Amgen's chief executive, a one-time Navy officer who now runs the world's largest biotech, wants his company to be among the most admired...

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Amgen’s chief executive, a one-time Navy officer who now runs the world’s largest biotech, wants his company to be among the most admired corporate citizens of Seattle.

Kevin Sharer has his work cut out for him. The company’s stock is flat over the past five years. It cut 500 jobs here after taking control of a regional icon of biotechnology, Immunex, three years ago. It makes products people wish they didn’t need — high-priced prescription drugs for patients with autoimmune diseases, or for those having chemotherapy.

Yesterday, Sharer brought the Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based company’s annual meeting to Seattle, partly to appeal directly to those people who, he acknowledged, have been “skeptical” of Amgen since the $10 billion acquisition.

Addressing shareholders at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, Sharer said the company followed through on its promises from the Immunex takeover.

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It fixed the manufacturing shortfall of Immunex’s flagship drug, Enbrel, with a $1 billion investment in factories; boosted Enbrel sales dramatically to a pace of $3 billion a year; and finished its $625 million Helix research center along Elliott Bay.

“Those were pretty bold promises,” Sharer said. “There was reason to be uncertain about whether they would happen. Today I can’t report complete victory everywhere, but we have turned in a very, very strong record and have delivered on every one (of the promises).”


Amgen



Founded: 1980

Employees: 14,300 in 31 countries. About 900 in Seattle and Bothell

Chairman and CEO: Kevin Sharer

2004 sales: $10.6 billion

2004 profit: $2.4 billion

2004 R&D spending: $2 billion

Market value: $76 billion, as of market close on May 10

What it does: Markets drugs that boost growth of red blood cells (Epogen and Aranesp) and boost the growth of white blood cells (Neupogen and Neulasta). Markets Enbrel for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and psoriasis. Researching and developing treatments for osteoporosis, cancer and autoimmune diseases.

What it does in Washington: Refines cell-based manufacturing of biotech products, researches potential new drugs, does some animal testing before drugs enter human trials.


In an interview, Sharer said he couldn’t give details about future growth at Amgen’s Seattle site. But he said Amgen is landlocked at its headquarters in Southern California, while there’s room to grow at its research and development branches in Seattle, Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sharer said he wouldn’t be surprised if its regional presence doubles over the next five years.

“There’s a great quality of life here. There’s great science and medicine, and there’s (physical) room to grow,” he said. “It makes Seattle an obvious place to grow.”

Much will depend on how successful Amgen’s drug-development programs are in clinical trials over the next two years. The Seattle research center has been productive at moving drug candidates into human testing, he said.

Many respected Immunex scientists and managers left the company, some citing frustration with a more controlled, culture that clashed with their freewheeling ways at Immunex.

Sharer said he always expected many Immunexers to go, “but the people who are here are committed.”

Amgen’s growth has been extraordinary. Half of the 14,000-person work force has been with the company three years or less. In Washington state, Sharer said about one-third of the 900 workers have joined in the past three years.

Sharer insists that workers are adapting to Amgen. In an anonymous companywide job-satisfaction survey last fall, it showed employees in Seattle are significantly happier now than two years ago. “That’s an important piece of data for me,” he said.

Amgen has taken steps to become part of the community. It committed $100 million to a venture-capital fund, then invested in Accelerator, a Seattle-based startup incubator linked to Leroy Hood’s Institute for Systems Biology.

It has continued Immunex’s investment in high-school science education, giving top local teachers $10,000 awards, as it does in other parts of the country. In 2003, its foundation gave at least $500,000 to the University of Washington.

Stephen Schwartz, a professor of pathology at the UW’s research hub in South Lake Union, said Amgen is making more effort to collaborate with academic scientists in drug development. He said Amgen has shown interest in sponsoring an academic seminar into new treatments for scleroderma, a deadly autoimmune disease.

But it still has legalistic barriers to collaboration, and is cautious about guarding company secrets, he added. The company has said it is trying to become less insular, in part through meetings with small companies. But it still lists about 100 active research collaborations on its Web site.

Richard Gayle, a former Immunex scientist who now runs research at a startup called Etubics, said that because Amgen is such a big company now, it is by nature less entrepreneurial now. Still, he said, some former colleagues appear genuinely excited about their projects.

“It’s like with any company that grows and makes changes. People who are more entrepreneurial are attracted to a smaller company, and some people are attracted to a more mature company with stability,” Gayle said.

If there were any one thing he could change about the Immunex takeover, Sharer said, it would be to have given the Seattle community a better explanation of its plans.

“We were so focused on integrating the companies, we didn’t give full consideration to the fact that in the minds of many people in Seattle, they were losing Immunex. In the last few years, we’ve made dramatic improvement. We try to be a good citizen in every way.”

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com