He's described as stubborn and opportunistic by critics, but praised by supporters as a gifted surgeon and entrepreneur of enormous energy and vision. Either way, Abraxis BioScience Chief Executive Patrick Soon-Shiong certainly developed a strong sense of self growing up the son of Chinese immigrants in apartheid-era South Africa. His father practiced Chinese herbal medicine and Soon-Shiong went on to break barriers as a doctor in South Africa's segregated medical community. He and his wife, actress Michele Chan, eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he worked at the UCLA School of Medicine. There he was involved in developing groundbreaking transplantation techniques to treat diabetes, and did research on ways to better deliver chemotherapy. That led to the technology behind Abraxane, a breast cancer drug made by Abraxis based on nanotechnology. Soon-Shiong has become a multibillionaire, with the recent sale of a separate generic drug business, APP Pharmaceuticals, increasing his estimated net worth to $5.3 billion. But throughout his business career, the headstrong entrepreneur has clashed with others, including colleagues; investors; and even his own brother, who sued him over a failed business deal. Soon-Shiong shrugs it all off and these days is focusing more of his time on philanthropic endeavors. He and his wife have pledged more than $55 million to Santa Monica's St. John's Health Center and are putting the finishing touches on a new family foundation.
Question: You've been a billionaire on paper for several years, but what does it feel like to now have actual billions in the bank from the sale of APP?
Answer: I've never really focused on the money. I don't feel any different, except that I have more liquidity to accelerate the things we want to do, with our philanthropy, investing in decreasing disparities in health care and helping to encourage a larger biotech industry here. I don't anticipate changing my lifestyle. We live a pretty simple, quiet life. We still live in the same house, the kids' weekly allowances are based on their grades and my daughter baby-sits.
Q: What role models did you have for becoming CEO of a company?
A: Well, there's my father, but also being a surgeon is the best training for being a CEO. When you're a surgeon, you have to be decisive as well as pragmatic. You have to make decisions that can be life-threatening, usually with imperfect information. You do not always have all the facts in your hands. Second, you're totally dependent on your team. But if at the end of the day, if something goes wrong with the patient, you're the one responsible.
Q: Are there any surgeries that stick with you?
A: One of my most prized possessions is this huge old mahogany desk that I won on a bet from my professor at the University of British Columbia. He didn't believe that at my junior stage I could remove this huge tumor the size of two grapefruit from one of his patients without rupturing the cyst. Michelle and I rented a dolly to wheel that desk across the street to our apartment.
Q: What lead you to become a doctor?
A: My father was a village doctor, practicing Chinese herbal medicine. People would come to the house for advice, he'd make up some herbal concoction to give them, and I'd watch all that. It was very inspiring and influences what I do today. The motto at Abraxis is that we save a life every day.
Q: Do you still consider yourself a practicing physician?
A: Yes, but on a more global level. What happens now, because of the work we do, is that I get calls all the time from people, asking advice for themselves or a relative who have terrible diseases. People come up to me after I speak at conferences. I don't really do consultations anymore, but I do try to point them in the right direction or I'll agree to talk with their doctor.
Q: Do you keep your medical license current?
A: Yes. My "secret" plan is to go back and do surgery one day. I used to do some very complicated procedures and it was a challenge for me. It's kind of like being a fighter pilot if there wasn't a challenge it wasn't fun. Eventually I had to cut back as the business grew. Unless you're doing surgery every week, ethically it's not a good idea. But robotic surgery, that's the future, and I'm participating in developing some of the machines. And I want to use them.
Q: How did growing up under apartheid influence the actions you've taken in your career as a doctor, researcher and businessman?
A: It was a struggle being a physician of Chinese descent under apartheid, but it forged a lot of the way I approach things. As a medical student, the black people I would treat during the anti-apartheid riots were inspiring because they took their hardship with incredible dignity. They didn't back down, didn't give up.
Q: How did you apply that to getting ahead as a minority doctor in a segregated society?
A: I was determined to have my internship at this particular prestigious white hospital because I knew that's where I'd get the best training and work with the best doctors. But no Chinese had ever been admitted as an intern at any white hospital in South Africa. I approached my chairman, who agreed that if I ranked among the top four in my class that he would support me. They had to get permission from the South African government and I was told I'd have to take 50 percent of the regular salary. My peers wanted to go on strike over that, but I said, no, I'd be glad to take the lower salary just so I could learn from the best.
Q: How did patients at that hospital react?
A: My first patient there was an Afrikaner in the cancer ward who had a very high temperature for several days but refused to have me examine him. My professor told the man he'd have to leave the hospital if he didn't let me look at him. I figured out what was the problem and got his temperature down. After that, that man would walk around the hospital saying, "That Chinaman, make sure he examines you."
