AmerisourceBergen's Steven Collis on dancing with regulators

Big companies headquartered here? Many people might think the list begins and ends with Comcast Corp., which is now busy broadcasting the Olympics. But in the Philadelphia region, the gold-medal winner, at least by revenue, is a quiet operator in the world of drug distribution.

Chief executive Steven Collis, 55, leads AmerisourceBergen Corp. The company, with 18,000 employees worldwide and about 1,000 in the region, ranks 12th on the Fortune 500 list, with $136 billion in annual revenue, compared with Comcast, ranked 37th with $74.5 billion.

AmerisourceBergen acts as a major conduit from manufacturer to customer, sometimes handling the packaging and branding. It also represents hospitals and pharmacies, acting as back-room operator of the supply room, buying the drugs and stocking the shelves.

For example, in a recently renewed partnership, AmerisourceBergen essentially stocks Walgreens pharmacies, working out deals to buy drugs from the manufacturers and maintaining control of stores' inventories. It provides similar services to local pharmacies.

Eighteen months ago, after acquiring MWI Veterinary Supply Co., in Boise, Idaho, AmerisourceBergen began dealing in animal medicines and vaccines.

How do you like being in the animal business?

What companies like MWI do, when it comes to what we call production animals, is really keep the world's food supply safe. The amount of vaccines that go into chickens and poultry and livestock is quite amazing. So we're learning about that. When we do our monthly business reviews with them, we're talking about beef trends, droughts in Wyoming and South Dakota. It's just amazing.

Your business is multifaceted.

People have said, "You're like UPS," and yes, we have the efficiency. We do deliveries to 60,000 to 70,000 institutions every day. I don't even know how many, but the number is astronomical, and the global reach is truly significant.

We take the product in, and we're shipping it to the customers, and we're [extending] them a lot of credit, so we're really [also] like a financial intermediary. But the difference is AmerisourceBergen first and foremost believes that we're a patient company and we're a health-care company.

You've said the company has been challenged by deflation in the cost of generic drugs. Why is that happening?

Many more people are manufacturing [drugs that have come off patent], so there's more supply. Another thing was the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved more products going generic than they ever have historically. Quality has picked up on the manufacturing side to the point where there are not a lot of plants being closed, so more capacity has come online.

Your business is so regulated. Any tips on dealing with regulators?

You have to be firm. You have to know what you're doing. You have to be very informed, but whether you're dealing with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or the Food and Drug Administration or the state attorneys general, you'd better be very respectful, very humble, listen to their perspective, and try to educate them.

Give me an example.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency: They have to control prescription drug abuse, and it's a tremendous problem in this country.

When we ship to a pharmacy, we don't know which patient is getting what. We don't know if that patient has already had three prescriptions for the same drug. We have to explain that and say we don't know if someone is paying cash for this product or if they bought the product the day before.

We can say, "This pharmacy in Ohio is ordering too much of this product." That's called suspicious-order monitoring. What we've done with the DEA is bring them into our warehouses, show them what a wholesaler does, how we pack orders, how we receive them, how we ship them, and how we monitor them.

Any good career advice?

I'd say, don't try to be overly ambitious at the expense of not being a good team member. Things will happen in the natural order. Have confidence. Be open to opportunities.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769@JaneVonBergen


STEVEN COLLIS

Home: Villanova.

Grew up: South Africa. Came to the United States in 1988.

Family: Wife, Toni; son, Jordan, 23; daughters Michala, 20, Olivia, 14.

Diploma: University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Not his job: Caring for the bees and chicken his wife raises.

Yum: Pasta, sushi and "anything the waiter brings on a silver tray - those cheesy, salty things. Oh, my God, I love that stuff."

Sport: Loves rugby.

Also: "I have as many friends as anyone you'd ever meet. I'm in touch with them. I do Facebook."


COMPANY

Name: AmerisourceBergen Corp., Valley Forge.

What: Pharmaceutical sourcing, distribution. It stocks Walgreens and other pharmacies.

Rank: No. 12 on Fortune 500 list, largest in the region.

Employees: 18,000 worldwide, 1,022 locally.

Dollars: $1.3 billion net income on $109.3 billion in revenue for the first nine months of fiscal year 2016.


CEO: Learning while earning leads to promotion. www.philly.com/jobbing