Owning leadership: LaConte transforms Dohmen

Cover Story

Cynthia LaConte
Cynthia LaConte

 “Own leadership.”

That is the No. 1 piece of leadership advice Cynthia LaConte, president and chief executive officer of The Dohmen Co., gives to others.

“Don’t make leading be someone else’s job,” she said. “I think we lose track of the fact that every one of us, regardless of where we sit in a hierarchy or on an org chart, is responsible for leadership. We lead and influence by example, and our behavior has a ripple effect on others. So own it, take accountability for it and bring your best self to whatever you do.”

Cynthia LaConte
Cynthia LaConte

LaConte, 54, has lived those words through her nearly three decades at Dohmen, a Milwaukee-based, fifth-generation company where she has served as CEO since 2009.

Dohmen started in 1858 as an apothecary before becoming a manufacturer and then a wholesaler. Today, it is a business processing partner for more than 300 biopharma and medtech companies that has the vision of creating an “efficient, effective and easy-to-use health care experience.”

Its primary businesses are Dohmen Life Science Services and Red Arrow Labs, an applications development and software products company.

Although LaConte is credited with repositioning the company to better meet the needs of the future, she is reluctant to take credit.

“My biggest accomplishment has been to successfully transform what Dohmen was to what it is today,” she said. “But it’s unfair to call it my accomplishment because really it is the accomplishment of every person that works here.”

LaConte’s path to Dohmen

A member of the fifth generation of company ownership, LaConte is the daughter of Erv Dohmen, who served as CEO from 1982 to 1992. She is also the sister of John F. Dohmen, who was CEO from 1995 to 2008.

“I’m proud to say I’m Dohmen’s first female CEO, although there have been many strong women over the decades that have shaped and influenced the company,” she said, referring to female employees across the enterprise.

Natural light is a focal point of Dohmen’s new Third Ward office space.
Natural light is a focal point of Dohmen’s new Third Ward office space.

LaConte, however, did not always set out to work for the family company.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, she spent a year working at a boutique in Sausalito, Calif., before going on to graduate cum laude from Mount Mary University in Milwaukee with a double major in merchandising and French.

LaConte spent her early career working in retail and manufacturing within the food and fashion industries, and was happily employed at local clothing manufacturer JH Collectibles when she got the call to join the family business.

“To be honest, I barely knew what Dohmen did as a business during my young working life,” she said. “It was just a place where my dad, and then my brother, worked. To Erv’s credit, he really kept business outside of the family environment. It wasn’t something that entered into dinner table talk.”

But she decided to take the job anyway.

“I think I accepted partly out of a sense of obligation and partly from the excitement of a new adventure,” she said.

Even though LaConte jokes about her schooling being “so, so useful,” she said her education and work experience emphasized curiosity and creativity – “the right ingredients for innovation.”

She also put some of her merchandising expertise to use at her first Dohmen job. She began at the company in 1988 by managing its retail promotional programs within the purchasing department, and a couple years later became vice president of procurement.

“It was a great opportunity to see how the channel worked in our industry,” LaConte said. “It introduced me to the complexity of health care and allowed me the opportunity to look upstream at the manufacturers and product innovators. It was that orientation that ultimately led me to start DDN (Pharmaceutical Logistics) and now DLSS (Dohmen Life Science Services).”

LaConte’s leadership turn

LaConte said she first applied her curiosity and creativity at Dohmen when founding DDN Pharmaceutical Logistics as a subsidiary of The Dohmen Co. in 1992.

A pharmaceutical third-party logistics company, DDN was ultimately folded into the Dohmen Life Science Services subsidiary, along with several acquired entities.

LaConte, meanwhile, moved from the role of president of DDN to chief operating officer of The Dohmen Co. in 2007, and then in 2009 became CEO.

“I was kind of the last man standing so to speak,” she said. “My brother (John) and cousin (Bob, who served as executive vice president) retired from the operation around the same time in 2008, and the responsibility passed to me.”

Bob and another of LaConte’s brothers, Ted, are also involved with the company today. Bob serves as chairman of the board, and Ted, a geophysicist from Houston, is a board member.

LaConte has received “so, so much advice” from family, but she said the piece that stuck with her the most came from her father, Erv, who said to always lead for the next generation.

In other words, be persistent and think for the long term.

Dohmen’s completely renovated headquarters is at 190 N. Milwaukee St.
Dohmen’s completely renovated headquarters is at 190 N. Milwaukee St.

To LaConte, that meant reimagining Dohmen and creating a transformative new service model by forming Dohmen Life Science Services.

Formally launched in 2014, Dohmen Life Science Services supports several hundred biotech, pharmaceutical and medical device companies by providing outsourced services in the areas of technology, marketing, supply chain, patient support, finance and compliance.

LaConte said her curiosity and creativity were an invaluable part of establishing Dohmen Life Science Services.

“Our base wholesaling business was at risk from commoditization, and it either needed to be scaled quickly into a national footprint or it needed to be transformed,” she said. “Staying the same was not an option.”

