When I was in high school, one of my part-time jobs was driving a hotel van to and from the airport for the Howard Johnson in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb just north of Chicago. It was a great job. I got to know a ton of different types of people.
To this day, it’s the second favorite job I ever had.
One type of person that I got to know driving to and from O’Hare International Airport were pharmaceutical sales reps from a company, also headquartered in Skokie, called Searle Pharmaceutical.
Searle, like a lot of companies in the mid-1970s had fallen on hard times, relatively speaking. Profits were hard to come by, the regulatory burden was incredibly draining, and the hostility to business from government was intense.
The company was rescued by former- White House Chief of Staff, former- NATO Ambassador, and former-Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who was tapped by the Searle family to turn things around.
By the time I was old enough to work, not only had Searle’s stock price surged under Rumsfeld, but the company was contributing to the community in many ways, including support jobs, like mine, driving between the Howard Johnson and the airport.
To some extent, what Rumsfeld did at Searle became the textbook for how to save an ailing public company, and ailing communities too.
Rumsfeld first came to Searle in 1977, after leaving public service in the wake of President Ford’s defeat. He had served Ford as both a chief of staff and Secretary of Defense.
The Searle family was looking for someone who had both the executive skills and the public relations savvy to turn the ailing family business around. The company had invented a new artificial sweetener in 1965 called aspartame, but the FDA had not approved the sweetener for sale. Patents had expired on drugs that Searle developed and they now had to compete with generics. It had been years since the company had developed new drugs for commercial sale.
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