early 1940s for college. He grew up bilingual, watching his educated and wealthy Cuban grandparents lose everything in a revolution in the midst of which White was once forced to hit the floor of a bus as soldiers fired shots.
He also watched his father leave job after job. Today, White describes him as "kind of a hillbilly" who did not contribute to the support of the two-child family after his parents divorced. His mother made ends meet by working as a secretary at a cigarette paper plant 40 minutes from their Asheville home.
"Those struggling years were a big influence on my brother, because he didn't like the struggle," said Marco White, eight years Tony's junior and now in middle management with Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta.
It was amid this uncertainty that Tony White learned to take life as it came, throwing himself into jobs such as loading furniture trucks and honing an engaging personality that landed him a part in the play "Cheaper By the Dozen."
He married his junior-high sweetheart but he never made a plan. Still, he knew as he walked through a career fair that what he was looking for was "my ticket out of there." He bypassed the booths of well-known companies, J. C. Penney among them, and headed up the steps to interview on a whim with a company he'd never heard of.
"I'd rather die," he told the Baxter Laboratories interviewers when asked, "than be your personnel manager in Kingstree, S.C." They offered him a career in sales instead.
At Baxter, White hit his stride. He repeatedly finished among the company's top sales producers and -- aided by his ability to speak Spanish -- was handed a job as export manager for a Baxter product line in Latin America.
It was a Baxter cesspool where salespeople followed the custom of the day by paying bribes to get accounts. White cleaned it up by setting sales targets, outlining his expectations for clean dealing and firing employees who didn't comply.
White was promoted to running the company's Latin American operation, and results were spectacular.
Revenue in the region climbed from about $50 million to several hundred million by the time he left it.
A White-inspired turnaround in Canada followed, and White's reputation took off.
He was one star in a constellation at Baxter, a company filled with young men who would go on to lead, from current Genzyme Corp. CEO Henri Termeer to Wilbur H. "Bill" Gantz of PathoGenesis Corp. James R. Tobin, now chief executive officer of medical-device manufacturer Boston Scientific Corp., was among them. He often used White to help diagnose problems.
On one occasion, when Tobin was in his early 30s and the new head of Baxter's operations in Spain, he was stumped by a broken-down business unit he had just inherited.
The business was supposed to make and market intravenous solutions, but the production plant had been shut down for months because of a mysterious contaminant, inventories were wiped out and the business was losing money on sales.
"Tony came over and wandered around awhile," Tobin recalled of how White began to evaluate the problems. A bottle-washer was spraying particles into bottles it was supposed to be cleaning, and the head of the IV business needed to be fired. "Get rid of that turkey," White told Tobin.
Tobin took the advice. But years later, after White's blunt assessment of another situation had offended a peer for what seemed like the umpteenth time, then company President Gantz called White into his office.
Penchant for straight talk
"You do a great job" Gantz told him, but he warned that White's blunt style was hurting his chances for advancement.
Ultimately, White rose to become part of a four-man "office of the chief executive," but he never got Baxter's top job. He would later conclude that his lack of a Harvard Business School pedigree had hurt him, along with his penchant for straight talk.
Loucks, the longtime Baxter CEO and chairman who retired last year, said it was none of those things.
"Perkin-Elmer [now PE] was in a situation where you started at rock bottom," Loucks said about why White's free-swinging aggressiveness has played well at the company he now heads, but wasn't suited to the top spot at Baxter.
"Heroic kinds of actions fit better there than they do in an organization that's not all that broken," Loucks said.
White stayed on at Baxter, but he felt the tension between himself and Loucks increasing. One day, he said, Loucks asked him when he was going to retire. White was stunned. He was 48.
Loucks denies the incident, but when a call came to interview at Perkin-Elmer Corp. for the top spot, White went ahead.
What he found was a potential cleanup job that intrigued him. Perkin-Elmer Corp. had made its mark in a business with now-unspectacular returns, selling garden-variety lab gear and instruments used in the environmental and chemical industries to test for contaminants. Its departing CEO and board had recognized a future in life sciences in 1993 when they bought Applied Biosystems, a Foster City, Calif., company whose products included DNA-synthesizers and analyzers, but they had let it languish.
