Inventing A Life

Inventing A Life

By KATIE BENNER Friday June 3, 2016

Photography by Fred Field

Entrepreneur Jean Hoffman ’79 has created a career, and several successful companies, out of grit and the willingness to be first.

A cat named Dude and his chronic thyroid condition gave rise to Jean Hoffman’s pet medicine company called Putney. The beloved cat had been prescribed an expensive drug that he’d need to take for the rest of his life, and there was no available generic equivalent. It was then that Hoffman had her “aha moment”: pet owners needed access to generic medicine, a cost-saving option that accounts for about 75 percent of all drugs prescribed to humans but for practically none given to pets. Putney, which is based in Portland, Maine, was born a few years later in 2006.

Dude has since passed away, replaced by cats Malcolm and Raccoon. Their pictures hang in the company’s office, and Raccoon stares out from the cover slide of PowerPoint presentations. The animals at Putney always come first. Their faces and stories spur Hoffman and her employees on.

Putney has already faced formidable challenges. The pharma industry is a hard-to-navigate morass of regulation, manufacturing, and distribution. Less than 10 percent of pet meds have a low-cost alternative; and big pharmaceutical companies want to protect the status quo. In a 2007 lawsuit against Pfizer, Putney accused the pharma giant of stymieing distribution of Putney’s drugs. Pfizer countersued, alleging that Putney had engaged in deceptive advertising. The case was settled, and Putney’s product remained on the market. “All large companies protect their intellectual property, but [Pfizer] was particularly aggressive,” says Barry Edwards, the former chief executive officer of Impax Laboratories and a member of Putney’s board. (Pfizer spun out its animal health business into a company called Zoetis.)

But Hoffman isn’t easily rattled by the rough-and-tumble pharma business. “The great companies today change the way customers experience something,” says Hoffman, noting that Apple and Google overcame big challenges to redefine how we think of phones and web browsers. She hopes that Putney will change pet ownership by lessening the financial burden of treatment, a cost that can deter people from taking sick animals to the vet.

Hoffman’s entrepreneurial roots can be traced back to her childhood in Washington, DC. Her father, Burt, was editor-in-chief of the prestigious National Journal. Later on he founded a political consulting firm. He spent time with politicians, including Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, and he groomed his daughter to aim for nothing short of becoming President of the United States. Hoffman says her dad taught her that she could have whatever career she wanted, and he urged her to forge her own path.

When she started at Bowdoin in 1975, the school was in the midst of a major cultural shift. The Bowdoin Orient in 1971 described it as “a men’s college with women.” Coeducation was a mere four years old, there were few female professors, and fraternities dominated student life.

Bowdoin classmates say that Hoffman was known as an iconoclast. “She had this great fearless quality, and walked into ‘guy land’ with no problem,” says Charlotte Agell ’81. Bowdoin’s alien environment probably encouraged her to take a nonconformist stance, too. “The school felt like a summer camp for guys who were going to be bankers,” says Tony Blofson ’79. “Jean and I were Jews who grew up in New York and DC. We were sort of outsiders.”

By senior year she’d moved off campus to a house out in Harpswell with her friends Blofson and John Holt ’79. “She was very focused, but I’ll always remember her as someone who loved fun,” Blofson says. The three roommates appear in the Class of 1979 Bugle, along with their friend John Frumer and a dog named Maevis, posing in their underwear on a wintry day.

An interest in China opens doors

While at Bowdoin, Professor Jack Langlois, then-chairman of the history department, helped spark Hoffman’s interest in China. He took students on day trips and encouraged them to debate Chinese history and philosophy. “To spend that much time having fun and very challenging conversations stretched my mind in a whole new way,” Hoffman says. At a time when few Americans were in China, she studied at the Chinese University of Hong Kong her junior year.

“I’m a huge believer in a liberal arts education, because I think that if you challenge people intellectually it almost doesn’t matter what they study,” Hoffman says. “If students care enough to work hard, it’s a degree that teaches them to have open minds and know how to learn, think, and communicate.”

The U.S. was just establishing diplomatic ties with the Chinese mainland when Hoffman was an undergrad, and American companies were just learning about the country. After graduation she worked for a trade association that did business in China. She gave tours to visiting Chinese delegations from pharmaceutical factories. Those businessmen, who happened to be influential Communist party members, gave her tours of large drug ingredient facilities in China. “I wasn’t a chemist or a chemical engineer, so they didn’t see me as a threat,” Hoffman says. “I established relationships with big important factories and helped them understand Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quality standards. That was my entry into the pharma business.”

She eventually took a job at the Zuillig Group and became CEO of its pharma subsidiary ZetaPharm. She was twenty-nine years old. ZetaPharm was in trouble, and Hoffman implemented a strategy to turn it around by expanding business in China and focusing on the generic drug industry. “This was a really tough challenge, but I began to understand that with hard work and important mentors I could create a path toward being more successful.”

After ZetaPharm, Hoffman moved back to Maine from New York City. (“I got this idea that I wanted a life,” she says.) She raised venture funding from IBM to found Newport Strategies, a database that generic pharma companies could use to source business opportunities and find suppliers of pharmaceutical ingredients. She sold Newport to Thomson Reuters in 2004, started a consulting company, and confronted the issue of Dude the cat’s health, which led to Putney’s launch.

“Jean is really one of the first entrepreneurs in our class,” says Dave Brown ’79, a managing partner at the venture capital firm Oak HillVenture Partners. “She carved out her own path with few real role models to draw from.”

Making a start-up in Maine

Putney is one of a handful of high-growth companies in Maine, a group that includes diagnostics company Idexx Laboratories and payment processing company WEX. Building a company in Maine can pose interesting challenges, particularly on the recruitment side. But Hoffman managed to build a team of sixty-plus people, recruiting much of the management team from out-of-state. In most cases those employees relocated to Maine with their families.

Despite having led three companies, Hoffman says she’s still learning how to build and lead teams. “It’s not just about hiring individuals. It’s about understanding how people function together as a unit to make a stronger unit,” she says. That means sharing information to help everyone succeed and not keeping people in silos.

Putney’s initial challenge was to solve a problem no one had solved before: How does a company get the FDA to approve the use of generic drugs on cats and dogs? Meeting government standards and bringing products to market is a tall order, but Hoffman says her company has worked hard to show that it can meet that challenge. Now it’s time to start looking for new hurdles to overcome. She says Putney is starting to focus on a commercial strategy, which means finding ways to transform how pet owners and vets get their medicines.

While Putney isn’t yet a household name, the company is doing well. It currently has five drugs on the market and about twenty in various stages of development or FDA review. Given the fact that the regulatory review process can take three to six years, this is a very healthy pipeline. The company moved into new, larger offices near Portland’s Monument Square a few months ago. Hoffman hired thirty people last year and may bring on another fifteen or so this year.

Accolades have rolled in, too. Last year the company was included in Inc. magazine’s list of fastest-growing companies and it has been named one of the best places to work in Maine. Fortune magazine included Putney on its list of the best small companies to work for in the country.

Putney’s success can be attributed in part to Hoffman’s grit. And to her willingness to go into a new business before anyone else. “Jean brought the focus to companion animals before anyone else,” says Michael Swit ’79, a lawyer with Duane Morris who specializes in pharmaceutical and medical device law. In a world dominated by big pharma, it seems like a risky proposition to be the trailblazer. But, for Hoffman, it’s the smart play and the one that she knows best.