Q: How did apartheid affect other parts of your life?
A: Here's a wonderful irony. They refused to put my wife, Michele, on South African television when we lived there. But after we came to L.A. and she got a role in a series called "Danger Bay," of course South African TV bought that show and aired it.
Q: How did you end up in the United States?
A: I was offered a full-time job at a South African academic hospital when I finished my internship in 1977, but I decided I want to think more about what I wanted to do. I knew I had a lot to offer. So I worked in a TB clinic for blacks for six months. I had been considering research and had even written a grant proposal to an institute in London and came close to winning it.
Q: Then what happened?
A: I had gotten two offers in Canada, one in Newfoundland and the other in Vancouver. I looked at the map and selected the warmest place. I became a resident in surgery at Vancouver General Hospital with the University of British Columbia. And at night I'd work on a master's of science degree, working with a well-known researcher in pancreatic cancer. I won a lot of awards, and that led me to being recruited by UCLA in 1980.
Q: There are instances in your career where you have stubbornly pursued some path though peers and others thought you were just plain wrong. Can you discuss any of that?
A: A lot of my research over the years, including the research that made Abraxane possible, I was told was crazy in the beginning. But I believe very much in fate and karma. What's supposed to be will be. So I don't worry about it.
Q: One of your brothers was an investor in that early company, VivoRx, and sued you, too. Did you two ever reconcile after that dispute?
A: I think enough water has passed under the bridge from my perspective. We never will be in business together again, though. I don't think that's a good idea.
Q: But you've also had to deal with a number of other lawsuits over the years. You been accused of running roughshod over the minority investors at American Pharmaceutical Partners Inc. and Abraxis since you held controlling interest in both companies.
A: Listen, investors who hung on to their shares over the years would have done very, very well. We bought American Pharmaceutical (now APP) for $75 million in 1998. By the time it was sold to Fresenius SE, the combined value of APP and Abraxis was $8.6 billion. We revolutionized chemotherapy treatment with Abraxane, got 70 injectable generic drugs at APP approved, and we ended up with the safest supply of (blood thinner) heparin in the U.S. after the Baxter recall because of the investment we made to make sure our plant in China was safe. I'm pretty happy to have that record stand on its own.
Q: You and your wife are in the process of setting up a more formal family foundation structure for your philanthropy. How have you attempted to instill the desire to give in your own children?
A: There's a woman downtown, Sister Rose, who feeds between 200 to 400 people every day without a lot of fanfare. I had given to her work indirectly. A few years ago, I wanted to show my children what she did. She gave us a tour. We come to find out that she has no bank account and was funding the (food kitchen) from cash donations and selling cardboard boxes for recycling.
Q: What did your kids learn from that?
A: It was an incredible lesson for my kids to see what she and Father John, her partner, had been able to do with very few resources. We later arranged to get them some equipment and other help, practical things that would not overwhelm them. That was sort of the genesis of how we wanted to approach our giving. Writing a check can be the easy way, but not always the best way. I had to figure out what could I contribute, hands on, with my life experiences in health care. And my daughter now volunteers downtown and with other groups because of that experience.
Q: How do you make sure you spend enough time with your family?
A: My family is very, very important to me. I contort my schedule to a crazy extent so I can drive my daughter to school and go to soccer games. I play tennis with my daughter and I go surf fishing for perch with my son. We all surf and I play basketball with them, as well as with my employees. We have a group at Abraxis that plays a pickup game every week at UCLA.
Q: In the presidential campaign, there's been a lot made of Barack Obama's basketball playing style. What does your basketball playing style say about you?
A: Just like being a surgeon can teach you a lot about being a CEO, playing basketball can teach you a lot about interacting with people. To me, basketball is about having fun and breaking a sweat, as opposed to wanting to be an NBA star. I want to make sure everyone participates on the team. I think I'm team oriented, but I also like to play hard.
Title: Chief Executive
Company: Abraxis BioScience Inc.
Born: 1952; Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Education: University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, 1975; M.Sc. surgery at University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1979; fellow of the Royal College of
Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and the American College of Surgeons
Career Turning Point: Decision not to take a position at a South African academic hospital, and instead pursue a surgical and research career first in Canada and eventually the United States
Most Influential People: Dr. Jung Duplessis, one of his medical school professors in South Africa; father Soon-Shiong Wong; father-in-law the late Harold Chan
Personal: Lives in West Los Angeles with his wife, actress Michele Chan, and two teenage children
Hobbies: Surfing, tennis, basketball with family
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