Mark Thierer has a sticker for everything: golf balls, fruit, cars, states, letters, numbers. In all, he thinks he has probably 40,000 of them, collected from around the world.
"If you're ever actually looking for them, you'd be amazed where you'd find them. Off-the-beaten-path bars, convenience stores, gas stations -- the places you'd least expect," he said.
Thierer is chairman and chief executive of one of the Chicago area's fastest-growing companies, Lisle-based pharmacy benefit manager Catamaran Corp. The stickers play an integral -- starring, actually -- role in his hobby of crafting handmade greeting cards to send to friends, family and business associates to thank, congratulate, acknowledge or just because.
Each of the 300 or so cards he has sent is filled with wink-of-the-eye humor and personal touches, starting with an ornate envelope sealed with hot wax and embossed with a custom stamp branding it "Another Amazing Thierer Sticker Card."
It's a quirky habit for a 52-year-old suburban father of two, no less the CEO of a soon-to-be Fortune 250 company.
The whimsical, warm cards provide a stark contrast to the hard-charging, intense competitor. They also serve as a creative outlet for a numbers-driven man and serve as an indelible tool to make deeper connections with people, particularly in the business world.
One recipient was Harry Kraemer, former CEO of Baxter International, and now a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and partner at the powerhouse private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners.
Thierer surprised Kraemer with the card about a year ago after attending one of the professor's leadership classes.
"You could tell he put a lot of time and effort into it, and it was very genuine," Kraemer said. "It was a very unique thing to be doing for an executive, particularly in an age now where communication has been reduced to texts and emails."
Kraemer keeps the card in his office, next to his phone. When Thierer invited Kraemer to join Catamaran's board a few months ago, Kraemer said yes, without hesitation.
"There are very few people whose board I would join at this point, and Mark was one of them," Kraemer said.
Thierer calls the sticker cards his calling card and signature. The way things are going, he'll be sending a lot more of them. If he can find the time.
Thierer is on, as he describes it, a "once-in-a-lifetime ride." More accurately, he's the conductor.
Hard turn required
Since Thierer joined Catamaran, formerly known as SXC Health Solutions Inc., in 2006, he has led it to exponential growth. In 2006, the company logged $81 million in annual revenue. This year, it projects to do about $10 billion.
Its stock, once mired in the $10 range, trades for nearly $100 per share. The price has surged so much that the company plans a 2-for-1 split.
To get there required a hard turn.
When Thierer stepped in as president and chief operating officer, SXC was a small boutique technology firm that provided infrastructure to dozens of pharmacy benefit managers.
Also known as PBMs, these companies administer prescription drug benefit programs for health insurers, employers and other groups by negotiating with pharmaceutical firms and pharmacies to lower prices. They then pay pharmacies to dispense drugs.
SXC controlled a significant portion of that small but targeted market with a lucrative niche. But there was little room for growth.
Thierer saw something more.
"I saw a diamond in the rough," he said. "They had the market-leading position by an order of magnitude, and I knew there was something special there."
With more than 20 years of experience developing its tech systems and building market share, SXC had built a high barrier to entry against competitors in the tech field. And although its information technology business makes up a fraction of the company's revenue, Thierer insists it remains its primary differentiator.
"The thought process became, how do you leverage this phenomenal core asset?" Thierer said. Another question was, aside from raising the price of its products, how can the company grow if it has a dominant position in the market?
The answer: Start buying its customers.
Because SXC ran the IT infrastructure of the PBMs, it knew the business model. And because the IT platform is such a key part of the business, integration would be relatively seamless and inexpensive.
The first move came in February 2008. SXC bought National Medical Card Systems Inc. in a $148 million cash and stock deal. News of Thierer's "big bet" sent shares down more than 13 percent in a two-day period.
National Medical covered 2.3 million customers with a full suite of PBM services, including the management of drug benefits, and an established mail-order and specialty pharmaceutical business. The acquisition doubled SXC's employees and transformed it overnight from a small tech company to a full-service PBM.
"It was a really big, strategic bet. It was very aggressive, and not everyone agreed with it at the time. We were not a service company. We did not have those kinds of skills," Thierer said.
Jeff Park, Catamaran's chief financial officer, said he felt like he and Thierer were betting their careers on the deal.
