Pitt County developing formula for pharma growth

By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Recent growth and development in the prescription medication industry, along with success at two manufacturing facilities, is fueling a new effort by Pitt County economic developers to market the area’s growing reputation as a global pharmaceutical hub.

Wanda Yuhas, executive director of the Pitt County Development Commission, said achievements in recent years by Mayne Pharma and Thermo Fisher Scientific — once Patheon, DSM, Catalytica and Burroughs Wellcome — have helped put metropolitan Greenville on the pharmaceutical development map.

The industry’s growth, including the development of support programs at East Carolina University and Pitt Community College, has allowed the commission and partners like the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina to begin promoting the area as an “active site” for pharmaceutical production, raising its profile internationally to companies that may want to take advantage of resources here.

“Companies serious about setting up a new location are interested only in communities that are established in pharmaceutical and life sciences work,” she said. “What has happened in the last two years has put us into that category. We’ve got a reputation now.”

To bolster that reputation, the commission with local and state partnerships have developed a marketing campaign that emphasizes the “active site” theme. The material points to developments like the $7.2 billion acquisition in 2017 of major pharmaceutical manufacturer Patheon, including its Greenville plant, by Thermo Fisher Scientific of Waltham, Mass., Yuhas said.

A year later, Australia-based Mayne Pharma debuted the $80-million expansion of its Greenville complex-dosage manufacturing and analytical testing facility, which added more than 100 science and technology jobs to its Greenville base of 350 workers. Mayne followed that expansion with the purchase of a two-year option on 55 acres of land next to its existing facility.

In 2012, when Mayne acquired Metrics, a home-grown contract services company founded in 1994, the two companies had combined sales of $70 million per year, according to the active site campaign and data from Mayne Pharma. In 2016, U.S. sales topped $400 million, a 500-percent increase. Five years ago, Mayne Pharma directly marketed two prescription products. Today, the company markets 55 prescription products, with its total U.S. workforce increased from 300 to more than 600 employees. The company has invested an additional $100 million in research and development to advance its pipeline during the next five years.

“Workforce is everything when you think about starting a business here,” said Phil Hodges, an ECU alumnus and one of the founders and driving forces behind Metrics. “ECU was a big player for Metrics, providing us chemists. Pitt Community College’s biotech program also is terrific. Although different from the chemists out of ECU, their graduates get some analytical chemistry that makes them useful technicians with knowledge of good manufacturing practices.”

Hodges reinforced Yuhas’ view of Greenville’s growing reputation. “The word of mouth that there are good companies here, a good standard of living and available homes really is a big deal,” he said.

Growing speculation that the area has attracted interest from a new company — several sources have indicated to The Daily Reflector that a deal may be in the works — may be the result of what industry leaders see developing here.

“I think a lot of their interest comes from seeing the ability of Mayne Pharma to grow,” Hodges said. “They look at whether these people are able to do what they do in this environment. And ECU and PCC have a huge role in that; if you’ve got a pharma workforce, you can attract more people into it. It’s the abundance mentality.”


Mayne Pharma and Patheon/Thermo Fisher’s industrial developments are seen as an important statement about Pitt County’s value and growth potential.

“Even when a company contacts the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina and says they’re thinking about the Triangle (for a location), they now tell them they also need to look at Pitt County,” Yuhas said. “They see us as a proven place for pharma. They’re bringing us (marketing) projects we didn’t have two years ago.”

The fact remains that more rural communities in North Carolina still stand like Davids against the urban-based Goliaths of the Triangle and Charlotte. But rural counties believe they can level the field by combining their marketing efforts.

Pitt officials have strategized with Wilson and Johnston counties to market some of their assets as a regional package and now have been in talks about expanding the consortium to include Edgecombe and Nash counties, through the Carolina Gateway Partnership, a public-private industrial recruitment agency, Yuhas said. More than 8,000 people work in the industry in Johnson, Wilson, Nash and Pitt counties.

