New at the top: From law school dropout to CEO

August 18, 2013

I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I had a great friend who was a well-known attorney. He urged me to study law, so I did.

I lasted two weeks.

This same fellow came in and gave a speech called “The Law Is a Jealous Mistress.” He told us that if we were going to be lawyers, we had to eat, sleep and drink the law. Afterward, I told him that his speech was great but that he had just talked me out of law school. I just didn’t have that same passion about the law that he and the other students had.

I quit that day.

So I looked for a job and wound up in pharmaceutical sales.


John Spitznagel is the new chief executive of NovaSom. (NovaSom)

I did really well in sales. I was never the smartest guy in the room — I just always thought outside the box. I also worked harder than anyone. I would work seven days a week.

Eventually, I worked my way up to a job as a marketing and sales executive at a major pharmaceutical company.

When I first got there, I had 300 sales representatives working for me. I used to pride myself on knowing every sales person in the field and their families. We were expanding very fast — I had 2,500 salespeople working under me. All of a sudden, I couldn’t recognize people. So after 10 years there, I left for a small firm in Birmingham, Ala.

My wife was very ill with cancer at the time. At this
start-up company, we didn’t have to wait for health insurance, so she agreed to move and we did.

Unfortunately, she got sick again within a month.

Eventually, I moved to a small division of a $50 million drug company. The assignment was to clean it up and sell it. It took about five years, but we sold it.

The same thing happened at Roberts Pharmaceutical. It was large, but there was no growth. When I took it over, it had a market cap of about $230 million. Three and a half years later, we sold it for just shy of $1.3 billion.

My wife passed away just as we sold the company, and I retired.

I stayed home with my cat.

That got boring.

My kids were telling me that I was boring.

In 2001, I met a wonderful lady, whom I married. She also told me I was boring.

I decided it was time to do something else.

I helped form a company called ESP Pharma. That was a big success. My partners and I raised $48 million in a year and sold the company in 2005 for $514 million. The investors liked that so much that they asked me to start another company. We called the company Esprit Pharma, which we started in 2005 and sold in 2008.

And again we started another company, called Oceana Therapeutics. We started with $75 million and acquired a couple of products from overseas. In two years, we sold the company for $300 million. We liked the idea of niche markets where you can address a sizable market potential with a relatively small number of people.

It was fun and exciting. NovaSom is the same way. It’s important to do a product line that you can be proud of. I like the idea of companies where you get up in the morning, look in the mirror and feel like you’re doing something worthwhile.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

John Spitznagel

Position: Chief executive of NovaSom, a Glen Burnie company that provides sleep-testing technology.

Career highlights: Chairman and chief executive, Oceana Therapeutics; chairman and chief executive, Esprit Pharma; chairman and chief executive, ESP Pharma; president and chief executive, Roberts Pharmaceutical; president, Reed and Carnrick division of Block Drug; sales and marketing, Warner-Lambert; Hoffmann-La Roche; senior vice president of marketing and sales, Wyeth.

Age: 71

Education: BA, English and journalism, Rider University; MBA, marketing, Fairleigh Dickinson.

Personal: Married with two children. Commutes to Glen Burnie from Loveladies, N.J.

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