Monday, April 13, 2009

Va Biotech Park CEO Bob Skunda Profiled in RTD

Well done profile of Bob Skunda, the CEO of the Va Biotechnology Research Park.

Virginia BioTechnology Research Park’s chief builder
Inside biotech. Ever wonder what the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park looked like on the inside?

Published: April 13, 2009

Robert T. Skunda has no training in biosciences, technology or medicine.

The 62-year-old does have a bachelor's degree in architecture and a master's in urban planning.

He chaired the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and was secretary of commerce and trade under Gov. George Allen.

But since 1997, Skunda has been the man behind the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park in downtown Richmond.

As the park's CEO, Skunda has melded his planning, recruiting and management skills with science. He oversees management, development, leasing and operations at the park.

"I enjoy being around the scientists," he said. "I enjoy being around the entrepreneurs as much as I enjoy doing the deals and putting the deals together."

Getting the job offer surprised him.

"When the board asked me to take this position, I said: 'I am not a research scientist; I don't know biotechnology.'"

But the board was less focused on science.

Eugene P. Trani, outgoing Virginia Commonwealth University president, recruited Skunda.

"Bob is the right guy . . . to provide the long-range planning and economic development" required to jump-start the park, Trani said during an interview in 1997. "We will have an individual with a solid handle on strategies for successful economic development."

Trani, who has been the only chairman of the BioTech park since its inception, declined an interview or to answer questions about Skunda.

When Skunda took over, there were four buildings in the 34-acre park. The rest of the land was mostly covered by a haphazard arrangement of parking lots. Twenty-two companies employed about 500 people.

Today, the park has nine buildings taking up 1.1 million square feet -- about the size of Short Pump Town Center -- that house 44 private companies, five state labs, four Virginia Commonwealth University research institutions and five nonprofits.

More than 2,000 scientists, engineers and technicians now work at the park.

"He's taken a kernel of an idea and turned it into something much larger than we even thought it could be," said Sheldon M. Retchin, CEO of VCU Health System.

. . .

Skunda is looking for more companies to come to the park.

He is heading to Israel at the end of the week to recruit medical companies. This is one of the many trips he has made to Israel and elsewhere, including Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom.

With medicaland surgical-supply company Owens & Minor and other medical distributors with operations in the region, Richmond is a great location for foreign companies to develop products to be able to take to local distributors, he said.

"The U.S. market is the Holy Grail if you have health-care products," Skunda said.

Making sure the park does well leads to more economic development, he said.

Worldwide, more than 4,200 biotechnology companies earn $63 billion in annual revenue, Skunda said. Fifty-two percent of that was generated in the United States.

"I believe what we're creating here is a sector of the economy that will be long-lasting and will continue significantly over a long period," Skunda said.

He considers the biotech park another component to what makes Richmond's economy diverse. The advantages brought by variety was learned early.

. . .

Skunda was born and grew up in Flint, Mich.

When the automobile industry was doing well, everyone prospered. When times were bad, few were spared.

It taught him a lesson: An economy dependent on one industry would never be secure.

When he was chairman of the Virginia chamber from 1991 through 1993, he focused on state competitiveness and job issues.

While waiting in a receiving line during a conference in New York in 1993, Skunda found himself next to Allen, then the soon-to-be governor.

He shared ideas about making Virginia open for business. Not long after, an offer came from the new governor for Skunda to be his secretary of commerce and trade.

His mission: create jobs and recruit companies while overseeing 15 state agencies and 2,000 employees. "It was one of those completely life-changing, serendipitous things that you don't plan for and never anticipate," Skunda said.

Together, the two traveled to Europe, Asia, Mexico and Canada. On one trip to England, Germany and Sweden in 1995, the duo helped close four deals that lead to $43 million in foreign investment.

He was also instrumental in recruiting IBM, Frito-Lay and Volvo Trucks.

"Bob was one of my very, very best players and teammates and truly a great, loyal, trustworthy friend," Allen said. "Folks would call him Little Big Man because he was a big man, but of height, not all that tall."

. . .

Colleagues say Skunda is energetic, detailed, prepared and always looking for partnership opportunities.

Skunda himself admits that he rarely slows down and can be a bit obsessive-compulsive.

His office, like his house, is pristine. The only thing bordering on clutter are pictures covering the walls.

One is a framed score card paired with a picture of Skunda with famed golfer Arnold Palmer to his right. On a par 72 course, Palmer hit a 75; Skunda came in at 86.

"I didn't embarrass myself," he said of the 1998 golf outing.

Golf is a major part of his life. He doesn't miss a chance, and he got his family involved.

"He put a golf club in my hand at age 3," said daughter Courtney L. Skunda, 27, who joined the BioTech park staff in October as marketing and communications coordinator. She previously had worked as a lobbyist, fundraiser and public relations representative.

She does not work directly for her father and did not interview with him when seeking the job. But they still work together.

"It gives me a chance to see him every day," she said. "I think this is special, that . . . I get to work with him."

That doesn't mean that her dad wasn't around when she was growing up.

In her 18 years of ballet performances, he never missed a recital. "Between trade missions and things like that, he still managed to make it," she said.

. . .

Over the years, he also served on a number of boards.

He serves on the board of directors of LandAmerica Financial Group Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection in November. The company has since sold off its primary title-insurance subsidiaries and is in the process of selling off remaining assets.

Skunda calls the demise of the company "heartbreaking" but can say little else because of pending lawsuits. "The only thing I can say publicly is it was just breathtaking the speed with which it all happened."

. . .

The park, too, has its share of problems.

It is projected to have a deficit of $136,500 for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2010, and the budget shortfall is expected to continue, he said.

Increased operating costs, lost rent from vacant office space and a lack of state funding have added to the burden, as has the economy.

"VCU has a lot invested in the park, and we're going to work together to overcome whatever the economic challenges are," said Dr. Frank Macrina, VCU's vice president for research.

Skunda also said he will look at the long-term future of the park and the role of the governing authority. Plans to appeal for state support are under way.

"I'm confident we will deal with it," Skunda said.

As for his future, "I don't see myself retiring any time soon," Skunda said. "I can't possibly conceive of playing golf every day."

Profile: Robert T. Skunda

Born: Sept. 22, 1946, in Flint, Mich.
Education: University of Michigan, bachelor of architecture, 1969; University of Michigan, master's in urban planning, 1972
Work experience: President and CEO, Virginia BioTechnology Research Park, 1997 to present
Virginia's Secretary of Commerce and Trade, 1993-1997
Principal at Dewberry & Davis, 1979-1993
Civic leadership: Board of directors of Greater Richmond Technology Council and LandAmerica Financial Group Inc.
Member of the Virginia General Assembly joint study commission on biotechnology
Greater Richmond Chamber air-service task force
Community Idea Stations science and discovery leadership team
Virginia Biotechnology Association government affairs.
Previous activities: Past chair of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce
Former member of Governor's Commission on the Virginia Biotechnology Initiative
Past board member of Medical Informatics and Technology Applications Consortium.
Family: Wife, Cheryl (married 40 years); son, Kevin, 35; daughter, Courtney, 27
Pastime: Golfing, swimming
Favorite Food: Sushi
Fear: "I really don't like snakes."

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