From intern to CEO in 5 years

Cooper Collins, Nicholls alum and CEO of Pernix Pharmaceuticals in Houston, Texas.
Nicholls alum Cooper Collins was only an intern in 2003. But within five years, he accelerated up the corporate ladder to become Pernix Therapeutic’s chief executive.

No coat. No tie. No leather briefcase or power-grip handshake.

Cooper Collins (BA ’02, MBA ’03) never thought of himself as the CEO type. And even though he has earned the title, he hasn’t adopted the stuffy characteristics that typically accompany it.

As president and CEO of Pernix Therapeutics, Cooper does, of course, suit up for big boardroom meetings with investors and flashy presentations to partners. But on an average day, he’d rather pull on a polo shirt and slacks and discuss ideas at a roundtable, where his suggestions are just as likely to be shot down as those of his nearly 100 employees.

Such a relaxed style and quick career rise could easily lead some people to underestimate the 33-year-old former Colonel quarterback, but he quickly disproves that notion.

After all, when he joined Pernix (then known as Zyber) as an intern in 2003, the specialty pharmaceutical company was a mere startup in Gonzales. Within five years, Cooper was named CEO of the operation, now based in the Woodlands, Texas. Two years later, Cooper ceremoniously rang the Closing Bell at the New York Stock Exchange, signaling Pernix’s rise to a publicly traded company. And just a couple of months ago, Pernix reported that its net revenues increased 82 percent in the past year to reach $60.6 million.

“What I’d like is to see how big we can really make this company,” Cooper says. “The best thing would be to build this company to a level where everybody knows it and recognizes it, so that people in the industry will say, ‘Oh, you were a part of the Pernix team?’

“The funny thing is that I never looked at myself as a salesperson. But after taking an e-commerce class at Nicholls, I saw the potential and got hooked on the idea of growing small businesses.”

Realizing his business acumen

Although born in Slidell, Cooper moved a lot because of his father’s job in the oil industry. As he relocated to Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alaska and Abbeville, sports allowed him to easily make friends and fit in. As a result, when Cooper thought about his future, athletics were a very big part of his plans.

Recruited by Nicholls with a full football scholarship, he played quarterback and majored in mass communication, hoping to work in sports broadcasting or public relations. Luckily for Cooper, the New Orleans Saints were holding their summer training camp at Nicholls, and he scored an internship with their media relations office. For several years, Cooper stuck with the organization, helping with player interviews, press conferences and game reports. But he was young and ambitious.

Cooper Collins, Nicholls alum and CEO of Pernix Pharmaceuticals in Houston, Texas.
Cooper and his executive staff discuss how to keep the company values of teamwork and competitiveness in tact.

Cooper considered pursuing a master’s in sports administration but didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a specific field. An MBA seemed like a better — albeit more difficult — choice. Unlike most of his cohorts in the Nicholls MBA program, he didn’t have a business undergraduate degree, so he spent his first few semesters taking prerequisites. Although some business professors initially pegged him as a goofy athlete, it didn’t take Cooper long to prove his business potential.

“His learning didn’t stop in the classroom,” says Dr. Chuck Viosca, associate professor of marketing. “He often stayed after class to talk with me and was the kind of person who was a pleasure to be around. He was very bright and capable — more so than he probably thought at the time.”

It was in Viosca’s e-commerce class that Cooper began finding his niche. He devised an idea for a website that would provide exposure to high school athletes who hoped to play on the collegiate level. After finding two partners and getting encouragement from Viosca, he jumped into his first business venture.

Cooper attributes his competitive edge to the entrepreneurial spirit of the Nicholls College of Business Administration, which actually helped direct him to Pernix in the first place. Dr. John Lajaunie, professor of finance, knew that Zyber Pharmaceuticals was looking for interns, and Cooper seemed to be a good fit. He had never taught Cooper, but the graduate student showed up on his radar one day and made an instant impression.

“Some people have unique qualities that stand out,” Lajaunie says. “Some call it driven; other times you hear it called fire in the belly. Cooper learns very, very quickly from his errors. Others spend too much time lamenting, but he’s already figured out how he’s going to get up before he even hits the ground.”

Prior to his interview for the internship, Lajaunie gave Cooper this advice: Buy a decent pair of dress shoes. Black athletic shoes would not suffice.

Balancing ambition and family

Life’s a lot about luck and timing. Cooper is quick to admit that. After his internship, he became a Zyber sales representative in Florida and broke the company’s first-month sales record. He transferred to New Orleans and increased his region’s sales by more than 300 percent. Quickly, he climbed the ladder, gaining experience in training, hiring, development and quality control.

