Just two months after taking office as president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) has shaken up the biotech group, hoping to set in motion a sweeping transformation.
With one key hire already completed, Greenwood is attempting to push the group toward more vigorous advocacy on Capitol Hill — something insiders say it has lacked for much of the past year, after the announcement that Carl Feldbaum, the group’s founding president, would retire.
“We’re doing a little restructuring,” acknowledged Greenwood, a six-term Pennsylvania Republican.
He said the board of BIO, which represents more than 1,100 biotech companies and research entities, decided it wants the association “to be a world-class advocacy organization with people who have extensive policy depth and experience writing legislation and governing.”
One of Greenwood’s first and most significant hires came last month: Scott Whitaker, the former
chief of staff at the Health and Human Services Department and one-time aide to then-Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.). Greenwood and other D.C. insiders familiar with Whitaker say he brings a double threat to BIO: impeccable management skills and an ability to lobby with authority on the issues important to BIO.
Privately, some members of BIO are uneasy about the impact of Greenwood’s changes on their relationship with the group. But most insiders are throwing their support behind him, saying he is a smart and articulate advocate who understands the issues at stake from his tenure on the House, especially his service as chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
Greenwood took over from Feldbaum, who announced a year ago that he was stepping down. Feldbaum’s departure was followed by that of BIO’s top lobbyist, Sharon Cohen, last spring.
Their absences, combined with other personnel instability, exacerbated a perception among some on the Hill that BIO’s influence had waned.
Many consider Feldbaum to have been masterful at building BIO’s membership and improving its financial base. But he was not a fixture in the halls of Congress — something that Greenwood obviously brings to the table.
One Congressional aide familiar with BIO said that “BIO is a shell of what it used to be in terms of influence, but I think it’s going to change. It hasn’t been effective at the moment because it’s been working on staffing up, but it’s got the makings of a great team.”
One person familiar with Whitaker’s job hunt said that Whitaker had many suitors and could easily have commanded a salary in the middle six figures from BIO.
It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing for Greenwood. Some critics familiar with BIO’s internal organization, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Greenwood has allowed a few major positions to go unfilled, including that of general counsel and vice president of federal government relations.
Greenwood said he has spent much of his own time in recent weeks interviewing for those job vacancies and is within weeks of announcing “top-flight” people to fill those slots, he said.
Greenwood and his new and existing staff have the challenge of making sure BIO’s message makes it to Congress and resonates there.
“The biotech industry could do a better job of communicating the benefits of their technology to a lay audience,” said Jim Bair, vice president of the North American Millers Association, which is not a member of BIO but has worked with the group on issues that relate to food and agriculture biotech. “The general public would find it calming and reassuring if the biotech industry would show greater tolerance for opposing viewpoints and their questions and concerns.”
Greenwood says BIO is looking at ways it can operate more effectively.
“We are in the process of putting together a strategic plan,” Greenwood said, “that will set out our policy priorities and goals.”
Greenwood expects to finish that evaluation later this month, followed by an assessment of BIO’s outside lobbying team.
“We will marshal our resources inside and out … we will be figuring out who are the best outside resources [and] it won’t be based on just the fact that BIO has had a previous relationship,” he said.
In recent months, BIO has worked with such firms as the Alpine Group, which reported $40,000 of income for the last six months of 2004; the OB-C Group, which reported collecting $160,000 for the first half of 2004; and PodestaMattoon, which is the firm Cohen went to.
Most of the trade association’s outside lobbyists declined comment. But Michael Remington, a partner at the firm Drinker Biddle & Reath, said “from my perspective, as a consultant to BIO, the transition I would say has been very smooth.”
Remington added that Greenwood’s management style is “hands-on … just what you’d expect from a well-respected former Congressman. I’m sure there’s a learning curve, but he seems to know the issues.”
John McManus, who runs the McManus Group, which does not represent BIO but counts as clients at least three BIO member companies including Amgen, Genentech and Merck and Co., said, “I think they brought on two very strong people in Scott Whitaker and Alan Eisenberg,” a former Congressional aide to Greenwood who joined the group in October.
One of BIO’s challenges is separating itself from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. The two groups have some overlap in membership, and both have new leaders who have undertaken significant reorganizations. PhRMA’s president is former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.).
BIO represents the medical, agricultural and industrial biotech sector, including many entrepreneurial startups, while PhRMA largely comprises giant, well-established drug makers.
So, unlike PhRMA’s members, most of BIO’s do not have products on the market yet, meaning that while they share some positions on issues such as drug safety and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, BIO has its own set of concerns, especially those related to tax advantages for companies without profits.
BIO, more so than PhRMA, also has to take positions on culturally divisive issues such as stem-cell research, which is staunchly opposed by the Christian right and anti-abortion groups.
Greenwood said the past two months have been “like drinking from a fire hose,” characterized by long weeks, weekends and long hours to develop momentum and to get over the learning curve.
“The issues are so profoundly important,” said Greenwood, a former social worker, who also worked in the Pennsylvania state Legislature. “That’s the only reason I left Congress. I see the opportunity in this position to do more to reduce suffering in this world.
“I think we are a bit more effective than we’ve been in the past, and we’re just getting started,” he said.