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Allergan, the $3 billion multi-specialty health-care company, boasts one of those classic start-up stories that businesses today dream about: Chemist Stanley Bly had an idea for a novel anti-allergy nose drop, so he approached his friend Gavin S. Herbert Sr., who owned a pharmacy and nursed an entrepreneurial spirit.
It's a long way from the wheat fields in which Gavin Herbert Jr. eventually broke ground for the company's global headquarters in Irvine. Herbert, who worked in his father's pharmacy while the researcher and entrepreneur mixed products in the balcony, attended pharmacy school and served in the Navy before deciding in 1957 to see where he could take the fledgling company.
His father, who remained on as chairman, wasn't so sure the little company could compete with the likes of Upjohn and Merck.
"We couldn't have imagined we'd have what it is today," Herbert recalled in an interview with Ophthalmology Times.
David E.I. Pyott, who took the reins as president and chief executive officer (CEO) in 1998, said he often reflects on the company's humble roots, planted at a time when there wasn't a single building in sight in this part of California.
"Now Irvine is the industrial center of Orange County, and the epicenter of ophthalmic medical greatness," he mused. "I always explain to people that 30 years ago the ophthalmic medical industry was all in Germany, with Carl Zeiss and Heidelberg Engineering. Today, it's a little place called Orange County, California."
That's due in no small part to the existence of Allergan, which later spun off Advanced Medical Optics-now Abbott Medical Optics (AMO)-which maintained a successful operations center in the county seat of Santa Ana. But the area also became home to, among others, IntraLase (acquired by AMO), which was centered in Irvine, and LenSx Lasers, acquired by Alcon in July, which was based in Aliso Viejo, also in Orange County.
The atmosphere might have proved conducive to ophthalmology, but Allergan created its own success. Herbert credits an ability to listen to customers and investigate solutions to their problems as the key.
"We were able to identify opportunities and create some niche products that were unique," he said. "We had the first ophthalmic steroid, the first antihistamine eye drop, and the first antiviral eye drop. We were always trying for something a little different and better."