By the time he was named Pernix’s CEO, he was working grueling hours, always armed with a tenacious attitude, determined not to let down people who had taken a big chance on him. He was spending as many weeks on the road as at home and was often seeing his two children only when he kissed them good night.

Cooper Collins, Nicholls alum and CEO of Pernix Pharmaceuticals in Houston, Texas.
Stacey, who met and married Cooper while at Nicholls, says it’s been fun watching her husband get wrapped around their daughter Carsyn’s finger. On the weekends, Cooper and son Colson enjoy jet-skiing, watching Nickelodeon and playing soccer.

His absences were nothing new to his ever-supportive wife, Stacey Barbaro Collins (BA ’02, MEd ’04). In fact, he had to cancel their first date — a Delta Zeta sorority social — because he was traveling to an away game with the football team. A mutual friend tried to set them up numerous times before the couple actually met on a random night at Rox’s Bar in downtown Thibodaux.

“Two of the first things I noticed about Stacey were that she doesn’t take herself too seriously and she doesn’t have a possessive personality,” Cooper says. “I knew that I’d have to go the extra mile in life, which meant working late, dinners and meetings out of town. I realized that Stacey was a partner who could really help me live the life I wanted to live.”

Within six months of dating exclusively, Cooper proposed to Stacey, and they married in 2001, while both were still undergraduates.

“At first, we lived in the married dorms at Nicholls,” says Stacey, a former Colonelette dancer. “I cried the first time I walked in. The refrigerator was held together by duct tape.”

The couple eventually received a newer fridge and dressed up their small space with stick tile and carpet. While Cooper finished his graduate degree, Stacey taught at Labadieville Middle School and became a counselor at R.J. Vial Elementary School in Paradis. Since then, she’s put her career on hold to raise their son Colson, 5, and daughter, Carsyn, 3.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Cooper has been this successful,” she says. “He has always had that drive about him. People are just drawn to him.”

Lately, Cooper spends more time at home. He recalls the exact moment when he realized that his work-life balance was out of whack. Colson,then 3, asked Stacey if his daddy was coming over to visit tonight.

“He didn’t realize I lived there,” Cooper says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m not that guy, am I?’ At that point, I started bringing in more support and delegating. As a result, we’ve hired some great people, and I have breakfast and dinner with my kids when I am not traveling.”

Charting the future

Cooper now spends less time reviewing sales reports and more time focusing on business development. Pernix doesn’t develop new drugs; rather it buys drugs that other companies haven’t been able to make successful. Think of it like flipping houses, except Pernix doesn’t sell the drugs off after making them profitable.

For example, in 2009, Pernix bought a drug for $450,000. Although the 60 sales reps at the original company hadn’t had much success, 24 of Pernix’s reps generated $15 million in product sales within a year.

Stock Exchange 1
Cooper and more than a dozen Pernix employees celebrate Pernix’s rise to a publicly traded company at the New York Stock Exchange, where Cooper rang the Closing Bell on Jan. 12, 2011. Photo courtesy of NYSE.

In addition to finding good acquisitions for his $250 million company, Cooper has some unique expansion plans. The goal is for Pernix to become a horizontally integrated company that offers brand-name, generic and over-the-counter versions of its products. Often, Cooper says, companies get rid of generics after they become available over the counter, but then customers have to pay more out of pocket because their health insurance won’t pay for drugs bought off the shelf. Pernix hopes to develop and keep all three options available for consumers. But as the company grows, he is cautious to ensure that the team atmosphere isn’t compromised.

“As we expand this company, we’re going to be adding groups of people and baskets of products, and they have to fit with the culture or it’s not going to work,” he says.

Cooper has fostered a competitive yet congenial work environment. A strong testament to that is the company’s newly hired chief financial officer. David Becker was previously the CFO at Adams Respiratory Therapeutics, best known for its over-the-counter cough expectorant Mucinex — a product that led to the company being bought out in 2007 for $2.3 billion.

“This is a guy who didn’t have to work anymore,” Cooper says. “He was a big shareholder in a billion-dollar company, but he signed on with Pernix right away. He wanted to be a part of our team. We work hard to create that type of environment where people want to be here, want to work, want to compete.”

To find the right employees for such an aggressive yet team-oriented career, Pernix often looks to former collegiate and professional athletes as well as Nicholls graduates.

