Jean Hoffman started Putney in 2006 to help fill a void in the production of generic pet medication. The company quickly become a leader in the field and has continued to grow, being named to Inc. Magazine’s 2013 list of 5,000 fastest-growing companies. The company also was named one of Maine’s best places to work by the Society for Human Resource Management Maine State Council. Hoffman, who worked in New York before returning to Maine about 24 years ago, attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick and graduated with a double major in Chinese history and political science. Putney, based in Portland, has 55 employees and had $19.2 million in 2012 revenues. The company declined to disclose sales volumes or the salary of Hoffman, its CEO.
Q: How did you go from double majors in Chinese history and political science to starting a pharmaceutical company?
A: It actually originated with a compost heap in my backyard in D.C. It represented fermentation, and that was just fascinating to me – the way those grass clippings and weeds would make soil. After college, I worked at a trade association and I got stuck with these manufacturers who did business with China that no else one wanted. I took them around the U.S. and they invited me to China, and I was fascinated by the manufacturing processes and their use of fermentation to make antibiotics. China was the largest supplier of them in the world. It was very interesting to start to understand something about not only business, but also manufacturing.
I was hired away from the trade association by one of its members, a Swiss conglomerate called the Zuellig Group, to expand their business with China in vitamin C, which was also fermentation-based. That was when I started working for the Swiss parent company’s Southeast Asia business, which was involved with human pharmaceutical manufacturing and also animal health.
It allowed me to get to know their operations in Southeast Asia and south China, and then I got my first CEO job at the age of 29 when I was named CEO of ZetaPharm (a Zuellig subsidiary). It was a turnaround challenge – that was a great way to learn business and how to work hard. It had a number of serious issues and they brought me in to fix those issues. I put the company on the right path to success and then decided I wanted to move to Maine and have a family.
I came back to Maine in 1989 and started a consulting company that I built into Newport Strategies, which was an information systems company for the pharmaceutical industry. We built a new company and a new brand, and I sold that company to Thomson Reuters in 2004. Then I founded a consulting and advisory firm and looked around for the next great thing, and that became Putney. We launched our first product at Putney in 2007.
Q: Why are generic pet medications the next great thing?
A: The American love for their pet family members has been increasing, and they’ve come in from the yard into our houses and chairs and beds, and we want them to be healthy. Americans are spending more and more money on their pets, and there are more pets than children in the U.S. right now. But in contrast to human pharmaceuticals, where there’s competition and every medication has several generic versions, no one was succeeding in bringing the largest-selling veterinary products to markets as generics. It was a very large opportunity with practically no competition and a very high need. People need generics (for their pets) – they’re not insured and they can be very expensive. Some people are not filling their own prescriptions in order to fill the prescriptions from the vet.
Q: Was there a lot of competition?
A: The generics weren’t getting approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). There were few submissions and few approvals and there were very few companies devoted to it. You have to sell to veterinarians and provide service and support to the vets. The products also have to be tested and approved specifically for the animals, which is difficult. It’s comparable in rigor (to drug trials for human medications) and there’s a lot of science involved.
I like big challenges, and I have assembled a team here at Putney who like big challenges and get satisfaction in solving problems. It takes an attitude of “we’re going to take this hill and tomorrow we’re going to take another hill and we’ll keep on going.” It takes a team of people with development and manufacturing and regulatory expertise who understand and have experience selling.
Q: Were you able to find people in Maine with those skills?
A: We recruited our team from outside the state of Maine and had to attract people and get them and their families to come to Maine.
Once people come to Maine and see what it’s like to raise a family here, it’s easy, but getting people to relocate is never easy. Education is important, along with the cultural mix and the diversity of activities. It’s a very highly educated group, so educational opportunities for their children are very important. It continues to be a worry and a hope on my part that the city of Portland and surrounding communities continue to invest in education.
Q: How hard was it to get started, and does the process for approval get easier with time and experience?
A: The first product that got approval from our pipeline was an antibiotic. It’s a cephalosporin and they are related to penicillin. We’ve invested a great deal of money there, tens of millions of dollars, building the expert teams to do the best job we can. Getting drugs through the FDA is very difficult for a reason, because safety is involved and the FDA has an important job to do in improving safety.
Q: How difficult is it to sell vets on generics?
A: Vets are very receptive to generics because they tend to be kind-hearted people who love animals and they see the numbers (on the rising cost of veterinary care). But because there are so few generics approved, there’s a lot of education needed to help vets understand generic drugs. Human drugs are largely paid for by insurance companies and they mandate switching to generics. The insurance companies have knowledgeable people who understand that generics are the same as branded drugs. In the case of vets, they both prescribe and dispense drugs, so they have to be aware that the drugs are the same. It’s really all about helping them understand that.
Q: How many generic drugs do you have on the market and what’s the outlook for growth?
A: For FDA-approved products, we have four on the market and one more coming soon. We’re on line with our growth projections, and we plan to move to two floors in One Monument Square because we have a lot more people we need to hire and we can’t fit them in our current space. We plan to be well over $150 million in sales in five years.
Q: Do you have pets?
A: I have two cats, one of whom is featured in all of our corporate presentations. And my daughter has quite a few fish.
Q: Is anyone in your family a vet?
A: My dad once gave my goldfish heart massage. The fish was gasping and not swimming and I remember my dad took the fish out of the tank and massaged its heart and brought it back to life.