You could say Rod Ray’s high-school sweetheart got him where he is today. Her father, then owner of Bend Research, gave Ray a summer job building an 1,800-foot post-and-rail fence around the 40-acre Tumalo property to keep out cows.
The fence is long gone (as is the sweetheart), but Ray is not. He kept coming back to work at Bend Research every summer and Christmas vacation during his undergrad years at Oregon State University. He returned permanently after getting a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and has spent his entire 27-year career working for Bend Research in development, chemical engineering and directing the engineering department.
Now as CEO he is reinventing the company’s business model to make Bend Research a leader in pharmaceutical drug-delivery research.
Bend Research, founded in 1975, specializes in developing ways that make it possible for drugs to enter the body and go to the places they are meant to treat. “A lot of those drugs have physical properties that make them quite difficult to work in your body,” Ray says. Those problems include not being able to dissolve in water, be digested by the body or be released over a period of time.
Bend Research worked exclusively for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer between 1994 and 2008, when it grew from $10 million to $40 million in annual revenue with state-of-the-art facilities and research capabilities.
Ray, 54, became CEO in 2008. Two weeks later, Pfizer ended its contract with Bend Research as a result of consolidation and downsizing. Ray suddenly was confronted by the daunting challenge of needing to immediately grow Bend Research’s clientele from nothing.
Pfizer gave Bend Research the rights to technologies it had developed. “I didn’t know at the time how truly fair Pfizer was going to be to us,” Ray says. “If they had not done those things, we wouldn’t have grown fast enough to thrive.”
But Bend Research wasn’t yet out of deep business weeds. “Our new business without Pfizer, I knew, would be different.” Ray says. Costs were cut 25% by eliminating 25 positions and extraneous departments. Bend Research now employs 159 people. Initial clients resulted from connections made through Pfizer, and it was critical to create a quality product that would retain those clients for future projects.
“We worked our rear ends off,” says Ray.
It’s paid off. In 2008, 100% of revenues came from Pfizer. In the first quarter of 2009, it was 5%. Bend Research now has 40 clients; almost all of them are repeat customers and hail from the East Coast, Europe and China. Ray estimates gross revenues this year will be more than $30 million. That’s under the $40 million mark it had during the Pfizer years, but Ray predicts steady growth. “The key to growth is doing high-quality work for the clients we have,” he says.
Ray uses what he calls the “alliance model” of working with a client. Bend Research works closely with the pharmaceutical company to improve a drug’s capabilities instead of being an isolated contractor. “We always try to work on a drug in a team rather than on our own,” he says. “It works better to work with the client who knows their drug really well, and we know technology real well.”
And it makes Bend Research “a line item in their budget.”
Future growth will not only result from maintaining long-term relationships with clients, but also marketing Bend Research as a problem-solving company.
“The real key is deciding what problem you are trying to solve on a particular drug. Sometimes they appear to be insoluble, but they won’t go through the wall of your body. That’s a permeability problem,” Ray says. “If you’re not solving the right problem, you’re wasting everyone’s time and money.”
Ray is also considering expanding the company’s offerings. Bend Research is adding a 15,000-square-foot building that will be used for small-scale commercial manufacturing. “Right now…we only make supplies for the testing phase,” he says. “But the key is to advance [the drug companies'] medicines toward the markets. It’s satisfying because their medicines are being used to cure diseases.”