An MD&DI November 1998 Column
James H. Miller is the first to admit that he is not solely responsible for his entrepreneurial success. "My philosophy is to hire the strongest people I can and then empower them to do their jobs," says Miller, chairman, president, and CEO of Meridian Medical Technologies, Inc. (Columbia, MD), a company he founded in 1996 that specializes in producing such medical devices as autoinjectors and cardiopulmonary equipment. "I read once that you can't do anyone else's job as well as they can, and that's true for everyone throughout the organization; my role is just to help them get their jobs done."
However, Miller's accomplishments throughout his long career in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries speak of a rare talent for leadership. If pressed, he also attributes his success to developing a clear vision and getting his associates to buy into it.
James H. Miller believes that foresight gives people a corporate advantage.
Before Meridian, Miller held executive positions in several pharmaceutical companies, including Abbott Laboratories (Abbott Park, IL). He has also had leadership roles in organizations such as the National Security Industrial Association (Arlington, VA) and the executive committee of the Defense Policy Advisory Committee on Trade, an organization of CEOs that advises the U.S. Secretary of Defense and the Ambassador for Trade.
In 1989, Miller joined Survival Technology, Inc. (STI; Bethesda, MD), as president but was quickly appointed CEO. As such, he led STI as it expanded its focus from supplying the military with self-injection devices containing nerve-agent antidotes to producing autoinjectors for the consumer healthcare market.
In 1994, Miller also became CEO of Brunswick Biomedical Corp. (Boston), a research and development company that manufactured emergency cardiopulmonary diagnostic devices. He recognized that if Brunswick acquired STI via a leveraged buyout, the merger would benefit both companies. STI would gain the necessary capital to expand, and profits from its consumer products could eventually offset Brunswick's research and development costs. Miller raised $23 million to fund the 1996 buyout that formed Meridian, which boasts annual sales of greater than $40 million.
In June, Miller was recognized for his work in founding Meridian when he was named the Maryland area's Entrepreneur of the Year in the health and wellness category in a contest sponsored by a group that included the accounting firm of Ernst and Young, LLP.
To develop and lead a company, "you need to have a specific, understandable vision and get the company behind you," Miller explains. "If you can do that, it is likely you will succeed. To develop this vision, you have to look at your industry and also look at yourself, at your core competencies. What are you good at? What will the industry look like in five years?"
According to Miller, getting the company to support a vision is critical to success, even if not everyone in the company fully agrees with it. For example, some of Miller's key managers disagreed with his decision to pay off STI's debts with the buyout by Brunswick. Yet a measure of his ability to gain his coworkers' confidence became apparent midway through the buyout when one dissenting manager presented him with a plaque that read, "I don't know whether it's a good idea or not, but I assure you he'll get it done." Miller says that an entrepreneur must expect to make mistakes: "If you're right more than half the time, then you're doing well."
According to Miller, one of the first questions a medical device entrepreneur should consider is whether going public as an independent company is necessarily the best course to follow. In fact, most entrepreneurs are more likely to face the decision of whether they should be acquired by or should acquire another company.
The odds against developing a successful public medical device company continue to rise. "The drive to reduce healthcare costs has had an enormous impact on Meridian and on others," says Miller. "Ten years ago, you could develop and fully market most helpful medical devices. Today, if your product does not save money and save lives, you can't sell it," he says.
Entrepreneurs are also faced with a significant increase in the rate at which technology is developed. Recent years have seen an explosion of new devices, making it difficult for companies to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation. "I may not be around to see it," says Miller, "but 30 years from now the technology and healthcare of today is going to seem barbaric and low tech."
Those who do opt for leading a public enterprise will be better able to overcome obstacles if they develop a clear vision of the long-term potential of their company. "The average market life of a medical device is short," says Miller, "and you cannot base a company on a single productyou need to have a business. You need to be able to look to the next five years and see what other products will be coming up."