“People from Nicholls tend to be a little less self-absorbed,” Cooper says. “You feel like you still have to prove yourself because you don’t have the pedigree that a Harvard or Yale graduate does. That creates a certain type of person who is driven to work hard and go for it — not someone who leaves the office at 5 p.m. and rests on his laurels.”

But now that Cooper has put in those long hours, proven himself and become a CEO before turning 30, where does he go from here?

“When and if the company is sold, I’ll probably take something small and grow it into something big again,” Cooper says. “That’s the fun part.”

— Written by Stephanie Detillier, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the spring 2012 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue. To get The Colonel delivered to your home, join the Nicholls Alumni Federation.

Improving patient care

Using research and innovative teaching, Nicholls trains nursing students to care compassionately for patients from birth to death.

Nursing Lab Stock 2013
Through research, hands-on clinical experiences and innovative classroom teaching (such as in labs shown above), Nicholls nursing faculty stress not only technical skills but also a compassionate, caring spirit.

From first breath to last, nurses are there, infused in life’s most precious moments. Their patients all hope for the same thing — nurses with the medical know-how and caring bedside manner to help them through their life cycle of health care needs.

For patients in the tri-parish area, chances are high that they will receive just that — competent, compassionate care — most likely from Nicholls graduates, who make up 80 percent of the nursing staff at the region’s clinics and hospitals.

With that in mind, the Nicholls Department of Nursing continuously strives to improve its preparation of students. Through applied research, innovative classroom techniques and hands-on clinical experiences, faculty members stress the importance of notonly the technical skills but also the compassionate spirit needed to care for people from the cradle to the grave. A new master’s degree program at Nicholls will provide additional opportunities for nurses to gain advanced-level education.

“Whether it’s the bachelor’s degree or master’s program, we focus on a holistic approach to patient care,” says Dr. Todd Keller, director of the undergraduate nursing degree program. “Biological, psychological, sociological and spiritual — we teach our students to care for every aspect of a person. The greatest beneficiary of that learning is, and will continue to be, the patients of our graduates.”

Avoiding fatigue in labor and delivery

The celebratory sounds of new life — joyous laughter, spontaneous outbursts of happy tears and a newborn’s piercing cries — spill out into the hallway of Thibodaux Regional Women and Children’s Center.

A few doors down, the sounds of anguish and heartbreak are heavy as a couple learns that the baby they had so desperately wanted would be stillborn. What should have been a celebration turns into unspeakable pain.

So begins another day in the life of a labor and delivery nurse.

Being a part of life’s biggest moments is both exhilarating and exhausting. Navigating the highs and lows of the profession while maintaining a sense of personal well-being often becomes challenging. Nurses who fail to find a balance are at risk of developing compassion fatigue. They might find themselves burnt out, disengaged, emotionally overloaded, less productive and struggling to empathize or form bonds with their patients.

“Nurses are expected to be happy and vibrant and never appear upset or overworked,” says Dr. Amanda Eymard, assistant professor of nursing. “We need to let nurses know that we recognize that they have stress and give them an outlet so that they don’t experience burnout and leave the profession.”

As an honors nursing student, Chelsea Tamplain (BSN ’12) conducted research revealing that labor and delivery nurses are reluctant to discuss the effects of working in such an emotionally charged environment.

“Nurses are, at their very core, nurturing caregivers who put others’ needs above their own,” Tamplain says. “They didn’t want to talk about the toll the stress of the job was having on them for fear it would make them appear like a ‘bad nurse.’”

Tamplain’s research on compassion fatigue among labor and delivery nurses was the first of its kind, though many studies have examined compassion fatigue in other medical areas, such as oncology, ICU and hospice care. To minimize the potential for burnout, Eymard advises new and experienced nurses to create support groups of medical professionals with whom they can talk candidly. A healthy diet, regular exercise and time set aside to decompress are also important.

“From freshman- to senior-level classes, we weave lessons of compassionate care throughout the curriculum — compassion for patients and compassion for themselves,” Eymard says. “If we don’t teach our nurses to take care of themselves, how can they take care of others? And that’s our ultimate goal — the best possible care for the patient.”

Fostering Elder Empathy

Nursing Aging program - Voila 2007
More than 100 Nicholls students have participated in the Take A Walk in My Shoes project, which use simulation equipment to help them better understand elderly patients. A physical-limitation suit lined with metal rods restricts bending and stretching.

Dr. Amanda Eymard loves old folks. The 41-year-old assistant professor of nursing first stumbled upon her career path at age 11, when she began volunteering at a local nursing home.