Pitt County has progressed during the past decade from recognizing its asset development challenges — including property, water, utilities, transportation and workforce development — to meeting them.

“The name of the game is to be flexible and innovative, and we look for ways to do that,” Yuhas said.

The pharmaceutical industry believes the three most important factors are labor force, availability of water and ease of managing the permitting process, Yuhas said.

“Our city and county are committed to helping companies work through that process,” she said.

The value of that commitment was underscored by Joe Cascone, Mayne Pharma’s vice president of operations who oversaw its Greenville expansion and has relied on Yuhas and county officials to navigate the process.

“We have found that having those collaborators over the last five years, including Greenville Utilities, government and educational institutions has made a crucial difference for us and our aggressive growth strategy,” Cascone said. “These are people who communicate genuinely with a common goal of growing the community, the infrastructure, the training and all those relationships. A reputation like that will last a long time.”

Availability of clean water is a major issue nationwide, Yuhas said. Metropolitan Greenville has about 4 million gallons per day of excess water capacity.

“We’ve got plenty of clean water, and always have,” she said. “I’d venture to say that Pitt County has the best water supply in North Carolina.”

Workforce development is always a challenge in rural areas, but complementing education and training programs at East Carolina University and Pitt Community College have been developed with an eye on the growing demand.

Add to that Pitt county’s Biotechnology Training Center, opened in February with $1.1 million Golden Leaf Foundation grant to ECU and a $650,000 grant to Pitt Community College for their roles in the North Carolina Pharmaceutical Services Network program to prepare current and newly hired workers in all aspects of manufacturing pills and tablets, providing courses in good laboratory practices and good manufacturing processes necessary to convince companies that the county is workforce ready.

Local industry partners helped develop the training, adaptable to accommodate specific company needs. Company scientists volunteer as course instructors at ECU and help connect current students to company jobs. The Biotech Center also works with PCC to put veterans through the Pharmaceutical Services Network training program.

“Saving a company from three to six months on a training curve is a big deal,” Yuhas said. “The faster a company can be ready to produce a new drug, the faster they are making money. We’ve got people coming out who already have the technical skills and knowledge to immediately respond to a company’s needs.”


Cascone believes Greenville and Pitt County have achieved the mark of becoming a core pharmaceutical cluster, with all its advantages of workforce growth, and now must focus on the continued growth of life sciences throughout the eastern region.

“First, you get access to pharma manufacturing talent and your ability to develop via institutional and on-the-job training programs, providing recruiting opportunities for companies without having to go out of the region or state,” he said. “You also get access to the quality of life that the east offers from here to the coast. It becomes quite an advantage and a big deal.”

Efforts to develop a pharmaceutical manufacturing cluster are important, but it is equally important for a community and region to achieve and maintain diverse economic growth and not have all of its development eggs in one basket, according to John Chaffee, president and CEO of the NCEast Alliance regional economic development corporation.

“You just don’t want to get overly dependent on one industry or cluster,” Chaffee said. “Look what happened to the furniture industry in the Piedmont when the recession of 2008 hit. White-collar activities, tourism, financial services and other office-based businesses also are important to develop, as are supply chain companies that make components that go into finished products or ship them,” Chaffee said. “”

While lauding Greenville’s present efforts and resulting achievements, Cascone added a thought on something he learned when his company began exploring potential sites for expansion: Companies pay attention to a city’s long-term plans.

“When we traveled to Charleston, S.C., the people there really impressed us with their clear master plan for economic development,” he said. “Their planned zoning ordinances were very thoughtful and had the right mix of abundant residential, commercial and industrial development for 20-30 years ahead, addressing issues like traffic patterns throughout the city.

While Greenville certainly is poised for growth, Cascone saw that there will be a challenge to zone this area with the right proportions of infrastructure, including north of the Tar River, and grow a community that makes sense, rather than putting things anywhere at a given time because you have the land.

“It’s more of an opportunity now than a challenge, but one its leaders need to consider,” he said.

Contact Michael Abramowitz at or 252-329-9507.