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.