Sir Allen Interview Features in Belfast Telegraph’s “The Monday Interview”

August 6, 2007

So what makes this top Ulster tycoon tick?

Sir Allen McClay is the driving force behind a company that is undertaking some of the most advanced medical research in the world. Here he talks about the global battle against cancer, why he cut ties with Galen Pharmaceuticals, and Almac the firm he founded.

Big business is often accused of having little or no compassion and an obsession with making money. But a desire to look after the “family” was the key factor behind the creation of an Ulster company now playing a major role in the global battle against cancer.

The philanthropic Sir Allen McClay, who was knighted for his services to business and charity, felt he had a “bounden duty” to set up Craigavon-based Almac Group, which is undertaking some of the most advanced medical research on the planet.

At the start of the millennium, Galen, the pharmaceutical company he founded in 1968 that became the first Ulster business valued at £1bn, was taking a direction he did not agree with.

It bought US rival Warner Chilcott in 2000 and focused its attention firmly on expanding in the US.

Sir Allen decided it was time to step down from the company in 2001. Then approaching his 70th birthday, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do, but retirement was never an option – despite Sir Allen pocketing tens of millions of pounds from selling Galen shares.

“I could have bought a big yacht, but I hate boats. I could have gone off to an island in the sun, but I hate the sun,” he said.

He talks candidly about why he cut his ties with Galen.

“I had developed Galen and I did not agree with what they were doing.

“The people I had worked with had been my family since 1968, and now they were being scattered to the four winds.

“It would have been hard to turn my back on them. I would have had a guilt complex.”

Sir Allen, who has never married but has a long-term partner, admits the main motivating factor to set up in business again was that he wanted to support all those “high calibre” people he had worked with down the years. “I had a bounden duty to do it,” he said.

He started Galen on October 1, 1968 and left on September 30, 2001. On October 1, 2001 he rented a small unit at Seagoe Industrial Estate, just a short distance from where he had started Galen (now known as Warner Chilcott) all those years before.

Sir Allen instinctively knew he wanted to continue working in the world of science and his ideas for a new company quickly started to form as some office furniture was added to the start interior of the empty unit.

Almac began life in January 2002. With Galen largely focusing on women’s healthcare and manufacturing drugs, Sir Allen offered to purchase its services units. He eventually paid circa £240m for four units, selling his holding in Galen along the way.

He initially spent £25m on Chemical Synthesis Services, Galen’s research and services arm, at the start of 2002 and that got Almac up and running. The other units followed.

Almac has been making great strides since it launched – and many of the people he worked with in Galen are now employees of the group.

Almac provides integrated research, development and manufacturing services to over 600 companies worldwide, including market leaders in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. The company, which also has its own product lines, employing 1,300 people in Craigavon, 800 in the US and 50 in Scotland.

It has five divisions – covering diagnostics, sciences, clinical services, clinical technologies and pharma services – and it has depots across the world “In every country you can think of”.

Sir Allen is particularly excited these days about Almac’s cancer diagnostic work, which, ultimately saves lives.

The company, for example, has developed a test whereby not all colon and bowel cancer sufferers will have to undergo chemotherapy treatment once the surgeon has removed a tumour.

“Colon/bowel cancer recurs in only about 20% of cases, and our test can detect these cases. At present all cases would be given aggressive follow-up treatment.

“It means 80% of patients would not have to have follow-up treatment. This will cut down the trauma and anxiety for these patients”.

The company is in the midst of adapting the test for other cancers, including breast, lung and prostate. This companion diagnosis, or personalised medicine, is a giant step forward, according to Sir Allen.

“It means treatment can be tailored to patients’ needs. It will mean fewer people having to go back every four weeks for further treatment. It will reduce waiting lists and cut down on aggressive therapies.”

It also means the cash-strapped NHS can use the money it saves on treating other conditions.

The company is constantly researching new cancer treatments. Sir Allen does not believe cancer will be eradicated completely but he can see cancer being “less hideous” in years to come.

Another striking example of its work is a link-up with Glasgow University to develop what has been dubbed the “magic bullet”; treatments that will go directly to an infected area on a patient’s body rather than pass through the whole bloodstream.

Such pioneering work is par for the course at Almac, which is also currently carrying out world leading research into proteins at its impressive HQ building at Seagoe Industrial Estate, purpose-built just down the road from the initial unit. It opened in 2003.

There are plans for further expansion in the US – it already has operations in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and California – but Sir Allen insisted he has no intention of switching the company’s base out of Northern Ireland to the States as Warner Chilcott has done.

He stressed the “brains and heart” of Almac will remain in Craigavon.

So far over £300m, including a healthy chunk of Sir Allen’s estimated £350m personal fortune, has been invested in Almac, which has attracted people from all over the world; the scientists at Almac HQ come from 29 different countries.

“There are miles of things to be discovered and people are attracted by the science. Scientists want to be involved in science. That’s why they work for us,” he said. “We are very innovative. We do things other people do not do. We have lots of ideas people. In fact we have too many ideas and have the cherry pick.”

The Group, which employs no fewer than five professors, has close links with Belfast City Hospital’s cancer unit as well as Queen’s University in Belfast and other top universities around the world. The Tyrone tycoon, who has homes in his native Cookstown and Portadown, has personally donated £20m through the McClay Trust for research at Queen’s.

The manufacturing end of the pharma industry is becoming diluted, according to Sir Allen, with low cost economies providing cheap manufacturing options, which means that it is imperative for Northern Ireland to focus on innovation and knowledge.

The 75-year-old has no plans to retire, although he admits he will not be at Almac in five years’ time. “The science is getting beyond me,” he said.

When he hits 80 he plans to still be working. “There are other areas I would like to investigate. I hate going down well-worn paths. I would like to blaze a new trial,” he added, and you sense he will do just that.

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