Howard Solomon, 94, Dies; His Business Success Had a Personal Connection
After one of his sons fell into a deep depression, he helped him recover. He later licensed an antidepressant that was a boon to his pharmaceutical company.,
After one of his sons fell into a deep depression, he helped him recover. He later licensed an antidepressant that was a boon to his pharmaceutical company.
Howard Solomon was building the pharmaceutical company Forest Laboratories, not by manufacturing drugs but by licensing them. In his search for deals in the United States and Europe, he learned about citalopram, a Danish antidepressant. He did not license it, though, believing the U.S. market was saturated with drugs to treat depression.
Then, in 1994, a family crisis intervened: His older son, Andrew, a writer, had fallen into a deep depression. Mr. Solomon moved Andrew into his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and took weeks off from work to take care of him; he even cut his food. He talked to experts about pharmaceuticals that might help Andrew. And he accompanied him on a tour to promote his novel, “A Stone Boat.”
“My father was like a reef that took the violent waves of a frightening world and broke them down into gentle, manageable undulations before they reached the beach where I stood,” Andrew Solomon said in an email.
After two types of antidepressants were unable to help Andrew, a third did. His experience persuaded his father to make the deal a few years later for citalopram, which, under the name Celexa, became a billion-dollar drug for Forest Labs in the class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, along with Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil.
Howard Solomon died on Jan. 8 at his home in Bedford Hills, N.Y. He was 94. Andrew Solomon confirmed the death.
When Howard Solomon introduced Celexa to the Forest Labs sales force in 1998, he read from the manuscript of Andrew’s book “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.”
“I will be on medication for a long time,” he read aloud. “Every morning and every night, I look at the pills in my hand, and sometimes they seem like writing in my hand, hieroglyphics saying that the future may be all right and that I owe it to myself to live on and see.”
“The Noonday Demon” was published in 2001. In its dedication, Andrew Solomon wrote, “For my father, who gave me life not once, but twice.” It went on to win the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Howard Solomon was born on Aug. 12, 1927, in the Bronx. His father, David, a Romanian immigrant, made neckties out of dress remnants. His mother, Faye (Gussow) Solomon, worked with her husband.
After serving in the Army in Hawaii, Howard majored in history at the City College of New York and received a bachelor’s degree in 1949. He graduated from Yale Law School three years later and worked for various law firms before starting his own in the early 1960s, specializing in corporate law; along the way, he joined the Forest Labs board and became the company’s outside counsel.
He was appointed president and chief executive in 1977 after the company’s chairman, Hans Lowey, and three other executives were accused of inflating profits. He divested the company of divisions that made candy and vitamins and adopted a strategy of licensing pharmaceuticals and marketing them aggressively.
Forest Labs was transformed by licensing Celexa from H. Lundbeck, the Danish company that developed it. But Lundbeck’s chief executive, Erik Sprunk-Jansen, was initially reluctant to speak to Mr. Solomon because licensing deals with some other U.S. companies had unraveled.
“Howard flew to Denmark to meet with him,” Phil Satow, a former executive vice president of Forest Labs, said in a phone interview. “Both were lovers of ballet, which became the common chord between them, and they developed a strong relationship.”
Celexa’s sales grew quickly, peaking at nearly $1.5 billion in 2003. Forest Labs then licensed Lexapro, an upgraded version of Celexa, which first reached $2 billion in sales in 2007.
But the success of Celexa had a downside. In 2010, Forest Labs paid $313 million to settle criminal and civil complaints that a subsidiary, Forest Pharmaceuticals, had illegally promoted the drug to children and adolescents (it had been approved only for adult depression) and had paid doctors to induce them to prescribe Celexa and Lexapro.
“Forest Pharmaceuticals deliberately chose to pursue corporate profits over its obligations to the F.D.A. and the American public,” Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, said when the settlement was announced.
The company denied the allegations. In a statement at the time, Mr. Solomon said, “We remain dedicated to ensuring that we operate in full compliance with all laws and regulations.”
In 2011, Forest Labs won a proxy fight against the shareholder activist Carl C. Icahn, who had argued that the company had, among other things, lost billions of dollars of shareholder value over the previous decade. Mr. Icahn continued to pursue Forest Labs with a second proxy fight in 2012, which ended with one of his nominees elected to the company’s board.
In a letter to Mr. Icahn during that fight, Mr. Solomon wrote: “Your discourse thus far has shown a striking lack of strategic ideas. Instead, it has been replete with wild and baseless accusations, innuendo and distortion of facts.”
Still, at some point, Mr. Solomon reached out to Mr. Icahn, and they had a series of dinners.
“We got friendly,” Mr. Icahn said in a phone interview. “I thought he was a nice gentleman, a courtly guy.” He added: “I didn’t agree with the way he ran the business necessarily, but he was a nice guy who was thrilled with the outcome. He made a lot of money.”
In 2013, Mr. Solomon announced his retirement as chief executive and was replaced by Brent Saunders, an executive friendly with Mr. Icahn. Then, in early 2014, Actavis (now Allergan) paid $25 billion to acquire Forest Labs. Mr. Solomon, still the chairman, left after the acquisition and formed a family investment firm with his younger son, David, who had been a Forest Labs executive.
In addition to his sons, Mr. Solomon is survived by his wife, Sarah Billinghurst Solomon, a former assistant general manager of artistic affairs at the Metropolitan Opera, and five grandchildren. His first wife, Carolyn (Bower) Solomon, died in 1991.
Mr. Solomon had extensive philanthropic interests, especially opera. As a teenager he paid for piano lessons at the Manhattan School of Music by selling librettos to patrons of the old Metropolitan Opera on 39th Street and Broadway. He later became chairman of the Met’s finance committee, chairman of New York City Ballet and a board member of Lincoln Center.
His desire to work into his 80s was, he said, inspired by the example of Giuseppe Verdi.
“Growing up, he’d talk about Verdi writing ‘Falstaff’ in his 80s,” Andrew Solomon said. “‘Imagine that,’ he’d say, ‘in his 80s, he wrote some of the greatest music ever written.’ That was the path he hoped to follow.”