Now in the classroom, Eymard looks for creative ways to share her infectious passion for the elderly. Instead of lecturing about the many trappings of old age — loss of hearing, failing eyesight, shortness of breath, compromised balance and stiff joints — she wants her students to literally feel what it’s like to be old. In 2006, Eymard received a grant, resulting in more than $23,000 of simulation equipment that does just that.

Vision-distortion goggles cloud students’ eyesight, making it difficult to read prescribed medication instructions. Special gloves make their fingers stiff and create difficulty opening pill bottles or brushing their hair. A physical-limitation suit lined with metal rods restricts bending and stretching. Empathy lungs create shortness of breath, and earplugs impede their hearing.

In the past six years, 128 students have participated in the Take A Walk In My Shoes project, and their journals indicate that the experience has helped teach them patience and empathy.

“The students’ journals confirmed that we are getting through to them and actually changing their stereotypical thinking,” Eymard says. “One student wrote, ‘I used to get really frustrated with older patients because I wanted them to move quicker, but now I realize that they want to move quicker; they just can’t. My whole perspective has shifted.’”

In 2010, Americans 65 and older represented 13 percent of the total population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, that number is expected to rise to 20 percent by 2050. A growing elderly population means an increased demand in geriatric nursing care and training.

To meet those needs, Eymard and student volunteers have taken the empathy project on the road — providing in-service programs for nurses, lab technicians and certified nursing assistants throughout the region.

“Not only were our students excited about going out into the community, but many professionals who took part have indicated that their attitudes and prejudices about elderly patients changed because of our program,” Eymard says.

Embracing a pre-death phenomenon

Research Week 2012 Nursing
Dr. Tanya Schreiber, left, talks with colleagues about her groundbreaking research on premortem surge — a phenomenon that gives a near-death patient a resurgence of energy.

A brain tumor was ravaging Richard’s body. The beloved son, brother and friend was bedbound and unresponsive and hadn’t eaten in weeks. With his death imminent, nurses summoned his family and friends.

Then something extraordinary happened.

Richard awoke. He asked to be helped out of bed and into his favorite recliner, and he requested his favorite cocktail — scotch on the rocks with a splash of water. Richard spent the evening surrounded by loved ones, sipping cocktails and reminiscing. He went on and on about how wonderful his life was and how grateful he was for his family, friends and faith. The following morning, he ate a hearty breakfast of toast, eggs and bacon, but by noon, he was back in bed. Richard died at 6 p.m. that day.

In the eulogy, his brother said, “The night before Richard died, he gave us the most wonderful gift of all — the gift of his presence once again.”

Richard’s gift was the result of premortem surge, an often-seen phenomenon that gives a near-death patient an unexplainable resurgence of energy, improved physical function and mental clarity, increased appetite and the ability to communicate. The surge usually occurs 24 to 48 hours before death and lasts anywhere from six to 24 hours.

Dr. Tanya Schreiber, assistant professor of nursing, has exhaustively researched the subject and is even credited for establishing the name, premortem surge. A longtime hospice nurse, Schreiber has seen the phenomenon with several patients and hopes that her research will help health care providers respond to it.

“Dying is a part of life,” she says, “and if I can help our students better understand end-of-life events such as premortem surge, then they can provide better, more compassionate care for patients and their families.”

For example, families unfamiliar with premortem surge can misinterpret it to mean the patient’s condition is improving — creating a false sense of hope and uncertainty about treatment decisions.

End-of-life care isn’t easy, but Debra Gorr (BSN ’05), director of nursing at Haydel Memorial Hospice in Houma, says each workday is a day of giving.

“We give the care that the patients and their families need, while educating them about the dying process,” Gorr says. “But what they give us is so much more. They allow us to be a part of their journey from this life. The rally [premortem surge] is a beautiful opportunity for loved ones to say their final farewells and create loving, lasting memories.”

— Written by Renee Piper, director of University Relations

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

One for the history books

James Barnidge has left Nicholls.

The longtime history professor has bid goodbye to the university, to Thibodaux, to his family, to his home and to his bicycle.

But don’t despair.

He’s left 38 times before, and he’s always come back.

Bringing European tradition to Ardoyne Drive

This past June, Barnidge and a group of 63 students and community members left for Nicholls Europe, the second longest- running international study program in Louisiana. It marked the 39th session since Barnidge invented the program in 1974.

