Oral History Spotlight

Dennis Gillings: Calculated Risk and Reward

Dennis Gillings has always been a risk taker. In 1982, he gave up a secure career as a professor at a top university to build Quintiles, the biostatistical consulting company he had cofounded with a university colleague. The company was born from the idea that drug development is, in essence, an information science, and that patients benefit when all stakeholders are properly informed. Having grown Quintiles from a tiny startup to a publicly traded transnational corporation, an industry leader with operations in fifty countries, Gillings risked it all once more by taking the company back into private ownership…

Dennis Gillings was good at math — always at the top of his class. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Exeter, a diploma in mathematical statistics at Cambridge, and then a PhD in mathematics at Exeter in 1972. His advisor, John Ashford, steered him into biostatistics and health services modeling. “Ashford made a tour of the United States,” Gillings says. “He came back and told me biostatistics was a big thing, and there was a shortage of people trained in the field.”

Ashford encouraged his protégé to consider a faculty position in biostatistics in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Gillings traveled to a biometrics meeting in Germany to meet the chair of the department, Bernard Greenberg. Greenberg wanted someone to run the unit’s health services program, and to start right away. He offered Gillings the job on the spot.

But Gillings had made plans for extensive travel in Africa, and didn’t want to give them up. He took one of his first risks when he asked for a one-year deferment. He got six months. “A typical business negotiation,” he says. With little more than a suitcase and sense of adventure, he drove from Morocco to South Africa. Gillings calls the journey “an extraordinary, character-forming experience.”

He immediately embarked on another life-changing experience when he flew to North Carolina. Gillings had grown up in London imagining that America was a dynamic and progressive place. Chapel Hill didn’t fit his mental picture: “I had assumed that because of the country’s material wealth, it would be more sophisticated, but it wasn’t. In North Carolina, there were “blue laws” that restricted liquor sales, a hangover from Prohibition, I suppose. Wine was almost unheard of and a lot of the gourmet foods I was accustomed to were unobtainable.”

Gillings began his appointment in a small trailer in the woods adjacent to the university, Trailer 39. At first he was put off by the arrangement, but he soon found that separation from the main campus had advantages: “My colleague, Gary Koch, an outstanding statistician, had decided to relocate there. We built our own little empire with our own students. We had a good time there, professionally and socially.”

As associate director of the Center for Health Services Research at UNC, Gillings provided statistical consulting services for the entire health sciences campus, which included the schools of medicine, pharmacy, nursing, dentistry, and public health. At the time, graduate students provided labor, but weren’t compensated. One of Gillings’ first acts was to change this plan: “It had a huge impact because we used to get a large number of what I called ‘rubbish questions.’ People clearly hadn’t thought through what they wanted. As soon as they had to pay $25 an hour, their ability to describe and think through what they wanted improved enormously.”

Gary Koch soon recommended Gillings’ services to Ken Falter, the chief clinical statistician at the large drug maker, Hoechst-Roussel. Falter wanted help interpreting adverse effects of a diabetes drug called Glyburide. The problems had been reported in Germany. Gillings had all of the charts and reports translated from German by colleagues in the languages department, and then determined that the drug was being prescribed, in some cases, to the wrong patients. The finding prompted Hoechst-Roussel to change the drug’s label, which led to regulatory approval of an important new treatment in the United States.

The problem was solved in a month, and the good result snowballed into many more industry assignments. Gillings and Koch’s statistical services were soon in high demand. Gillings proposed the creation of a non-profit institute within the University through which revenues from contract research would be funneled back to the school. The UNC administration rejected the idea. Gillings decided to start his own firm. It was permissible — university rules allowed faculty members to devote one day per week to outside consulting.

The new enterprise was called Quintiles. It was housed originally in Trailer 39, “and that worked very well,” Gillings says. “I would feed a lot of the work into projects for students. Papers would get published, and the students generated consulting income.” The business grew. In February 1982, Gillings incorporated and moved the firm off campus with five full-time employees.

As Quintiles continued to expand, Gillings felt pulled to devote more time to the company. He was by now a full professor at the university, but in certain respects the achievement felt limiting. He started to entertain the notion of leaving: “I thought, ‘If I stay here for the rest of my life, there’s too much more of the same.’” Seeing business as “the best of both worlds,” he took a two-year leave of absence in 1986 to focus full-time on Quintiles. It was another calculated risk. He reckoned that he could go back to higher education if things didn’t work out.

It was a perfect time to grow the business. Drug makers had begun outsourcing clinical development work in the 1980s in order to rein in skyrocketing R&D costs. Quintiles started with statistical analysis, added data management, and soon offered a comprehensive clinical services package. “By about the late 1980s, I’d really built that model very successfully and built it internationally,” Gillings says. He had moved the company into England, with clinical trial management operations in London and Reading.

By 1990, it was clear that the way forward was to address the full range of drug makers’ clinical needs, and to do it efficiently by standardizing clinical research. Gillings moved to reorder the field through the introduction of new information technologies, but struggled against regulatory and industrial inertia. Computer systems couldn’t be changed in the middle of clinical studies without the approval of the FDA, and clients dragged their heels.

Earnings demands from Wall Street soon tempered much of the resistance. Quintiles prospered and extended its reach into Europe, Asia, and Australia through acquisitions and new investments in infrastructure. In 1994, in order to fuel further growth, Gillings sought to raise money in public markets.

During the grueling roadshow in advance of the IPO, he told prospective investors that the pharmaceutical industry didn’t have the internal resources to move all of its products to market, and that helping them represented an enormous opportunity. “There were a lot of drugs in the pipeline,” he says. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime growth spurt for the pharmaceutical industry.” Quintiles successfully completed the IPO.

The company became a global full-service contract research organization (CRO), handling not only clinical trial management, but also marketing and sales functions, and health economics policy analysis. In 1998, the company’s revenues exceeded $1 billion.

Gillings realized that although the opportunity was global, success depended on local performance. When opening new branches, he made visits, met with regulators, scientists, and customers, and evaluated each opportunity on the ground. He also took quarterly worldwide tours of company facilities to meet face-to-face with employees at every site.

Having no formal training in business, Gillings credits his success to his evaluation skills and his intuitive understanding of statistics: “I have been quite good at taking difficult problems and transforming them into something manageable.” His ability to derive useful information from confounding data sets has enabled him to make sound calculations of risks and rewards.

It wasn’t always easy. In 2003, Gillings decided to take Quintiles back to private ownership — he didn’t want the organization to be driven by short-term expectations as it retooled for the future. At risk was his entire stake in the company he had started in Trailer 39 and grown into a thriving transnational corporation operating in fifty countries.

Once again, the gamble paid off. Gillings was able to improve Quintiles’ infrastructure, processes, and strategic flexibility. The retrofitting drove accelerated growth over the next ten years. In May 2013, Quintiles went public again on the New York Stock Exchange, under the symbol Q.

Gillings has observed the CRO sector evolve from a consulting resource in the 1980s, to an outsourcing resource in the 1990s, to an indispensable strategic infrastructure in the 2000s. “Now that we serve a strategic function,” says Gillings, “we are changing the way things are done. This is as it should be, because we have become highly skilled in the logistics of drug development. If you took CROs out of the current system, nothing much would get done.”

With promising scientific, therapeutic and analytical advances on the horizon, Gillings now anticipates the richest reward of all flowing from his calculated risks — better health for patients around the world.

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