Michael Major, President and CEO
Remember when your chemistry teacher told you everything you’re learning in class might become useful someday? Many of us shrugged that off, or used the knowledge for fun and mischievous pranks. Others seized the knowledge and developed global organizations providing services to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies worldwide. Michael Major, Ph.D., D.SC, is one who did just that.
Major began his career as a tenured professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Lodz in Poland. From there, he went to Northwestern University and also earned a Humboldt Fellowship at the University of Stuttgart and researched at McMaster University in Ontario. In the early 1990s as the entrepreneurial bug came calling, Major founded Major Laboratories. The company merged with Cambridge Chemical to form Cambridge Major Laboratories in 1999.
Ten years later and hot on the heels of a major (yes, pun intended) $40 million expansion that has already added 60 new jobs in the region and expanded processing capacity from 3,000 to 18,000 gallons, Cambridge Major eyes a future with sales doubling their current annual figure of around $50 million.
What makes Cambridge Major successful in an era where manufacturing is generally on the decline in the U.S.? According to Major, it’s strong R&D. At Cambridge Major, a significant amount of R&D supports early scale-up during pre-clinical development. From that point, the company works closely with clients from molecular concept to the in-human study phase as a priority.
On a larger scale, Major is very passionate about the importance of manufacturing to an economy. “Everything starts with manufacturing,” he said. But once you have the facility, “people are everything in a business.” Major believes in rewarding hard work with opportunity, once they’ve proven themselves. “Companies that overspend for talent up front often end up with employees that aren’t as productive,” he noted, “When it comes to employees, show me what you can. If you show more than the average person technically and managerially and you bring value to the company, then basically, the sky is the limit."
After a lengthy tenure in academia, Major found a job with Sigma Aldrich in Milwaukee in 1992. There, he worked with chemicals at a plant amidst the tangled web of the former Marquette Interchange, which used to encircle the building.
"I was a freer spirit than Aldrich, and eventually I moved to Cambridge Chemical. I knew I had to eventually try and start my own business. I knew how to produce chemicals, but I was doing it for somebody else. I had a good relationship still with Aldrich Chemical and they agreed to order chemicals from me. I took out a second mortgage and raised additional money while applying for SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) funds.”
The money raised was used to build a chemical lab that met all code requirements. He named it Major Laboratories; Cambridge Chemical and Sigma Aldrich were among his first customers. “Within a year, we increased cash flow by taking on new projects others didn't want to take,” Major noted, “that allowed us to survive.”
Early employees had some ownership stake in the business, which helped their drive and rewarded loyalty during the company’s fledgling years. When Cambridge merged with Major in 1999, the infusion of employees helped launch sales to levels three times what Cambridge had formerly done alone.
“Every year we improved, I hired more people, and then motivation came from having more people following you. Suddenly, I had 15 or 20 people,” Major recalled. That employment figure has since climbed into the triple digits.
In terms of being an entrepreneur, Major has two recommendations: find something in yourself that motivates you to try and do the best you can do, and then be willing to take risks and responsibilities, recognizing that both the hardest and most rewarding part will be the consequences.
One high point on Major’s entrepreneurial journey occurred one day in 2004, when he won the honor of Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in Life Sciences for the State of Wisconsin – the very same day as Cambridge Major’s new facility (at the time) opened. The company’s growth has continued since then despite the economic situation. "We didn't lay off anybody in the recent economic downturn,” Major noted, “in fact, we hired more people. We have a lot of people coming to us now, asking for jobs."
In addition to the new Germantown facility, a 2007 business acquisition – the company’s first – has given them a European facility in Peelterbaan, The Netherlands. Cambridge Major continues to bring in awards, and last year received the Frost & Sullivan 2008 North American Fine Chemicals Award for business excellence and sustainability.
Success, Major says, requires “education and special skills...and most of all, hard work. They are the prerequisites. Once you have the base, you multiply your chances of success. Hard work then tends to bring you some luck.”
Amazing how that works out, isn’t it?
Check out Cambridge Major’s website!