Man behind genome map

Leader: A chief executive known for entrepreneurial style was a lead driver in the race to map the human genome.

July 30, 2000|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

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.

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