Pioneer of nicotine patches and founder of first Irish company to list on NYSE

Donald (Don) Panoz obituary: He moved to Ireland at age 35 to start Elan in his garage

Donald (Don) Panoz, founder of the Elan Pharmaceuticals group,  has died aged 83 in the United States. Photograph:  Ker Robertson /Allsport

Donald (Don) Panoz, founder of the Elan Pharmaceuticals group, has died aged 83 in the United States. Photograph: Ker Robertson /Allsport

 

Donald (Don) Panoz

Born: 13th February, 1935

Died: 11th September, 2018 .

The contribution to both the Irish economy and Irish society which can be made by an inward foreign investor might take as its template the career of Don Panoz, founder of the Elan Pharmaceuticals group, who has died aged 83 in the United States.

Arriving in Ireland with a young family in 1969, Panoz, a 34-year-old American pharmacist, set up a workshop in an outhouse of a rented bungalow in Monkstown, Co Dublin to develop his ideas surrounding the transdermal delivery of medication which was to lead eventually to the globally famous nicotine patch.

Within a few short years, Panoz’s micro-firm, Elan Pharmaceuticals, was thriving, establishing a research and development facility at Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT). By 1981, Elan had 25 contracts with 16 different pharmaceutical companies internationally. A research company was founded in Georgia in the US, followed by the launch on Nasdaq in New York of a US subsidiary of the Dublin-based Elan Corporation, the very first listing on the NYSE of an Irish company. Within three years, it was valued at more than $100 million.

In 1985, Elan opened its first major manufacturing base in Athlone, where its co-operation with AIT led to the opening also in that year of the Institute of Biopharmaceuticals there. Much later, after research-related and regulatory difficulties from 2002 onwards, Elan was to suffer catastrophic losses and to close, but Panoz had long departed the company by then, selling nearly all of his investment in 1996 to a group of Irish-based investors.

Re-location

Don Panoz had first decided to re-locate to this country after he had had a good-natured disagreement about business development with his life-long best friend and fellow entrepreneur Milas “Mike” Puskar, with whom he had set up his first pharma venture, Milan Pharmaceuticals, at White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia, in 1961. Panoz, aged just 25 at the time, became then the youngest ever chief executive of an American pharmaceuticals company.

Puskar and Panoz had met while both were serving with the US military in Korea in the early 1950s, after which Panoz studied pharmacy at the University of Pittsburg, and, later, business at Duquesne University. He had taken over at first one, then two, retail pharmacies while still a student to help pay his way through university and, having made a success of both, sold them to start his business with Puskar.

The company they founded eventually became Mylan Pharmaceuticals, now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of generic drugs selling an estimated 1,300 products in 140 countries worldwide.

Where Panoz and Puskar disagreed was in the potential of trans-dermatological medication. It says something for Pandoz’s self-confidence that he chose to leave the firm he had co-founded to relocate to a country he didn’t know to start all over again at 34 with a wife and, by then, five young children. His choice of Ireland very probably had something to do with his background.

Born into a very poor family in Ohio (although raised from an early age in West Virginia), his mother was Irish-American, his father a professional prize-fighting boxer, Eugenio Panunzio, a first-generation Italian-American, who later changed his name to the simpler Panoz.

New business direction

After leaving Elan in 1996, Panoz, ever the entrepreneur, started out in a completely new business direction, developing substantial commercial interests in the leisure industries of golf resorts and motor racing, and also wine-making, re-starting, for the first time since Prohibition, the state of Georgia wine industry with his signature business, the Chateau Elan Winery and Resort, just north of Atlanta. He later developed the St Andrew’s Bay Golf Resort and Spa in Scotland, the Diablo Grande Winery and Resort in California, and another Chateau Elan Resort and Golf Course in Hunter Valley, Australia.

However, it was arguably his contribution to motor racing in the US that was by far the more important development. Backing a start-up by his eldest son, Danny, in 1989, to produce an American motor racing car, Panoz Motor Sports, later Elan Motorsport Technologies, produced revolutionary cars including, in 1998, the world’s first hybrid racing car which competed at the Petit Le Mans competition, modelled on the famous French Le Mans race.

He was licensed by the Le Mans organisers, the L’Automobile Club de L’Ouest, to market the brand in the US, and in 2006 a Panoz model, the Esperante GT LM, won the 24-hour race at the French annual competition.

Earlier this year, the Panoz Avezzano won the Pirelli World Challenges GTS Sprint/Sprint X Manufacturers’ Championship.

Don Panoz also played a pivotal role in unifying the sporting structures governing motor sport in the US, by creating, with others, the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) in 2012, of which he was still vice-president when he died.

Financial contributions

Philanthropy was another important theme in Panoz’s life. Through his Panoz Family Foundation, he made significant financial contributions to higher learning (apart from those at AIT) at Lynn University, Florida; the University of West Virginia; the Panoz Institute at Trinity College Dublin; and the University of Georgia in his adopted home state. With other motor sports business figures, he also made substantial donations to the “Malaria no More” global campaign to eliminate the disease in under-developed nations.

Don Panoz is survived by his wife of 63 years, Nancy (nee Hefner), and by his children Danny, Chris, Dona, Denna, Liza and Andrea.