The Northern Ireland based company has increased its workforce six fold in the last 5 years to over 3000

Andrew Turley /Frankfurt, Germany

UK contract research organisation (CRO) Almac says that it expects to hire about 500 people in the next 12 months, split between its headquarters in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, and its new US site in Souderton, Pennsylvania.

Almac, a privately owned company, is growing rapidly. In its 2011 financial year, which ended in September, the company increased sales 11 per cent. This represents a fall in growth compared with 2010, when the company increased sales 15 per cent. But Denis Geffroy, vice president of business development, says that this level of growth stands out as highly impressive when viewed in the context of the poor economic environment. ’Everyone will tell you that the market has been incredibly challenging in the last two years,’ says Geffroy. In the last few weeks, Almac has announced new investments: ?1 million for a mass spectrometry lab and ?4.5 million for a formulation development lab.

That growth has created jobs. The company employed about 500 people five years ago. Now, the roster has over 3000 names on it. Meanwhile, high profile site closures by big pharma companies are moving highly qualified researchers into the employment market. In February, for example, US pharma giant Pfizer said it would close its historic site at Sandwich, UK, in the next 18-24 months, putting 2400 jobs under threat. Geffroy says he interviewed 16 people in one day when he visited the site earlier this year.

Oddly, though the volume of applicants has been high enough for the needs of the company, it was well below what he might have predicted given the current economic climate. ’With companies closing down and laying off people, we were expecting an enormous number of applicants,’ he says.

Almac may be benefiting from its unusual financial structure. The company is wholly owned by the McClay Foundation, which puts all the profits back into the company and protects it from takeover. ’That gives long term stability to the business,’ says Geffroy. Drug development takes a long time, he adds, and the last thing you want as a drug maker in the current environment is for your CRO to be bought halfway through leading to changes in strategy or site closures.

But more generally the CRO market is benefiting from pharma companies increasingly buying services rather than spending money internally. The market for CRO services grew 8.5 per cent in 2009, according to a report from market research firm Frost & Sullivan. The market is predicted to reach $20 billion in 2017. ’There’s a lot of terrible news of companies closing down, but there’s some good news as well - of companies growing, being successful, making a nice profit and hiring,’ says Geffroy.