Cook Group looking forward to next 50 years

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For leaders of companies looking back on 50 years of existence, Cook Group President Kem Hawkins and Chairman Steve Ferguson spend a lot of time talking about the future.

"I think everybody understands here that new products and new treatments for patients are the key to our success," Ferguson told The Herald-Times. "And longevity."

Cook Group has had five decades of longevity and marked the 50th anniversary of its founding on Monday. Technically, the husband-and-wife team of Bill and Gayle Cook moved to start their company earlier in 1963, but the Indiana secretary of state certified its papers of incorporation on July 1 of that year.

In 1963, Cook Inc. began in the spare bedroom of an apartment the Cooks rented on East Second Street. It sold cardiovascular catheter equipment. Today, Cook Group includes companies that make a range of medical devices, as well as companies producing specialized industrial parts. And it has affiliates in the retail, real estate and transportation sectors.

Cook currently employs 11,100 people in locations around the world. Its 2013 sales will total about $2 billion, it said.

Cook Group has scheduled a series of events for its employees at different locations to celebrate its anniversary. Its Bloomington celebration is set for Aug. 10 at Indiana University's Assembly Hall and the Mellencamp Pavilion. As of Wednesday, 6,189 people had sent in RSVPs for that event.

The celebration isn't the part of Cook's future Ferguson and Hawkins like to discuss, however. They're more interested in the future of their work.

"A lot of things we have in progress are mechanical," Ferguson said. "But I think medicine is shifting to where it's much more science-based, and it's more technology."

Cook Pharmica, a Cook Group subsidiary founded in 2004, has the group ready to keep up that shift, said Hawkins. So does Cook General BioTechnology LLC, a company formed when Cook Group acquired the assets of Indianapolis-based General BioTechnology LLC.

"They have the ability to freeze cells, and they worked with lots of different types of cells," Hawkins said. "Stem-like cells and also tissue-bank cells. Those cells have the strongest ability to create, if you will."

Outside of biotechnology, Cook has more than 450 device-related product development projects. Hawkins labeled 15 to 20 of them "disruptive technologies" that could significantly change patient care.

He also said Cook is dedicated to keeping alive the entrepreneurial spirit of Bill Cook, who died in April 2011.

Entrepreneurship is important as a Cook value and as a business plan, according to Ferguson. Wire guides, which were a new product in 1963, are now commodities and not cash cows, he said, adding that Cook must draw 75 percent of its income from new products.

Cook Group isn't without challenges on its plate. Ferguson listed the 2.3 percent federal excise tax on the sale of medical devices in the United States and a regulatory climate that makes introducing new medical products domestically a slow process.

"We used to introduce 100 percent of our devices in the United States first and take them international," he said. "What's happened with the FDA process is, because it's less efficient, companies including us are introducing 100 percent of our devices outside the United States."

That tends to drive facility expansions that allow new products to be made overseas, according to Ferguson. Cook manufactures more than 80 percent of its devices in the United States, he said.

It has had to pay the device tax on domestic sales since the beginning of the year. So far, Cook has paid about $7 million because of the tax, and it will likely pay between $15 million and $18 million by the end of the year. Cook has been leading a charge to push Congress to repeal the medical device tax.

That $15 million to $18 million has to come from somewhere. It affects Cook's ability to invest in communities, research and development, new construction and employees, Ferguson said.

But he was adamant that Cook's workforce is safe.

"We never laid anybody off, and we don't anticipate any downsizing on our part here," he said. "We don't anticipate it, and we're not going to do it."

Indiana's workforce has been a key part of Cook's survival and growth, according to Ferguson.

Universities that train engineers help that workforce, he said. So does Indiana's history of handcrafting.

Ferguson described Cook's local production workers as "astounding."

"Sewing or putting catheters or putting tips on," he said. "They can sit there with those really small things and they'll do 10 in 30 minutes and it will take me two hours to do one."

Longtime Cook employees, meanwhile, can tell a story or two of their own about Cook Group's growth. Brian Aldrich, a product manager, has been with Cook for 35 years. He talked about working in sales decades ago and going to great lengths to spread the Cook name.

"When I first started with the company, my name was not Brian Aldrich," he said. "It was Brian Cook, because that is what I represented to the customers."

Employees also described Cook as being a flat organization without a massive hierarchy. It's a place geared toward solving problems, and it's not uncommon to find a worker taking on new roles, according to Moises Cruz, a global digital product manager who came to Cook with a master's degree in business administration.

"The MBA setting is another way of thinking," he said. "You're thinking about your signing bonus. When I came here, it was a big change. And I discovered a great group of people."

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