David Bethune, Chairman and CEO of Atrix Laboratories Inc., helped to lift the Fort Collins pharmaceutical company from financial hardship to profitability.

Bethune rides hard to rescue Atrix Laboratories from slump 2004 Bravo! Entrepreneur — Fort Collins

Sooner rather than later, David Bethune will figure out what the leisure thing is all about.

He was almost ready for it five years ago, when he was lured out of his third retirement to resurrect sinking Atrix Laboratories Inc., a Fort Collins biotech company whose sole product languished without a market.

It was a job that seemed close to impossible in November 1999.

Investors in this one-trick pony of a company – and a lame one at that – were on the edge of revolt, having seen their stock’s share value tumble from slightly more than $20 to less than $5 in just two years.

Employees wore the grim faces of defeat, having watched their Atridox periodontal disease treatment fall flat as a flounder in the dental pharmaceutical market.

“I was hesitant, but did it kind of as a favor to the board,” Bethune said, recalling how he and his wife were building their retirement home in Scottsdale, Ariz., when fellow Atrix board members summoned him.

“The company was just down on its knees with Atridox. The job was either to sell the company, or get it back on a course of progress. When I got here, I couldn’t stand the thought of just getting rid of it.”

When Bethune celebrates his fifth anniversary next month, the date will mark a milestone that no one in 1999 could have imagined. The merger of a revived Atrix with Canadian pharmaceutical giant QLT Inc. – a deal that meant a six-fold increase in the value of Atrix stock – will conclude within a few weeks of Bethune’s five-year mark.

The achievement is only part of what led judges to select Bethune, the 64-year-old Atrix president and CEO, as the Bravo! Entrepreneur of the Year award winner for Fort Collins.

Never in regional history have a public company’s fortunes reversed so sharply, and so quickly, as at Atrix,

“He’s a turnaround specialist,´ said close friend David Neenan, president of regional construction giant Neenan Cos. “He’s done that before a couple of times in other places with other companies, and he worked the miracle again here. He’s one of the most effective leaders in this town.”

Bethune’s company colleagues also push the credit toward him.

Michael Duncan, Atrix’s vice president and general manager, remembers the darkest days, having joined the company in 1995 after a successful career with Ciba-Geigy, now known among the pharmaceutical giants as Novartis Inc.

“A lot of the people who worked here then were at the lowest point,” Duncan said. “They had become familiar with failure.”

The company was then in a near-futile strategy of getting Atridox, a time-release antibiotic, into the hands of dentists who treat periodontal disease.

“Then Dave comes in, and the guy’s basic principle is you get more luck the harder you work at it,” Duncan said. “It was like he was the manager of an underdog baseball team, with everybody down-in-the-mouth. He said, ‘If you believe in me and do what I ask, we’ll get there.'”

What Bethune asked for was diversification. His vision was to take Atrix’s core technology – a polymer-based substance called Atrigel – and use it to deliver drugs to treat illness far beyond the narrow realm of dental disease.

He asked for speed. He wanted the new products in and out of the federal Food and Drug Administration regulatory maze within a few, not a dozen, years.

Reinvigorated Atrix workers delivered Eligard, a time-release treatment for prostate cancer, that has become the company’s flagship product.

He asked for commitment.

“My first job was looking at the culture, and the morale, and deciding whether we could fix this thing,” Bethune said. “My first goal was to develop a vision that people could latch onto. It worked, and we started trying to build something here.”

The house that Bethune and 200 Atrix employees built was attractive enough to lure the interest of QLT, a cash-rich Canadian firm that had an eye-disease drug as its runaway success.

Five years after Bethune’s arrival, shareholders and employees alike have found what Bethune told them was ahead. Now Atrix’s CEO says its time to spend more time on a horse, or a Harley, than behind his president’s desk.

He recently bought his third Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a $20,000 Ultra Classic Electra Glide – a hog that is, well, presidential.

“I splurged and bought some heated grips,” he confessed. “They really are a lot more comfortable.”

When not on weekend rides in the mountains with a group, including Duncan, that has become almost a company Harley club, Bethune and his wife are likely to be at a Loveland horse farm where six cutting horses keep both busy.

Ah, the office is still there – if only for a few more months.

“I’m going to be on board during the transition, because I’ve got a lot of good people that we care about,” Bethune said, adding he’ll stay on the board of the combined company once the merger is complete.

“Then, I really do want to spend as much time as I can raising some world-class quarter horses, and find out about this leisure thing. I have friends who have told me about it.”