"This was something that was either going to be a crowning achievement, or candidly, my last job," Park said. "We made the decision that there was only one way for this to go, and we were going to succeed and we were going to make sure this is going to work. We were all in."
Parents an influence
Thierer was introduced early to the idea of taking a calculated risk -- and watching it pay off.
Mark Alan Thierer was born in 1960 on a 320-acre farm near the small town of Traer in east-central Iowa. His father planted corn and soybeans and raised hogs. But his parents had greater ambitions.
When Mark was 8, the family uprooted for Rochester, Minn., after his mother, Judy, was accepted into a nursing program affiliated with the renowned Mayo Clinic.
His father, Bob, found another farmer to lease the Iowa acreage and began trading commodities, a skill he honed hedging his crops each season.
Thierer, inspired by his parents' aspirations, earned high marks in high school. He went on to the University of Minnesota School of Business, now known as the Curtis L. Carlson School of Management, with a single goal in mind.
"That was at a time (1978), when you were just hoping to get a job," he said. "It was Get. A. Job."
He had three of them in college, allowing him to graduate in four years with $11,000 in savings, the equivalent of more than $26,000 in today's dollars.
"That was a lot of money back then," he said. "But that was how farmers do it. ... There was just this whole work ethic and savings mentality that was ingrained in me by my parents very early on."
In June 1982, armed with a degree in finance, Thierer received job offers from five large, well-respected firms: Cargill, U.S. Steel, General Electric, First Bank (now part of Wells Fargo) and IBM.
After some consternation, Thierer opted to take a job with IBM in Rochester because it was known as a good, solid company -- and he could live rent-free at home with his parents.
DNA to lead
Back at home, he flourished. By the end of 1982, IBM tapped him to join a newly formed office in Boca Raton, Fla., where IBM had just launched the brand's first personal computer, what became known as the IBM PC.
Within 18 months, he was promoted to purchasing manager, overseeing 18 people, many older than him. At 24, he became the unit's youngest front-line manager, a promotion he later called his "first big break."
"I worked my buns off but was having a ball," he said.
Determined to stay ahead in the competitive IBM outpost, Thierer enrolled in an MBA program at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attending classes nights and weekends. He graduated with high honors and met his future wife, Nasrin, then an electrical engineer for Motorola.
They married in 1987 and plan to celebrate their 25th anniversary on 12/12/12. They'll renew their vows in Florida, where they've owned vacation property on the Gulf Coast for 20 years.
Both of their careers eventually brought them back to Chicago, and it was there, Nasrin Thierer said, where Mark's already promising career really took off.
"When he came here, to Chicago, he really put his head down and took in every ounce of everything coming his way," she said. "He really dove in and educated himself."
Thierer landed on a team that sold IBM products to Chicago's growing health care industry, including giant pharmaceutical firms Baxter International and Abbott Laboratories. In 1993, IBM started making overtures to bring Thierer to its headquarters outside New York City.
"I didn't want to leave," Thierer said. "Our life was in Chicago."
So he quit.
Leveraging the contacts he made at Baxter, Thierer snagged a vice president of sales position at Caremark International, the newly independent pharmacy benefit manager Baxter had just spun off.
With his background in sales and wide network in health care, Thierer rose quickly. He gained a reputation as an extremely focused, team-oriented leader who consistently deflected success to those who worked for him.
Kraemer, who has kept tabs on Thierer throughout his career, said: "People don't like working for this guy; they love working for this guy."
But after 10 years at Caremark, "I saw myself moving into more of a leadership role, and the then-CEO saw it another way," Thierer said. "It was a disappointment, for sure, but it was best that we parted ways."
He joined medical records company Allscripts Inc., where he was president of a division called Physicians Interactive. Two years into his tenure, in 2005, he was asked to join the board of SXC. After a few board meetings, he said, he was asked to step into the president and chief operating officer roles.
Once he found his replacement at Allscripts, he took the reins at SXC in September 2006.
"This was a clear path to run a public company, and that's exactly what I wanted," Thierer said. "(Ever) since I was small, my parents would tell me all the time that I was a natural-born leader. And now I felt like I had all the tools. I felt like I had the DNA to do it. This was my opportunity to play my full hand."
He is intent on making the most of it.
Thierer's friends and business colleagues describe him as a "big-picture" thinker with an intense focus who is most often two steps ahead of everyone.
