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The Life, Troubles, and Celgene Legacy of Deal Guru George Golumbeski

Xconomy National — 

George Golumbeski is one of the most prolific dealmakers in the biopharmaceutical world. But the deal that changed his life is a pact he made with himself when he was ten years old.

Playing with friends in front of his house in Hampton, VA, he watched his mother drag his dead-drunk father, a U.S. Air Force veteran who did a short stint in Vietnam, out of his car. Pretending to sleep in his bedroom, he’d often hear his parents screaming at each other.

“I can’t end up like this,” he remembers thinking of his alcoholic father. By third grade, he knew he had to escape and “forge a different and better path.”

He immersed himself in education and used it as his one-way ticket out of town. He got into an Ivy League school, then climbed his way up the corporate ladder to international powerhouses Novartis (NYSE: NVS), then Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), where he and the company’s research chief Tom Daniel forged a cutting-edge template for biotech deal-making: they showed how smaller companies, wary of being exploited by bigger companies, could instead benefit short-term with much-needed cash, then keep control of their own destinies. Larger companies have taken notice.

“Quite frankly we’ve modeled a lot of what we do today on some of the principles they applied,” says Dan Curran, who ran business development at Japanese pharma giant Takeda Pharmaceutical until January and now heads its rare disease division.

Golumbeski and Daniel have moved on from Celgene, but early this year, it seemed that one of the drug industry’s largest acquisitions ever would build upon their legacy. Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) agreed in January to buy Celgene for $74 billion, primarily because of drugs acquired during Golumbeski’s tenure.

But dissident shareholders have begun to protest the acquisition, skeptical of the prospects of the pipeline he helped craft.

Indeed, the grumbling began before the acquisition. A series of setbacks starting in 2017 doused Celgene’s years-long momentum. So Golumbeski’s legacy might not be written in stone just yet. But he has at least one more chapter in his professional life. He’s now president of liquid biopsy developer Grail, one of the most ambitious biotech startups in recent memory, with billions of private dollars raised to develop a blood test that screens for early signs of cancer. It’s an immense scientific and financial challenge, one that would seem at risk of tipping Golumbeski back into a precarious life, one that he spent years struggling to escape.

Like a lot of top executives, Golumbeski’s rise to the top of the deal-making world was fueled by workaholism. Marathon hours, flights around the world, competitive pressure: all led to a deep depression. Only an ultimatum from his wife forced a reckoning. The emotional scars have left him with life lessons to share. “There is a difference between working hard and not having a personal life,” he says. “It’s hard, but one has to be watchful of oneself.”

ENCYCLOPEDIAS AND REBELLION

Biotech business development isn’t for the thin-skinned. Expect every decision to be criticized, says Golumbeski. Management, investors, and potential partners will all scream at you. Some deals will make you a hero. Others that appear done will fall apart at the last minute.

Good business development executives learn a variety of disciplines and thirst for more. Most important, they adapt when crisis hits. Golumbeski likens it to “being put in a plane with two hours of training and flying by the seat of your pants.”

Flying is one of Golumbeski’s earliest memories, and a happy one. When he was small, he and his parents, a lower middle-class couple descended from Polish immigrants, boarded a plane on the East Coast and flew across the Atlantic Ocean to Germany. They lived there for two years while his father was stationed overseas. His dad then served a one-year stint in Vietnam, and his drinking got worse, the fights more frequent. Golumbeski bristles at the recollection, calling it a “terrible upbringing and terrible environment.” His parents divorced in 1967, when he was 10 years old. His father moved away, and Golumbeski rarely saw him. He died of a heart attack while Golumbeski was in college.

After the divorce, his mother did what she could to make ends meet, working as a secretary at a Virginia Air Force base. Golumbeski took to science, was obsessed with becoming a doctor, and his mother surprised him one day, scraping together the money to buy a set of medical encyclopedias. One was on the skeletal system, another the circulatory system. A latchkey kid coming back from school to an empty home, Golumbeski studied every volume. “I frickin’ memorized those books,” he says.

Academics came easy, but like many teenagers, he also rebelled. He and a close friend cheated classmates out of lunch money, using a marked deck of cards in poker games. He grew his hair long and acted up in class. He loved tropical fish but … Next Page »

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