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In the C-Suite: Fran DiNuzzo, President and CEO of ILC Dover

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NEWARK – Like many boys growing up, Francis “Fran” DiNuzzo dreamed of someday playing professional football. But also like a lot of boys, he realized by high school that the dream would never come true.

“I think I stopped growing in about the 10th grade, so that didn’t work out for me,” he recalled with a laugh. “My father was an engineer though, so I always figured I would become an engineer.”

Fran DiNuzzo, president and CEO of ILC Dover | PHOTO COURTESY OF ILC DOVER

DiNuzzo’s early childhood was a bit of a rolling stone to follow his Dad’s career. Born in Kansas, his family lived in five different cities before he was in kindergarten. They would move twice more before he graduated high school, with the final move taking his family cross-country to the state of Washington.

When he started his college education at the University of Washington, he quickly found that it wasn’t the right fit.

“It was so big. I was in classes with 700 or 800 other students and it just wasn’t the college experience I wanted,” he said.

With his parents recently relocated again, this time to New Hampshire, DiNuzzo moved back to the East Coast and enrolled at the University of New Hampshire, a well-known engineering school. He graduated and afterward finished his master’s degree while teaching and completing research.

Through a friend, DiNuzzo learned about job opportunities at Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) in Avondale, Pa.

“I ended up sending Hewlett-Packard a letter – Remember when we had to mail letters? – and they gave me a call back inviting me down for an interview,” he said, recalling that the interview was a “grueling” nearly nine-hour affair complete with technical testing. “One of the things I liked about it though was knowing these folks were pretty particular about who they were going to hire.”

DiNuzzo passed the test and was hired into HP’s analytical instrumentation division as a manager. He stayed for more than 23 years, seeing the division spun off from HP in 1999 to form Agilent Technologies and working his way up to vice president.

When asked what kept him at his first company for so many years, DiNuzzo replied that “Hewlett Packard was a really special place.”

Company co-founders David Packard and William Hewlett developed The HP Way, a collection of seven objectives that defined the company’s culture. While profit was a key factor, The HP Way emphasized local control, open-door communication, and more bottom-up thinking.

“These were guys who believed, and basically trained all of us to believe, that business is about the humans in your business,” DiNuzzo said. “It’s about challenging people, rewarding them well and giving them an opportunity to succeed. And the more you do that, the more you’ll be surprised at how much people can do.”

A few years after his division was spun into Agilent Technologies, DiNuzzo sought a fresh start at a smaller company, intent on proving that his skills could help it grow. A friend who was serving as CEO of the small biotech firm SDIX recruited him to serve as its chief commercial officer.

Having helped start up Agilent’s life sciences business, DiNuzzo said that he was excited to jump into the actual research and development work being done by biotech firms. One of the biggest challenges that SDIX faced, however, was that it was a small-cap publicly traded company, he added.

“It was very tightly held by a small number of folks, one being a hedge fund, so it’s really hard to be able to grow the business,” he recalled. “The company really needed to be a private company, where it could make some long-term investments.”

After the board decided to part ways with the CEO, DiNuzzo was offered the chief executive role for the first time in his career. He learned a lot about communicating with a company’s board and how to relate a perspective that encouraged the company’s long-term goals.

After moving from essentially an instrument manufacturer to a biotech R&D company, however, DiNuzzo said that he had to reset his expectations as well.

“When you’re starting to deal with biology, it feels more like a random path,” he said, noting that often ideas that research teams were confident would work just don’t, forcing them to recalculate. “There was a real test of patience and understanding that the engineering approach I learned in college doesn’t necessarily work with biology.”

ILC Dover famously outfitted the Apollo 11 astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin seen here, in their moon landing. | PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA

With promising technologies but shareholders looking for short-term gains, SDIX made the decision to split the company into three parts and sell them off. DiNuzzo led the company through that process, and all of the pieces are still operating today, but he was left wondering whether he wanted to return to a full-time role.

He reconnected with Bill Wallach, then-president and CEO of ILC Dover, a specialty manufacturer best known for its production of NASA’s spacesuits. Wallach wanted ILC, which principally served clients in the aerospace and defense industries, to branch further into the pharmaceutical industry and wanted DiNuzzo to help them accomplish that. He joined as company president in 2014 and within a year succeeded Wallach as CEO as well.

DiNuzzo said that he was excited about the opportunity at ILC because it didn’t have a mature commercial segment before he arrived, which would be necessary to sell to private pharmaceutical companies. His strengths included creating commercial production and building a sales force to promote a product.

“Much like when I first joined Hewlett-Packard, when decisions had to be made at this little company in Frederica, Delaware, everybody just sort of gathered around a tabletop,” he said.

DiNuzzo estimated that only about 20% of ILC’s business was commercial when he took over as CEO. As of a year ago, it had risen to about 60%, and he believes it will reach as high as 80% in the next five years.

“The macroeconomics [of the pharmaceutical sector] are just beautiful. It’s a large market that is growing fast and it’s something that’s got a lot of tailwind. It’s not cyclical,” he said, noting that their business in Asia and Europe is also growing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has “reaffirmed” ILC’s decision to focus on the pharmaceutical market, DiNuzzo added.

“I think most of us realize that this will not be the last pandemic that we will face in our lifetimes,” he said, noting that ILC manufactured respirators for frontline health care workers early in the pandemic. “We’re absolutely confident that the opportunity for us is massive.”


 

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