Talking tech: Interview with Phil Reason, CEO of Instem

March 2020
Read time: 6 minutes


Offering life science businesses the technological software assistance to bring their products to markets more rapidly, Instem has a direct effect on the productivity of the health and life science community.

Long-term CEO Phil Reason has been instrumental in bringing the company from setback to thriving business. We spoke to Phil to understand his approach to talent retention and overcoming common business hurdles…

Tell us about your career path.

I had an interesting start. I was first working at British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) in a department called Safety Assessment. It was our job to ensure that there were appropriate safety measures around the nuclear environment. A little coincidentally, a huge amount of what we do at Instem is helping our clients to assess the safety of new drugs. A different safety environment, but equally important.

Whilst I was doing some work for BNFL at Sellafield in Cumbria, a university acquaintance had interviewed at Instem. This person knew that I was looking for something a little more challenging and different to the work I was doing at BNFL, so recommended I also apply.

I began my career at Instem in 1982; by around 1987 or 1988, I was in their nuclear division. They had a lot of projects for software, control systems for the nuclear industry etc. BNFL became a customer, and through a series of events at the company, I was put in charge of a particular section of Instem, which is the company we know it as today. I’ve now been CEO at Instem for the past 25 years, since 1994.

What challenges has the company faced over time?

I got involved with Instem when the business was just the smallest of three divisions in a main market- listed business called Instem. I was working in one of the other two divisions, and this particular section was struggling. Instem embarked on a major new product development that had gone out to market very late, and customers were departing the business. A colleague and I were asked to go and do an independent assessment of this section, to see whether it was going to be possible both technically and commercially to get this business on a firm footing.

We spent probably a couple of months doing that analysis, speaking to customers, evaluating the other suppliers in the market and seeing how the team was running the business at the time. Back then, the business was probably making a little less than £1 million in revenue, and was probably losing half a million pounds a year. However, we did feel that it could be sorted out - it would take some more investment, and would likely need to grow both organically and acquisitively, but overall it still remained a good market opportunity.

Having gone back to the board to report our findings, they said, “Well great! In that case, would you like to have a go at making it stable?” That’s what got me involved with Instem (as it is referred to today).

Under my direction, we undertook a mix of organic and acquisitive growth; we acquired one company in 1996, and a direct competitor in 1999. We managed to turn it around, and it cemented my involvement in the business.



About Instem

Industry: Computer Software
HQ: Conshohocken, PA
Ownership: Public 
Size: 201-500 employees
Sub-sector: Software, Hardware & Developers
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What is the company USP, and how do you guard against disruption?

We have some very established competitors who have good products - there's a lot of things that we do the same. I would say that our differentiating factors are our commitment and integrity. If we say we're going to do something, no matter how hard it might be, how long it takes, or how much effort it takes, we're committed to making sure we deliver the customers’ needs and wants.

We typically have very long-term relationships with our clients, because the industry we’re in is very close-knit. It's a very interconnected scientific community, and your reputation goes before you. We keep that reputation by doing our job well, which then gets passed on via word of mouth through scientific conferences and scientific collaboration. Our willingness to work collaboratively with our customers to get what needs to be done completed on time and with success means that we have a strong profile in our sector. That's what has allowed us to build a global market leadership in the vast majority of areas that we do business.

What are ongoing challenges the company faces?

If I had to select two challenges that recur, one would be being able to fund what we want to achieve, and the other would be finding the right talented people.

Since we IPO’d on AIM in the UK we have successfully managed the challenge of growing organically and acquisitively, with six acquisitions completed in the last nine years, while having our every move in the glare of the public spotlight.  This is not always easy, but we have had tremendous support from our institutional investors and advisors.

"Maintaining regular, honest and open communication with the investment community takes time but is definitely worthwhile. "

A lot of our focus has also gone into finding the right people and then keeping them, giving us a tremendous retention rate at Instem. People like the organisation, they like the people they work with, and they like the customers. To be perfectly honest, we're very fortunate working in the industry we work in. It's not hard to be passionate about what you do every day when you know you're helping to bring new life-changing therapies to market.  You can feel good about what you're doing on a daily basis.

What would your advice be to other organisations like yours for retaining talent?

Just remind people that when times get a little bit challenging, what they're doing is exceptionally worthwhile and important. Make sure that people are seeing the successes they're achieving day by day, week by week. People can often get a little bit down if they were expecting something at the end of week one, and it comes at the end of week two. Focus on how to keep them motivated about what they’re achieving, rather than what they’re not achieving. That sense of success breeds success.

Why do you think the company is the success it is today?

I've been really lucky to work with some really bright people due to the clients that we work with, as well as through long-term partnerships that were very collaborative. A lot of the reasons we have been successful was the commitment of both Instem and the customer. I think that has been really helpful for shaping philosophically how we go about our work, focusing our commitment to working very collaboratively with customers, partners and one another internally.

What would you have like to have known before starting out?

I would say I would have liked to have known more about the power of collaboration. I'm a great believer in people being good at heart and being very happy to help; if you reach out to others for help, whether that's a customer, colleague or somebody you've met, people do inherently want to support you. I think if I had learnt that a little bit earlier, we might have got to where we wanted to get to a little faster, because it works tremendously well.

Every now and again it's challenging, but actually the strength of the relationships we've built is what allows you to get through those challenging periods when they arise.

Want more inspiration for developing your business? Email us to find out more at [email protected].

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