Donal J. Geaney didn't know very much about the drug industry when he left a lucrative job at accountancy firm KPMG in 1987 to join Elan (ELN), an obscure Irish biotech outfit, as executive vice-president for corporate planning. But since then, Geaney, now Elan's chairman, has made up for lost time.
In the past five years, he has turned the company from a parochial player into a global giant. Elan is now positioned as a leading drug-discovery outfit, with a pipeline of innovative treatments for Parkinson's disease, pain relief, and infections. And it is known as a world leader in research on drugs to combat Alzheimer's. In masterminding this transition, he has increased the company's market value from a paltry $900 million back in 1987 to $17 billion today, making it Ireland's biggest public company.
Geaney, 50, an auto-racing enthusiast, has taken a series of calculated risks to transform Elan. In the past five years, he has made more than a dozen acquisitions in Europe and the U.S. The most recent was the $2 billion purchase of San Diego's Dura Pharmaceuticals Inc. (DRMD), which doubled Elan's sales force overnight in the key U.S. market. The easygoing yet aggressive Geaney has also inked partnership deals or joint ventures with more than 60 biotech and drug companies either to develop new drugs or market existing ones. The company now has 2,000 employees, with research operations in Ireland, Israel, and the U.S. Last year, revenues were just shy of $2 billion, while profits came in at $495 million. Geaney's target is to reach $5 billion in sales by 2005.
To get there, he is counting on a host of new drugs in development for hard-to-treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's. The company's drug for multiple sclerosis, for example, is in late-stage testing and is likely to be approved by 2004. "If we could get a drug for Alzheimer's, we could say we had made a real contribution," says Geaney. He's determined to keep racing toward that goal.