Exclusive interview with Marc Casper, chief operating officer of the world's largest laboratory supplier, Thermo Fisher Scientific
Marc Casper became the chief operating officer of the world’s largest laboratory supplier, Thermo Fisher Scientific, in May 2008 - just before the near-cataclysmic collapse of the banking system and the onset of one of worst recessions in living memory. Despite the downturn having caused sales during the first quarter of 2009 to slip 12 per cent to $2.26 billion (?1.5 billion) he exudes a confidence in the company which is hard to overlook. This might be because this is the first drop in quarterly sales the company has seen since before the merger - an impressive feat as pharmaceutical and chemical companies have been cutting their spending for the last year.
Casper believes the breadth of the company, which styles itself as ’the world leader in serving science’, is one of the key reasons for its resilience. ’The company has a very attractive product and customer mix, we serve a broad range of customers from academia to the medical field to industrial QA/QC. We also have a very heavy life science focus and provide a healthy mix of consumables and instrumentation.’
The company’s story started in 1956 when George Hatsopoulos founded the Thermo Electron Corporation to give his graduate school thermodynamics experiments legitimacy and make grants easier to obtain. The company grew rapidly and bought many companies over the years. In May 2006, instrument maker Thermo Electron merged with laboratory chemical supplier Fisher Scientific giving rise to an industry giant with annual sales of over $9 billion, over 30,000 employees and around 350,000 customers.
’We were able to take two very strong companies in the field, a leader in instrumentation and a leader in chemicals and consumables, and put them together, so today when a customer interacts with Thermo Fisher Scientific they have access to high tech instrument innovations as well as chemicals, reagents and consumables,’ Casper told Chemistry World.
Casper feels that the recession has forced customers to start asking whether the companies they buy from will still be around to support the products if they go wrong: ’Our size and strong financial position means they’re not asking that question about us and that is helping us grow market share. And we can use our reach and size to help customers through the most difficult times.’
Another reason for his confidence is that a significant proportion of the stimulus packages will end up being spent on buying new chemicals, reagents and instruments for laboratories. ’Governments are stepping in in a dramatic way with stimulus packages around the world - and academic, government and sponsored research is likely to increase dramatically as this year unfolds - this will ultimately be a big positive for our end markets and for us.’
But the company is not content to sit on its laurels and just wait out the recession; instead it is planning to increase its R&D investment beyond the $250 million it spent last year. ’We’ve been through tough economic cycles before and this is a good opportunity to invest in research and development so we come out of the recession with the same track record for innovation that we’ve had over the years,’ he says.
One area the company has seen a growth in demand is for handheld portal instruments used for on-site quality control testing of products, where the object is to quickly identify products that may not meet safety criteria. Casper feels that we are someway from being able to analyse chemical reactions simply by pointing a handheld analyser at a test tube or round bottomed flask, ’but it’s allowing people to be able to ask at site "is there lead in this toy or not?" - if a problem is flagged then it goes to the next level of testing. Consumer product safety is the big driver here, especially with handheld technology with a big push towards XRF (x-ray fluorescence) which is where we’re focused - but you will see other spectroscopy techniques appear in handheld packages over time.’
’Over the last few years there has been a huge productivity and efficiency push for instrumentation, getting the sample handling and preparation simplified and the instruments more robust and easier to use, even for the less technical user. At the same time there’s a lot of cutting edge science going on, we’re getting pushed to bring out the most innovative, cutting edge research instruments and we have a lot of investment going on in that area, particularly in mass spectrometry.’
’We’re investing through this economic cycle, whether it’s technology, applications or our commercial team.We want to make sure that we emerge from this recession stronger than ever.’