By Maria Saporta
Friday, November 6, 2009
Tucked away at the end of a dead-end street in Buford, there’s a high fence and a gate that’s manned with a guard. There’s no signage for the business that lies hidden from view.
That low-key identity fits the profile of Theragenics Corp., a maker of radioactive seeds that treat prostate cancer, and its CEO Christine Jacobs.
Jacobs relishes being out of sight, saying, “I’m 50 miles outside the city inside an electric fence.”
Going down the drive toward the “stealth” Theragenics plant and headquarters, one sees a speed limit sign for 8 miles an hour — one of Jacobs’ personal touches.
“The 8 miles per hour makes me laugh,” Jacobs says. “We made it up. I just thought it was funny.”
Jacobs is one of metro Atlanta’s best-kept secrets. In a state with a dearth of women CEOs of public companies, Jacobs has been running Theragenics as president since 1992 and as CEO since 1993.
Her tenure at Theragenics makes her the longest-serving female CEO of all U.S. companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE: TGX), from what her investor relations folks have been able to determine. She also is the first woman chairman/CEO to lead a transfer of her company from Nasdaq to the New York Stock Exchange (in August 1998).
Not only that. Jacobs also is the presiding director of San Francisco-based McKesson Corp., a Fortune 18 company.
Jacobs is quick to downplay both her longest-running tenure as a woman CEO and her McKesson role.
“I can’t sit in Buford and feel the enormity of it or the weight,” she says. “Nobody will care.”
But Jacobs, who admits that she’s probably better known outside Atlanta and Georgia than she is locally, says it’s her work with Theragenics that’s most important — a company with a signature product that has helped cure 150,000 men of prostate cancer, including U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Her background is as a registered medical technologist, and she doesn’t forget working in hospital emergency rooms dealing with life-and-death situations.
“It prepared me for business forecasts that didn’t meet expectations,” Jacobs says. When people get upset about the business results, she will say: “Nobody died, what’s the problem? We just missed a forecast.”
But that’s not something Jacobs is having to say a lot these days. In the past four years, she has been transforming Theragenics into a new company by making strategic acquisitions of three manufacturers of medical devices. There was a major restructuring of the company in 2005 that led to layoffs and a change in direction.
“We were a one-trick pony going bankrupt,” Jacobs says. “I wanted to make sure that the future of Theragenics didn’t rely on a single product.”
With the acquisitions, Theragenics has gone from having one SKU (a product identification number) to having 3,500 SKUs. Now the original product — Theraseed — accounts for 40 percent of the company’s sales.
Theragenics now has four factories in four states with a total of 500 employees, 100 of whom are in Buford.
Last year, Theragenics’ sales totaled $67 million, and for the first two quarters of 2009, it has had record sales. It was scheduled to report third-quarter 2009 results on Nov. 5.
“We came in at over $40 million for the first half of the year,” Jacobs said. “We are in line for another record year.”
Now Jacobs says the company is reinvesting the company’s profits into creating a research and development group “to help us with a pipeline for the long term.”
Jacobs’ management of Theragenics has gained her some admirers, including Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, who served on her board for several years until he took his current post.
“Christine Jacobs is a wonderful person who is a role model for not just young women but also middle-aged men like me,” Brawley writes in an e-mail. “She has built a wonderful company and diversified its product lines. Her commitment to the company, its employees and its shareholders is I believe the example all other CEOs should try to duplicate.”
As she transforms the company, Jacobs is heralding the value of having products made in the United States with much lower defective rates than those coming from Mexico and overseas. The strategy is to make medical devices that are not low-end or the most sophisticated, but those that fall in between.
The formula is working in terms of sales, but that has not been reflected in the stock price, which closed Nov. 4 at $1.44.
“It’s absolutely frustrating,” Jacobs says. “It’s a disappointment. We will be rediscovered, and we will get back to being the golden child because of the fundamentals of everything that we do.”