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Vol. LVIII, No. 25
December 15, 2006

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The Chemist’s Chemist
Bader Advises Young Scientists About Success

  Dr. Alfred Bader advises young scientists about success.  
  Dr. Alfred Bader advises young scientists about success.  

Fine-art aficionados recognize him as a dealer and collector of Old Master paintings, while students attending his alma mater, Queen’s University, receive his scholarships and study abroad in Herstmonceux Castle, located in southern England. However, Dr. Alfred Bader, the cofounder of Aldrich Chemical Co., later Sigma-Aldrich, is best known for his chemicals. Some NIH’ers may have met him during his routine tours to labs, asking scientists how he could better meet their needs. Recently, Bader came to NIH to explain how he became successful and give a few tips for those seeking to strike gold.

In 1949, Bader, then a young student of chemistry at Harvard University, set sail for England to visit his family and friends who survived the war. Unexpectedly, he met his queen, Isabel, before even setting foot on English soil and asked for her hand in marriage.

With his sails fully stretched by the promise of love, Bader returned to Harvard pushing for a Ph.D. degree. His project was almost complete, but he had to make one more compound. The starting material, 2-isopropylphenol, was missing from his lab, so he ordered it from the only fine-chemicals company available at the time, the Eastman Kodak Chemical Co.

Six weeks later and with no compound or any response whatsoever, Bader wrote Eastman that he needed the compound in order to earn his Ph.D. A response shortly followed: “We will ship it when we have the material. In the meantime, do not add to the paperwork; do not write to us again.”

Bader, who up to then had no intentions of becoming an entrepreneur, thought to himself, “If this is how the fine-chemicals business is handled in the United States of America, maybe I have a place in it.” And the rest, my friends (as Bader often addresses his audience), is chemical history.

The art-collecting, castle-donating, grant-awarding Bader and an attorney friend started up in a garage. The first Aldrich Chemical Co. catalog featured a single compound whose sales yielded a marginal profit of $20. The second catalog listed 12 compounds and by the second year, sales more than tripled.

At this point, Bader, still with little means and haunted by the notion that he could not compete with the monopoly held by Eastman Kodak, traveled all over North America and Europe, trying to get his hands on every compound that was not offered by others. One of his adopted compounds, a promising peptide-preparation reagent, sold well, but shortly after its debut, Eastman Kodak added it to its catalog for nearly 40 percent cheaper.

Bader was about to pull the plug on the compound, but to his surprise, the compound kept selling at the original price. That was when he first realized that competition could be fun. Donning a new and improved “bring-it-on” attitude, he started buying and making even compounds that were already deep-seated on lab benches.

Though no longer part of Sigma-Aldrich, Bader has been an invaluable component in the synthesis of a leading fine-chemicals company that has more than 6,800 employees and operates in 35 countries.

But to young entrepreneurs, the chemist’s chemist leaves a different legacy—advice. First, find your niche and stick to it. Secondly, treat your customers as individuals and answer each of their inquiries, even if it is not what they wish to hear. And lastly, Bader confesses, “My greatest mistake was not paying our ablest chemists enough”—so try to find the best people to work with and when you do, show them the money. NIHRecord Icon

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