White's due diligence included meeting with the company's investment bankers, who told him a third of Perkin-Elmer's stock-market value was because of the fact that investors thought it was about to be taken over.
White took the job in the fall of 1995 and began studying it, piece by piece.
"I've got to go through here and look at what can and can't be turned around," he told his brother in a phone call.
To White, it quickly became apparent that the cash-generating life sciences business was being robbed to prop up the declining old lab business. He reversed the emphasis, using revenue from the old division to support research and development in life sciences.
One of his first steps, he recalled, was to light a fire under development of a next-generation DNA sequencer, a market he did not want the company to lose to competitor Amersham Pharmacia Biotech.
"If anyone wants to make obsolete what we do today, it's going to be us," White said he thought at the time. He gave Applied Biosystems' head Michael W. Hunkapiller $8 million more to pursue the job.
To Mike Albin, head of a Biosystems unit formed to do "blue sky" thinking about future products, the change was palpable. White, despite years with an old-line medical-supply company, seemed to have a Silicon Valley mentality. After White came on board, he said, "The level of support for what we wanted to do went up significantly."
Even with all his experience at Baxter, White was in some ways an unlikely choice to lead what would become a genomics company -- one based on exploring the detail of the 3.2 billion-unit genome. Notoriously impatient with minutiae, White turned to an illustrated paperback guide called "The Cartoon Guide to Genetics" for some of his first lessons on genes and proteins after becoming CEO.
But scientists soon began to respect him. White's ignorance seemed to give him the curiosity to explore ideas, and his focus on the big picture helped him cut to the chase in meetings when his scientists began debating and massaging tangents, said company director Georges C. St. Laurent Jr., who has known White for years.
Stephen A. Martin, now director of the company's nascent Proteomics Research Center, said White seemed to have a good sense of when scientists were just "blowing smoke."
White had also softened his style because of Gantz's advice. At Perkin-Elmer, he acted more like a quiet but forceful facilitator, a behind-the-scenes direction-giver curiously overlooked by nearly all who later would pass out credit for the genome.
Taking the next step
White had realized almost immediately that reversing the emphasis at Perkin-Elmer wouldn't be enough.
The life sciences division, if it were to be the foundation of the company, would have to be strengthened through acquisitions. He gave himself three years to increase revenue to more than $1 billion from the $350 million he inherited. He planned to cut the old business loose once the new one had enough mass to stand alone.
A hunt began, leading in part to Framingham, Mass.-based PerSeptive Biosystems, a manufacturer of machines used for, among other things, determining the structures of proteins -- the worker bees of cells.
PerSeptive Chief Executive Officer Noubar Afeyan was a serial entrepreneur who had never worked for anyone but himself. After six years of running his latest company, he itched for both a way to cash out and a change. He grew to admire White's entrepreneurial bent as the two negotiated the sale of PerSeptive. To Afeyan, White's plan for reinventing Perkin-Elmer gave the old company the feeling of a start-up.
When White asked him to accept a job plotting strategy at Perkin-Elmer, Afeyan accepted.
Transforming the company, White told Afeyan in their initial conversations, is "going to involve some subtraction and some addition. What I want you to worry about is how we extend the business model."
As Afeyan waited for federal antitrust regulators to clear his company's acquisition by Perkin-Elmer, he began mapping out a plan with multiple options, including a genomics information company.
About November 1997, he presented the options to the board of directors in an introductory meeting. The same month, at a meeting of 20 or so Perkin-Elmer executives in Foster City, Calif., the planning took on sharp focus.
Afeyan, still new to his strategic role and a relative stranger to most in the room, sat by White and listened to one of Applied Biosystems' employees make a presentation on a machine the company would dub the ABI Prism 3700. It could sequence DNA at breathtaking speed. Afeyan did some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations and blurted, "You know, we could do the whole genome with a couple hundred of these." White was intrigued.