So it surprised few when Thierer's first big bet at SXC paid off, though the move to enter the pharmacy benefit management business, a service-oriented field heavy on relationship-building, represented a stark departure for a tech company.
But it suited Thierer's strengths as a "broad, strategic thinker who is long-suited in his interpersonal skills," said Dave Carlquist, the top IBM executive in Chicago who has known Thierer for the better part of three decades. "Mark is very, very focused on client relationships and understanding the needs of his clients."
After SXC integrated its first major acquisition, Thierer continued the strategy of snapping up customers, the small to midsize PBMs that play in the middle market. That segment includes employers with 1,000 to 20,000 workers and health plans that cover fewer than 250,000 people.
The big splash came this summer, when the company acquired Catalyst Health Solutions Corp. for $4.4 billion. After the deal closed in July, SXC changed its name to Catamaran and said it expected to rake in more than $13 billion in 2013.
With the move, Catamaran became one of the largest companies in Chicago by revenue, providing services to an estimated 25 million people.
That sizable chunk of market share provides it with the scale it needs to sell its services to large employers and health plans, the largest of which can spend more than $300 million each year on prescription drugs for its employees.
Thierer said he is confident some of those big contracts will break to Catamaran. If not this year, in 2013.
Moreover, buying Catalyst also eliminated its major competition in industry consolidation. In turn, valuations of other midmarket PBMs should come down, making them more attractive takeover targets for Catamaran.
Thierer is quick to point out that there are $25 billion worth of potential targets in the field and insists that the buying spree is not over. Today, Catamaran has a 9 percent market share. Thierer wants to be at 15 percent within five years.
"We're not even to midfield yet," he says. "We're going to guns. We're going to be aggressive to grow the business."
While statements like those have turned some heads within the industry, it's not just bravado.
"What I've always liked about Mark is, what he says he'll do, he does," said Greg Wasson, chief executive of Walgreen Co., which has a long-standing business relationship with Catamaran. "As far as business is concerned, he plays to win; he's intense."
Wasson has known Thierer for about 10 years; they're also neighbors. He said that although Thierer is a deft negotiator, he's more of a business partner than an adversary.
Even among the growing cadre of Wall Street analysts who follow the firm, it's hard to find any who question the company's performance or strategy under Thierer. Of 25 analysts who cover Catamaran, 19 rate the company as a buy, according to Thomson Reuters/First Call. None rates it to underperform.
That's exactly what the company had in mind when it embarked on a rebranding campaign, naming itself after a dual-hulled sailing vessel.
"Catamarans revolutionized the old sailing model and are twice as fast as the old, traditional models," Thierer said. "In many respects, catamarans left the old models behind. That sounds like exactly who we are. We are hard to beat."
And Thierer does not like to lose, even in a low-stakes bet on a golf course.
"It might be a $2 Nassau, but Mark's going to be darn sure that he takes your $2 and is not the one paying you $2," said IBM's Carlquist, Thierer's longtime golfing buddy. "Mark is steady and he's focused. He's the kind of guy that walks up to a knee-knocker 4-foot putt and knocks it in. Every time."
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Chairman and CEO, Catamaran Corp.
Family: Wife Nasrin, a former Motorola engineer, is founder and CEO of Revenew, a marketing portal that connects manufacturers and retailers. Daughter Stephanie, 22, lives in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and works for United HealthCare; son Jonathan, 19, studies opera at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
Lives in: Barrington
Loves: Red wine, salmon, Florida's Gulf Coast
Hobbies: Traveling, golf, collecting stickers, "Amazing Thierer Sticker Cards." Keeps sticker stash in boxes in his den. Nasrin says she always knows he's making a card when he disappears into his den and starts giggling.
Fan of: Minnesota Vikings, opera, classical music
Civic involvement: Serves on the boards of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Executives' Club of Chicago, and the Museum of Science and Industry. Volunteers for the American Cancer Society's CEOs Against Cancer and Habitat for Humanity and serves as an adviser for the Jeffrey Pride Foundation for Pediatric Cancer Research.
Quote: "I count my blessings all the time. This has become so much more than I ever envisioned; it candidly has exceeded my wildest expectations. I'm very emphatic with our people that this is a once-in-a-lifetime ride, and to take advantage of it, because this is a very special thing we've got going on."
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