Architect of Success
Sitting Down With Fasha Mahjoor, CEO of Phenomenex
Describe your company in the length of a tweet.
A global leader in developing novel analytical chemistry solutions that solve the separation and purification challenges of researchers.
How would you describe the culture at Phenomenex?
Progressive, energetic and very friendly. Dynamic. The team spirit is absolutely incredible. It’s also perfectionist, we have very high standards.
Is this a reflection of your own personality and values?
I don’t want to take too much credit, but I am a perfectionist. The friendship and camaraderie is how I feel I behave normally, so it does reflect a bit of who I am. Being neither a scientist nor thinking of myself as a businessman, I found myself doing things that I enjoyed and made sense to me. Today you read in magazines that the most go-ahead companies have sleeping rooms, gyms, and brightly colored workspaces. Before Google even existed, Phenomenex was doing all sorts of things like that.
How did Phenomenex come about?
I had come to America to finish my Masters in architecture. One of my oldest school friends had started a company involved in chromatography. He wanted to penetrate the US market and asked me to become his distributor – even after I reminded him that I failed every chemistry class at school.
The first office was in Beverly Hills. Actually, it was my architectural office and was 10 feet by 10 feet. I remember calling my first customer at Dow Chemical in Texas and he asked me why we were based there. “Because we do designer columns,” I told him. He called me back the next day with a $3,000 order. That was three decades ago.
You say you came to America. Where are you from?
I was born in Persia. At a young age, I went to England, grew up at a boarding school, went to university there and then came to the USA. Subconsciously, I picked up three very different cultures and each has helped form my character. I consider myself an incredibly lucky man. That background is mirrored in Phenomenex; it is a conglomerate of many different nationalities.
How did the company develop?
It started from humble beginnings – with just me: no science, no technology, no money or finance of any type. Originally, it was all sales and marketing. By the fifth year, I had enough funds to hire scientists to begin the development of our own products. By Year 15 we had undergone complete metamorphosis, transforming into a scientific company.
Today, I am proud to say that we are leaders in certain areas and the main thrust of the company is science. One of our most successful products was introduced close to 15 years ago, the Luna [HPLC column]. Technology-wise, Kinetex [core-shell particles], launched three years ago, and has been a bit of a game-changer. Efficiency, speed and resolution are all improved; solvent-saving is astronomical.
We have a lot of research projects in the pipeline, and not just in the way of HPLC. At any one time we have 50-60 ongoing research products, and probably one in ten will come to fruition.
Do you exercise your architectural roots?
I’ve been to many companies – competitors, suppliers and customers – and often they are grey and uninspiring. The work environment should be beautiful, or at least pleasant, with lots of natural light. I love art and antiques, and will fly 6,000 miles to get involved in combining old artifacts with a modern space. Scientists don’t like flowers? Don’t like art? Don’t need natural light? No, quite the opposite, they probably enjoy them more than anybody else.
You, and the staff generally, are heavily involved in philanthropic projects…
It is such a privilege to be in a position to give back, to help others. It is part and parcel of who we are. In all our offices, the staff and their families thoroughly enjoy it.
But abseiling down The Shard?!
The Outward Bound Trust, an education charity, wanted to do something a bit different to raise funds, and it was actually Prince Andrew, who is the Chairman, who came up with the idea. It was an extraordinary event. Even standing at the top of the [310 m] tower looking down, the view is so beautiful I didn’t have second thoughts and within 10 seconds I was fully preoccupied with the rope in my hand. It took about 12 minutes to complete.
Back on Earth, what do you get from being the CEO of Phenomenex?
Satisfaction in looking back on how far we’ve come, and more importantly, the privilege of being able to assist other people – colleagues, the community. That gives me an absolute high.
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