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Mylan vice president and board member started as a secretary

Tuesday, September 26, 2000

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two months ago, Patricia A. Sunseri moderated one of the more awkward conference calls of her career at Mylan Laboratories Inc. After two years of vowing to stand its ground, the Pittsburgh-based generic drug company had decided to pay millions of dollars to settle a dispute with federal regulators.

 
Patricia A. Sunseri is vice president of investor and public relations at Mylan Laboratories Inc. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

Sunseri's distinctive voice could be heard calmly discussing the startling news, handling hostile questions from reporters and prickly demands from Chairman Milan Puskar, who was clearly unhappy about the turn of events.

The vice president of investor and public relations wasn't thrilled either, even if it wasn't obvious. "We absolutely did nothing wrong," Sunseri said firmly during a recent interview at Mylan headquarters in the Century Building, Downtown.

Her pleasant demeanor that day two months ago probably can be credited to 40 years' training in handling sensitive calls.

The only female member of Mylan's board of directors has been on the front lines since her days as secretary and office manager for Woessner McKnight Co., an East Liberty engineering firm that specialized in industrial and commercial heating and air-conditioning.

She accepted the clerical job in 1963 with the idea that she could learn about engineering, her real interest.

At Woessner McKnight, Sunseri helped place and track equipment orders for the engineers. The position required not only acute organizational skills, but also the abilities to build relationships and give factual information, whether or not it was what the person on the other end of the phone wanted to hear.

 
    Patricia A. Sunseri

AGE: 60
TITLE: Vice president, investor and public relations, Mylan Laboratories Inc.
EDUCATION: Graduated from high school at St. Mary in Sharpsburg in 1957; took collegiate-level courses in engineering, communications and languages at the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and Robert Morris College.
CAREER PATH: After high school, she worked at Sears Roebuck and Co.'s warehouse/office in Lawrenceville, first as an assistant to the buyers and later as a secretary. In 1963, she took a secretarial position at Woessner McKnight Co., an engineering firm in East Liberty. Before leaving, she handled some of her own accounts. In 1984, she was named director of investor and public relations for Mylan Laboratories, and five years later she was named vice president for those areas. In 1997, she was elected to the board of directors.

 
 

It also meant serving as personal secretary to the head of the firm, Roy McKnight. The professional relationship between the two would last for 30 years.

"She was really his right-hand Friday," recalled Robert W. Smiley, an attorney at Doepken Keevican & Weiss who met McKnight in college and did work for the engineering firm.

To hear Sunseri tell it, she got involved with Mylan only because McKnight tapped the generic drug company as one of several investments for his employee profit-sharing plan. He liked the company enough to advise her to use a $1,500 bonus to buy stock.

But, in the mid-1970s, the share price began tumbling. Smiley, a long-time Mylan board member, urged McKnight to help figure out what was wrong. Sunseri wasn't eager to lose her investment and pointed out that the profit-sharing plan could lose, too.

At a December 1975 annual meeting in Morgantown, W.Va., McKnight was elected to the board. On the drive back to Pittsburgh, she recalled, "Roy said to me, 'Well, you got me into this. How are you going to fix what's wrong?' "

Sunseri pored over expense reports and raised some questions. Eventually, unhappy with management's efforts, McKnight took over as chairman in 1976.

The drug company was ailing. Unhappy employees were trying to unionize. Banks weren't willing to loan to Mylan.

But Sunseri remembers it as a fascinating time.

McKnight and Milan Puskar, one of the original founders who had come back, were confident they could fix things. "Roy and Mike looked at each other and said, 'We can do this,' " she said, with a laugh that still seems disbelieving. "I'm thinking, 'What are they sniffing?' "

Sunseri worked for McKnight at both businesses, putting in long hours to keep up with it all.

Mylan's product list began expanding and revenue grew. Several stock splits and a strong market turned many of the employees in the Woessner McKnight profit-sharing plan into millionaires.

In 1984, McKnight closed his engineering firm to concentrate on the drug company. Sunseri came over as director of investor and public relations.

The financial industry wasn't as sophisticated as today, but she still had a lot to learn. Memorizing the drugs took time (first scientific names, then the brand name, then the brand manufacturer). Meanwhile, she was getting up to speed on Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.

Sunseri walked press releases around town personally, first going to Dow Jones offices at the USX Tower, then hitting the major newspapers in town.

When analysts and shareholders called, she tried to play it straight. "Whatever the good, bad or ugly was, I told them."

It was a different time, said David Saks, a Gruntal & Co. analyst who began following the industry when landmark legislation made the federal approval process easier for generics in the mid-1980s. At the time, many drug makers didn't do much in the way of investor relations, he said.

While Saks said he's never satisfied with any company's answers -- that's his job -- he credited Sunseri with working to keep up with the industry's increasingly complicated issues.

There's still a bit of a homespun feeling there, according to Saks. "That's not a criticism. It's just the nature of the Mylan organization."

Sunseri would likely take that assessment in stride.

To her, the place feels like home. She still works at the desk she had at Woessner McKnight. Her overflowing office holds family pictures, mementos and those little signs that say things such as, "Don't you dare put another thing on this desk."

And she knows personally many of the shareholders at the annual meetings, often settling in for a chat before the official presentation.

The tight-knit organization lost its chairman in 1993 when McKnight died of a heart attack. Puskar took that post, and Sunseri stepped up to lead more of the investor presentations that tell Mylan's story around the country.

The past couple of years have been hard.

Mylan, which helped clean up the generic industry in the late 1980s by blowing the whistle on corruption at the Food and Drug Administration, found itself cast in the role of bad guy when the Federal Trade Commission accused it of trying to control the market for two tranquilizers.

Now that the FTC case is off the table, Sunseri gets to focus on the latest threat: legal battles between brand-name drug makers and their generic competitors.

She travels frequently, often making trips to Harrisburg and to Washington to lobby lawmakers to stop lawsuits she describes as frivolous.

This is a message she seems much happier getting out.

"Fortunately for the generic industry, we're on the side of the angels," said Sunseri, earnestly. "If it's good for us, it's good for the consumer."



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