John Fowler, subject of an upcoming feature in Life Science Leader, is the CEO of Kezar Life Sciences, a biopharmaceutical company he cofounded with his best friend, Chris Kirk, Ph.D., in 2015. The fact that Fowler and Kirk have known each other since before kindergarten is an interesting story in and of itself. But what makes Fowler truly intriguing, is not only what he’s done with Kezar thus far (i.e., grow it into a publicly traded company [NASDAQ: KZR] valued near $300 million), but the fact that prior, he spent a decade as a CEO in two completely different industries, not to mention the various roles he had prior. Here’s a primer as to why John Fowler isn’t your typical biopharma CEO.
From International Politics And Trade Policy To Shipping Company CEO
“I’m a Californian, and an idealist,” begins Fowler, as he recounts the journey that brought him to the world of biopharma. Upon graduating from Stanford as an undergrad in 1993, he was obsessed with international politics and international trade policy. So, he moved to Washington, D.C., and worked as a Congressional Affairs Specialist in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “It was a dream job, and I worked on early campaigns to pass NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and the GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade].” From there, he spent two years at William Kent International, which was basically a consulting job helping U.S. manufacturers get into foreign markets.
Wanting to get back to California and having a notion of wanting to be an entrepreneur, (something he perceived as having less stress) he enrolled in Stanford’s graduate school of business. Graduating with his MBA in 2000, he knew he wanted to be a CEO, as that felt like the best way to quickly have a positive impact on the greatest number of people. “I did this thing called a search fund, and ended up buying a shipping company, which everyone just scratched their heads over,” he explains. It was like a master class in beating up the 31-year-old first-time CEO, and he notes having made all the mistakes in the book. “This wasn’t some kind of Silicon Valley tech business, but an old school brick-and-mortar trucking and warehousing air-freight business,” he clarifies. While the employees were initially highly skeptical, he proceeded to grow the business. But not through some whizbang algorithms or new software, but by focusing on the basics (i.e., hiring good people, getting rid of bad people, building a sales force, and totally revamping the bonus program). “These are the nuts and bolts of general management, and my approach toward being a good, transparent leader.” He had enough successes over his five years with Aero Logistics, that in 2007 the company was acquired by Horizon Lines.
Fowler’s next CEO gig was a business he started from scratch in 2009. “I wanted to address this gigantic problem in U.S. healthcare around medical billing being obtuse, incomprehensible, and an overall burden on people who were struggling, so I started HealthCPA.” That journey lasted five years, with the company being sold in late 2014 to a big revenue cycle management company called Adreima. Around that time, during a semi-annual catch-up lunch, his oldest and dearest friend, Chris Kirk, Ph.D., a biopharmaceutical industry veteran, proposed the two start their own biopharmaceutical company (i.e., Kezar Life Sciences).
Be sure to subscribe to Life Science Leader today, as you don’t want to miss out on learning of Fowler’s experience in cofounding and leading a biopharmaceutical startup in Kezar Life Science.