“Imagine a Nicholls student at Mozart’s keyboard in Salzburg,” he says, as if conjuring from a crystal ball, “or a science student at the Tower of Pisa or an art major in the Sistine Chapel. That’s what Nicholls Europe is all about.”

The crystal ball, of course, is a world globe, the conjurings are memories of traveling students, and the magic of it all is seeing the lives of those students change before his eyes. Barnidge’s own life changes, too. Each year he returns from Nicholls Europe with “instant rejuvenation” and new, firsthand experiences to share in his lectures. One year, he returned with a historical European tradition that has become iconic at Nicholls — bicycling to work.

“It’s my forced exercise,” says Barnidge, who has biked the streets of Amsterdam and Paris. Most mornings, however, he can be found on a red bicycle riding across Ardoyne Drive to campus from his home in the Thibodaux Country Club.

Getting it under his fingernails

Early in life, Barnidge began to appreciate history and tradition. The red-haired boy was born and raised on the banks of the similarly colored Red River in Alexandria — not far from the site of Bailey’s Dam, the infamous log and rock structure that raised the river and permitted the Union Navy’s retreat in 1864. He remembers digging as a child, hoping to find bullets and other Civil War artifacts buried in the red soil.

At colleges in the ’60s, “digging history” had multiple meanings. For Barnidge, it meant taking that childhood fascination into the archives at Louisiana State University, where the subject of his master’s thesis was G. Mason Graham, father of that university. He completed the thesis alongside renowned professor T. Harry Williams, whose own research on Huey Long became a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.

How important was that mentorship? “If you’d heard T. Harry Williams lecture, then you’d know what I’m talking about,” Barnidge says. “He just moved an audience.” Not ironically, those who have heard Barnidge lecture know exactly what he’s talking about.

A thing for red-bricked buildings

James Barnidge has led 39 Nicholls Europe trips and taught history to more than 36,000 Nicholls students.

Growing up just a stone’s throw from the red brick facade of Louisiana College’s Alexandria Hall in Pineville, Barnidge found himself facing the similarly colored red brick facade of Nicholls State College’s Elkins Hall in September 1966.

Over the next four decades, Barnidge taught many sessions of 16 different history, humanities and art courses, inventing six of them along the way. In addition, he served for several years as acting department head and assistant to the dean. Despite retirement in November 2005 after 39 years, he has remained a volunteer lecturer to classrooms filled to their brims.

Why? Simply because he wants to. “Being a teacher is what I am, and I want to do it,” he says.

Still? After four decades? “You know what the secret is? You gotta want it. It’s gotta move you. It’s not a job. It’s something you’re deeply interested in. And students can tell.”

One such student was Chef John Folse. During the fall 2011 commencement, Folse received an honorary doctorate. That evening, as Barnidge recalls, Folse called to thank him for stimulating his interest in Louisiana history and, consequently, the traditionalist aspect of his company and career.

“It blew my mind,” Barnidge says. “That he would think about me — driving back home in the dark after he got an honorary degree, thinking enough to call his teacher and say, ‘Thank you’ — that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

Crunching the numbers

Twelve to 18 credit hours per semester, up to 45 credits per year, as many as 80 individuals per three-credit class, 800 to 1,000 individuals per year, for 46 years. It sounds like financial analysis. But that wouldn’t be odd to Barnidge, who earned his undergraduate degree in finance and economics from LSU. In fact, his first professional job was as a cost analyst for Kaiser Aluminum in Baton Rouge. He never intended to teach — much less history, which he studied for fun — but a kind boss at Kaiser encouraged him.

Thus, his second professional job, begun only a year later, was teaching history at Nicholls, a job he’s held for 46 consecutive years. Based on the numbers, Barnidge has taught more than 36,000 Nicholls students, many more than any other teacher ever at this university. And if these numbers were indeed financial analysis, they would represent a pretty good return on investment — one with a balance most certainly not “in the red.”

For Barnidge, it’s not a job. Although no crystal ball could have predicted the grand celestial coincidence of red hair, red river, red dirt, red bricks, red bicycle and red mascot, his Nicholls career has certainly been in harmony with the music of the spheres.

And like clockwork, Barnidge has now returned home from Europe for the 39th time. It seems appropriate that the man who presented so much of the world to so many in the Nicholls community has created his own world: When he next bicycles to campus, he’ll be departing his home in the Country Club, a community he helped grow, in a parish under a Home Rule Charter he helped author and in a state under a constitution he helped draft.

How could we ever believe that he’d leave for good?

— Written by Dr. John Doucet, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.