By Sun Lee, CPA
Sun Lee, CPA, is a tax partner with KPMG LLP, where he leads the Pennsylvania business tax services corporate practice. Through his work with different companies, he has come across many inspiring stories of leadership. Lee will reach out to corporate leaders and share their insights here in CPA Now on an ongoing basis.
Frank Li has always trusted his instincts. Despite numerous obstacles and naysayers, Li has built one of the most successful contract research organizations (CROs) in the United States: Alliance Pharma. Today, the company he founded is a trusted partner in the pharmaceutical industry. The company and Li have been honored with numerous awards for vision, growth trajectory, and role in helping to create life-saving medications. Li has been recognized as CEO of the Year by the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce and a Philadelphia Future 50 CEO; the firm was honored as a Philadelphia Top 100 fastest-growing company.
What inspired you to create Alliance Pharma?
I started thinking about creating a company in 1992, but I knew there were many hurdles I had to surmount before pulling the trigger. I earned a PhD in bioanalytical chemistry and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. I worked my way up into leadership roles at CROs and pharmaceutical companies, specifically Phoenix International Life Sciences in Montreal, GlaxoSmithKline, and Cephalon. I waited until my wife fully established her acupuncture clinic so she could support the family while I pursued what I now recognize was my ultimate goal. When I left a high-paying day job to get my entrepreneurial venture off the ground, most of my friends thought I was crazy. The calculations just didn’t add up on paper. But I knew I would get there.
Alliance Pharma is one of the fasting-growing companies in the CRO industry. To what do you credit your success?
First, I always tell my young employees – and my daughter – to think about how to measure success. It’s not about how much money you have. A lot of young people job hop to try to get a salary increase each time. Sometimes, even if the pay isn’t great, it makes sense to stick with a job you love. Eventually the money will come. Second, I am focused on empowering my people. I can take time away from the company and know that my team will still perform at the highest level. I view my own success through the lens of my impact on the people around me and on society.
Your company has survived, and even thrived, through some difficult economic periods, including the pandemic. How do you do it?
My company was founded in 2008, at the start of the Great Recession. With investors, I had to start over two or three times. Some potential backers were initially enthusiastic, but then got cold feet. A third group of backers finally said yes, but they needed $1 million in funding. I was able to secure a Small Business Administration loan, but the bank delayed releasing the funds until 2010. In the interim, I lost my partners again, so I had to start the company by myself. Five people eventually came on board and invested, but, in that economic climate, I knew I had to accept that they would keep their day jobs. I offered them an interest in the business and guaranteed I would return their money in one month and pay 100% of their legal fees if I failed.
To say 2020 has been an odd year would be an understatement. But the company grew during the pandemic. On the one hand, the pharmaceutical industry has been focused on vaccines and treatments for COVID. That said, drug discovery and development – particularly for rare disease drugs, biologics, and biosimilars – had to continue. So CROs were very much in demand. In the past year, we continued to grow our team and added three additional laboratories and 3,000 square feet of office space. We have had to pivot and be flexible to some extent, but the constant through all the years has been our dedication to producing the uncompromised data needed to create medications that help people live fuller, more productive lives.
What inspiring books are you reading now?
I read constantly, often books at the intersection of business and psychology or philosophy. For example, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Carol Dweck) aligns with my ideas about having a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset, and Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You (Frances Frei and Anne Morriss) redefines leadership and reflects how I try to empower those around me to keep growing a world-class organization.
Frank Li, PhD, is president and founder of Alliance Pharma in Malvern.
Sun Lee, CPA, is a tax partner with KPMG LLP, where he leads the Pennsylvania business tax services corporate practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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