Dohmen sold its pharmaceutical wholesaling business, which had been the company’s historical focus, to Cardinal Health in 2006, and began the transformation into a new life science services company.

“We did this by taking DDN, the company I started in the mid-’90s, and adhering new service functionality through acquisition,” LaConte said. “We acquired nine companies in five years and have been busy weaving them together as a seamless basket of outsourced service capability for biotech, pharma and medtech companies.”

(See side story for details on the acquired companies.)

“They bravely sold the founder’s business and put together what I call a string of pearls,” said Catherine Sohn, a Dohmen board member and president of New Jersey-based Sohn Health Strategies LLC. “The real accomplishment was to extend the Dohmen core values and then to create a culture within the company that allows these previously private companies to come together to be a much more powerful and special company than any one of the individually acquired companies could have been.”

In addition to selling the pharmaceutical wholesaling company, Dohmen sold RESTAT, a prescription benefits management company, to Catamaran in 2013.

“The company has changed very dramatically over the last 10 years,” LaConte said.

Today, Dohmen owns Dohmen Life Science Services, Red Arrow Labs, ChemWare and Siren. Red Arrow and ChemWare, whose acquisitions were announced in January 2014, remain independent entities under The Dohmen Co., along with Siren, which was acquired in January 2015.

Moving the family legacy forward is LaConte’s biggest accomplishment, according to Gail Lione, a Dohmen board member. Lione, former executive vice president and general counsel at Harley-Davidson Inc., is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and at Marquette University.

“She has transformed it to create a business that is serving the needs of the market today,” Lione said. “She didn’t get stuck in what the company used to be doing, but is leading in the health care delivery service business today. That takes vision and courage to do that, and I think she has both.”

Dan Johnson, president of channel support services at Dohmen Life Science Services, said it takes courage for a leader to divest a business, but LaConte excels at what he describes as “maintaining, destroying and creating.” In other words, she knows which aspects of a company to maintain, which parts are no longer valuable, and what needs to be done for the future.

Dohmen’s philanthropy

In addition to founding DDN Pharmaceutical Logistics and Dohmen Life Science Services, LaConte started The Dohmen Company Foundation. She established it in 2008, Dohmen’s 150th anniversary year.

“I originally started The Dohmen Company Foundation as a way to walk the talk of our culture,” she said. “I knew as we got larger and more diverse, we would need a tangible way to demonstrate our culture.”

Thus, every year Dohmen takes a percentage of its profits and places them in the foundation to help people live healthier lives.

“I’m proud to say that since that time, we’ve granted out over $10 million and touched 123 million lives positively in the process,” LaConte said.

According to Lione, the foundation has made gifts to such Milwaukee organizations as the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers and Meta House.
Philanthropy is important to LaConte because she believes we were put on Earth to improve the lives of others.

“I have always lived by Gandhi’s call to action of, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world,’” she said. “Sometimes people think, ‘Oh, that word philanthropy is for rich people or for rich organizations.’ I think quite to the contrary. It’s a piece of all of us and a responsibility to all of us to use our talents to advance the human condition. I feel very strongly that it doesn’t just sit over here in things called ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy.’ It’s an integrated part of all our lives, and I try very hard in our business to execute that.”

Dohmen’s return to the Third Ward

Also under LaConte’s leadership, Dohmen made its return to Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward, where it originally started as a small pharmaceutical wholesale and retail business on Water Street.

Dohmen’s headquarters remained in the Third Ward for almost 100 years, but in 1954 it moved to Milwaukee’s south side. It went on to have primary locations in Germantown and Menomonee Falls over the years, but its corporate headquarters were once again established in the Third Ward, at 215 N. Water St., in 2009.

Meanwhile, some operations continued in Menomonee Falls and elsewhere in Milwaukee, and it was LaConte’s goal to unify the Wisconsin-based operations by relocating all of them to a new location in the Third Ward, a few blocks from where Dohmen started in 1858.

Dohmen purchased a 42,000-square-foot, one-story building at 190 N. Milwaukee St. for $10 million, and moved into it in December 2014. The building was torn down to its shell and underwent a complete renovation at an undisclosed cost.

All of Dohmen’s 185 Milwaukee employees are in the new headquarters.
All of Dohmen’s 185 Milwaukee employees are in the new headquarters.

Today, 185 of Dohmen’s 800 employees nationwide work in the building, including the presidents of two of the company’s business units: Supply Chain Services and Compliance Services. (Its third business unit, Patient Services, is located in St. Louis.)

The building also houses a variety of internal support functions, market-facing service teams and Red Arrow Labs.

“I love the Third Ward,” LaConte said. “The energy of this neighborhood…the proximity to the downtown area and to our colleges and our future workforce…it’s been great.”

Dohmen today

Dohmen’s other 615 employees are in St. Louis; Denver; Memphis, Tenn.; Emeryville, Calif.; Ontario, Calif.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Chicago.

LaConte said 50 employees were hired in the past year, and Dohmen is always hiring “great people.”

