By Thomas Lee
Boston Scientific Corp.‘s (NYSE:BSX) hopes of reviving its ailing peripheral vascular business rest on a 46-year-old executive who used to sell beer for a living.
Beer and stents may seem worlds apart, but Joe Fitzgerald says his time at Anheuser-Busch Cos. (NYSE:BUD) taught him how to nurture a venerable brand in a fiercely competitive, shifting industry.
“I learned the importance of brand management for very, very long life cycles,” said Fitzgerald, a senior vice president who heads Boston Scientific’s recently reorganized endovascular unit. “It doesn’t get more competitive than beer. You quickly learn you were only as good as your last productive day.”
Boston Scientific will need every ounce of Fitzgerald’s sales and marketing know-how. Distracted by its troubled acquisition of Guidant Corp., the company has been struggling to play catch-up in the heated race to treat peripheral vascular diseases.
It’s not just a matter of pride (the company pioneered innovations like the peripheral polyethylene dilation balloon in the late 1970s) but the PV market, for treatment of blood vessel disorders below the waist, is growing at a roughly 10 percent to 12 percent-a-year clip, compared to just zero to 2 percent for coronary diseases. The competition has been particularly intense among major device makers like Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and Medtronic Inc. (NYSE:MDT) and smaller firms like Cook Medical Inc., C.R. Bard (NYSE:BCR) and ev3 Inc. (NSDQ:EVVV).
“I don’t know if anyone can dominate the market,” Piper Jaffray analyst Tom Gunderson said. “I don’t see anyone with a show-stopping [product] that can significantly capture market share in the next 12 to 16 months.”
Said Fitzgerald: “It’s a much more crowded market than normal. We see it as a major part of our growth strategy.”
Fitzgerald worked several years with sales and marketing teams at Anheuser-Busch after earning an MBA at Southern Illinois University. In the early 1990s, Boston Scientific, impressed with the beer giant’s ability to develop managerial talent, recruited Fitzgerald to work in the company’s peripheral business. At the time, Boston Scientific’s PV products generated 80 percent of its $100 million in annual sales.
But over the course of the past decade, Boston Scientific aggressively pursued drug-eluting coronary stents, pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators, culminating in the troubled $26 billion purchase of Guidant Corp. in 2006.
But with sales of heart-related devices stalling, the company has shifted its focus back to the PV market. Fitzgerald helped oversee Boston Scientific’s $1.1 billion acquisition of Target Therapeutics in 1997 and helped run its electrophysiology business.
Boston Scientific’s neglect of the PV unit was apparent. In fiscal 2009, the company’s peripheral interventions unit generated $661 million in sales, a drop of 3 percent from the previous year. By contrast, ev3, strengthened by its $780 million purchase of FoxHollow Technologies in 2007, posted PV sales of nearly $280 million last year, a 4 percent gain over 2008. PV sales in the fourth quarter alone jumped 8 percent.
Fitzgerald, who was recently promoted to Boston Scientific’s executive committee, said the division’s fallow period was due to a lack of new products, partly because it didn’t assign any engineers, sales people, marketers or regulatory affairs specialists to work solely on developing business. He’s since built dedicated PV teams to develop a more robust product line.
Over the past 15 months, the Food & Drug Administration has granted the company three PV-related pre-market approvals, including its Sterling ES and Sterling SL stents and an expanded indication for its Express LD iliac stent.
A major clinical study of a stent for the superficial femoral artery is underway, setting BSX’s PV division up to compete with Bard, currently the only company to sell an FDA-approved SFA stent in the U.S. With 10 product launches scheduled for 2010, Fitzgerald said he expects Boston Scientific to match market growth rates this year and exceed them in 2011.
The market is very much up for grabs, Piper Jaffray’s Gunderson said. Doctors are frustrated with the lack of durable, simple-to-use PV stents, he said.
Part of the problem is that medical device firms are not offering many stents specifically designed and approved for peripheral diseases. Fitzgerald says Boston Scientific’s experience and global market leadership in stents should give it an advantage.
Venkat Rajan, an analyst with market research firm Frost & Sullivan, agrees.
A company with a broad product portfolio that can produce strong clinical evidence supporting FDA approval of PV-specific devices will win market share, Rajan said. Boston Scientific has considerable resources to ease products into market and enjoys a strong familiarity with stenting technology, he said.