Applied President Michael W. Hunkapiller wasn't so sure. Afeyan recalled that Hunkapiller -- later widely given credit for coming up with the idea -- told the group that sequencing the genome would compete with customers, the research institutions and pharmaceutical companies that bought its products to do just those sorts of calculations. PE was a products company, he pointed out. Perhaps the company should stick to its knitting.
In an interview, Incyte Genomics Chief Executive Officer Roy Whitfield said Hunkapiller had raised the same concern years earlier. Incyte, already a genomics information company like the one Celera would become, had pitched the idea of Incyte and Applied sequencing the genome together in a nonprofit venture, Whitfield said. Hunkapiller declined.
"This was way back in '92," Whitfield said. "Mike said, 'There's no way we can do that. We're an instrument company and there is potential for us being viewed as competing with customers.'"
Afeyan, new in his strategic role, felt chastened by Hunkapiller's concerns at the meeting. Hunkapiller was a pioneer in the development of DNA analyzers and an influential voice.
White felt differently. As the meeting continued, he leaned over with a reassuring order. "Don't back off," he told Afeyan. "I really want us to think about this."
After considering several scientists for the invitation to run the genomic information company he decided to form, White tapped Hunkapiller to call and invite Venter to take a look at the 3700.
Venter, White decided, was above all a brilliant sequencer who also would have the drive and experience to complete the human genome.
Once Venter was on board, White arranged to meet him while they were both in the Virgin Islands on separate family vacations. With their families gathered around them, the two men discussed the project at the Bitter End Yacht Club, and White made his expectations clear.
Venter may have been a rebel when he parted ways with drug development company Human Genome Sciences Inc., but "this was clearly a corporate environment," White said, "and we couldn't do that."
Brave new world
It has been just over a month since the sequencing of the genome was announced.
Celera sister company Applied Biosystems has just released its first microtechnology product onto the market, and the company promises more are coming. Such inventions promise to move discovery to smaller, cheaper and easier-to-use means -- even to "labs on a chip."
At PerSeptive Biosystems, engineers are testing a new, high-speed protein analyzer for shipment to Celera. A bevy of the machines, it is hoped, will allow Celera to explore the structures of proteins involved in creating and curing disease faster than any other on the face of the earth.
Last week, White and Venter explained more about what that will mean to the company's future, saying PerSeptive's new protein analyzer will be the basis for starting a drug-discovery business at Celera.
While Celera probably wouldn't manufacture, test or market the protein-based drugs itself, the strategy would allow it to earn royalties on sales of drugs developed using Celera discoveries.
Exactly how the effort will be focused hasn't been decided. Plenty of other companies have microtechnology products on the market, and others are far ahead on discovering useful proteins. As a result, for at least the past month, White has been wrestling, somewhat fitfully, with this latest inspiration.
He talked it over with his old colleague Bill Gantz on a flight to California about a month ago. White's corporate jet had picked Gantz up, and the two headed out to a Goldman Sachs conference together.
As the miles flew by, the two old friends commiserated about the fact that, even with an accomplishment like mapping the human genome, the world quickly moves on. It wants to know what's next.
"It's the life of a CEO: You're expected to have all the answers," Gantz said."And guess what? Sometimes you don't."
At a glance
Parent company. PE is a life sciences company that makes and markets instruments, chemicals and software and provides genomic information.
Applied Biosystems Group
Publicly traded product-manufacturing and services arm of PE Corp. Its divisions include:
PerSeptive Biosystems: manufactures equipment to separate, analyze and purify molecules and analyze and synthesize proteins.
Tropix: provides products and services that aid pharmaceutical companies' laboratory tests.
Molecular Biology: Manufactures and services a wide range of equipment for scientists.
Informatics: provides software for scientists to organize, store and find vast amounts of information.
Celera Genomics Group
Publicly traded PE Corp. arm that sells genomic information, primarily to scientists researching treatments for disease. Its divisions include:
Paracel: provides hardware and software for searching vast databases of genomic information.
Celera AgGen: Agriculture-focused genomics information unit of Celera.