As a private company, it does not disclose its annual revenue, but LaConte said revenue has grown at double digit rates over the past five years. Furthermore, the newly launched Dohmen Life Science Services has a three-year EBITDA Compound Annual Growth Rate of 46 percent.

Dohmen processes between $8 billion and $10 billion in product sales annually on behalf of its clients, and it has approximately 1 million square feet of warehouse space.

“We’re in a strong industry,” LaConte said of Dohmen’s growth. “We have healthy clients that are growing, and we grow with them. Client retention and service excellence is very important, but we’ve also been able to increase our sales pipeline 3.5 times over the prior year. We’ve created an offering that’s timely, and the market’s showing a lot of interest in it.”

Johnson said LaConte possesses a “bias for growth.”

“If you’re not growing, you’re stagnating, and that’s on the way to shrinking,” Johnson said of LaConte’s mindset.

According to LaConte, Dohmen has always had a tradition of being entrepreneurial and trying new things in order to stay relevant.

“It’s of critical importance given the fact that we spend double any other industrialized nation on health care as a percentage of our GDP, yet the U.S. ranks last among 11 wealthy nations in outcomes. That’s not acceptable,” LaConte said. “So every business effort we’re involved in, we ask, ‘How is that advancing our vision?’”

Each of Dohmen’s primary businesses contribute in different ways, she said. For instance, Dohmen Life Science Services’ direct-to-patient model creates channel efficiencies and better outcomes for the patient, while Red Arrow uses technology to unleash business process efficiencies and a better consumer experience.

Part of what sets Dohmen apart from competitors is its culture, according to LaConte. She describes Dohmen’s culture using five words: caring, creative, committed, collaborative and courageous.

“We put those words into use in 2009, but I think they represent a 158-year legacy of people that have exhibited these behaviors,” LaConte said.

Sohn said those core values drive LaConte. They are part of her criteria in determining which companies to acquire, and they attract new workers and keep longtime employees committed to the company and its mission.

“The culture I walked into existed long before I got there,” LaConte said. “I just picked words to describe it. I always say that Dohmen has been successful at changing what we do, without changing who we are.”

Dohmen is also unique, according to LaConte, in that it takes what is best from the past and marries it to the future; it has shareholders who invest for the long term; and it is able to respond quicker to trends than companies who are larger and have the pressure of being public.

“Things with Cynthia are just fast,” Johnson said. “Speed is of the essence with her when it comes to the decisions and actions that we take.”

The future of Dohmen

The life sciences industry, and health care in general, is poised for real and necessary transformation, according to LaConte.

“It’s heading from a one-size-fits-all care model to one that is increasingly consumer-centric,” she said. “This means prioritizing value over volume and developing a more personal relationship with the health care consumer.”

LaConte believes this is an industry that has done research, development and commercialization of products the same way for a long time, and we are now at the inflection point of some significant change.

“It’s exciting and gives us great opportunity to be very responsive to those changes,” she said. “That’s the benefit of being a company large enough to invest, but small enough to act entrepreneurially.”

Among the company’s goals are to fulfill what LaConte calls three strategic stair steps.

The first is to fully leverage Dohmen Life Science Services’ first-to-market advantage and to unlock its growth potential.

“Dohmen has been sustainable for the long term because it’s diversified,” she said. “Now that we’ve successfully launched DLSS, my goal will be to further diversify Dohmen’s offering by focusing on the next two stair steps of our strategy.”

One of those stair steps is to invest in Red Arrow and grow it from just services into both services and software within the health sector. The other is to advance a new employer benefits model.

“There’s always something new cooking here,” she said. “I’m proud I’ve been able to take a company to a place where I know it will be vibrant for the next generation.”

As for future leadership of Dohmen, LaConte said it is not essential that the next CEO be a family member. In Dohmen’s history, there has been one non-family member CEO: Bob Wendland, who served in the role from 1992 to 1995.

“It’s less about the last name of the person, and it’s more about the characters and values of the person,” LaConte said. “It’s a unique combination that’s asked of leadership, and I would say it’s about honoring the legacy of the organization and preserving the culture of the organization, but also having the ability to find that future.”

That said, she believes it is important for a family member to always have some involvement.

“This is a society that doesn’t necessarily place purpose over profit,” she continued. “Having a family member or two always involved in the business helps set the tone that that’s not the order we look for. It’s really purpose over profit.”

Johnson agrees that Dohmen is not all about the quarterly earnings results like some public companies. Instead, he said Dohmen’s focus is on the patient and the mission of improving the health care system.

“She’s more than just about the numbers,” Sohn added of LaConte. “She makes the culture a priority and seeking people who have those same core values.”

LaConte said the selection of Dohmen’s next leader will be made by her, the board and largely the circumstances of the business at the time.

Dohmen, she said, is also fortunate to have many potential great up and coming leaders.

“Being great at business is important or the business won’t succeed, but being great human beings is important, too, and we’re fortunate to have leaders built like that throughout our organization,” she said.

LaConte has a 26-year-old son named Alfonso who is an aspiring chef living in New York City. Currently, there are no plans for him to join the company or succeed his mother, but she added: “You never say never, just like I never said never.”

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