When Randy Main decided to take a new job in his hometown heading finance at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he thought to himself, “This could be fun for the next five years ….”
On June 30, Main will begin his retirement after 33 years of keeping the organization on a financially even keel. His colleagues have been sharing memories and thanks with one of the most popular executives ever to put on a suit for Fred Hutch.
“While we know that we will miss Randy and that we are losing a Fred Hutch icon, we are also cheering him on to a very long and happy retirement,” said President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland.
Main was hired as director of finance in October 1984, when the research center was still a relatively small organization on First Hill doing pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation. He formally retired as vice president and chief financial officer on Dec. 31, but, keeping in character, he agreed to stay on in a similar capacity until June 30.
“He’s a pretty easygoing guy,” said Doug Shaeffer, Hutch vice president and general counsel. “He’s likeable and smart. People trust him.’’
In 1992, when Shaeffer was interviewing for the in-house attorney role, the first person he talked to was the president and director, the late Dr. Robert Day — who at the time was deeply involved in consolidating the Hutch at the new campus in South Lake Union, the construction of which was well under way. The second person Shaeffer met was Main, who has been a good friend and colleague ever since.
Main is an avid skier and golfer, but he looks forward to this summer because he will finally have time to get out into the mountains and hike. “I’ve always taken my vacations in the winter and spring,” he said during an interview. “But I particularly like the Northwest in the summertime.”
Although he was born and raised in rainy Seattle, he also expects that he and his wife, Retta, will spend more of the winter in Palm Desert, California. “I’m definitely going to work on my golf game, my tennis and be able to ski midweek with the senior discount,” Main said.
Over the course of three decades overseeing money matters at the Hutch, Main counts as his most important accomplishment the solutions he found to the complex real estate transactions, tax rule changes and bond financing required to move from First Hill to South Lake Union.
“From the day I started, we were trying to figure out what we were going to do to accommodate the growth of faculty and staff,” he said. “It was absolutely full of challenges, but very interesting work.”
A crucial step in making the move to South Lake Union possible, according to Main, was winning a change in federal rules governing how nonprofit institutions could pay for new construction. In effect, the old rule was forcing nonprofits doing the same sort of research as universities to rent, rather than build lab space. And the cost of leasing buildings for a new campus would have been prohibitive. Main argued successfully that nonprofits like the Hutch should be able to cover interest payments on construction loans the same way colleges and universities do — paying them from the "indirect costs" portion of research grants.
He was able to show how the rule change would ultimately save the federal government itself more than $100 million, but it took two years of dogged effort to make it happen. In 1990, he won the argument. Over the years, he has been able to witness the fruits of his labor.
Main’s corner office on the sixth floor of the Yale Building has a large window overlooking Lake Union and the 15-acre Robert W. Day campus. It is a glorious vista of the campus and the urban lake filled with sailboats and seaplanes. But to Main, the Hutch’s greatest asset can be found within its walls.
“There is absolutely no substitute for working with really bright people,” Main said. “The most important asset for the Hutch is its faculty members. They are outstanding, and they continue to get better. We’re hiring the best people, and we can compete with anybody.”
Terri Wareham, managing director of Kaufman Hall, a Chicago-area health care financial consulting firm, has known Main since 1988, when the series of real estate transactions that led to creation of the new campus began. She also worked closely with him during the creation of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the Hutch’s clinical care partner, along with Seattle Children’s Hospital and UW Medicine.
“Everybody loves him,” she said. “He’s patient and very thorough. He works hard, and then he plays hard. We became great friends over the years with Randy and Retta.
“One of the secrets to success with any leader,” Wareham added, is knowing what you know, but also knowing what you don’t know. It is a leadership quality that not everyone has.”
Main acknowledges that, for some reason, people do seem to like him. “I suppose it is because I like people,” he said.
Main’s even temperament helped the Hutch weather its deepest crisis, in 2009, when the U.S. economy went into a tailspin, triggering the worst recession since the Great Depression. “The direction we were going had dire consequences,” he said. “I went around and made presentations to the faculty and showed them what was happening. They said, ‘What can we do to help?’”
The result was some painful belt-tightening. “It was very stressful,” Main said. “We had our first operating loss in 2009, but we turned it around in 2010.”
The Hutch’s balance sheet has continued to improve, even as it enters a period of expansion and new hiring, thanks to strategic partnerships with spinoff companies such as Juno Therapeutics and increased support from the philanthropic community.
Today, he said, the Hutch is on a firm financial footing and well positioned to expand its push to find curative therapies for cancer. “It’s only going to get better,’’ he said, “so it is a good time to leave, with everything working so well.”
Despite the serious nature of his work, Main has always brought a sense of playfulness to the Hutch that has endeared him to his colleagues. “He’s not what you think of as your typical accountant,” said attorney Shaeffer. “He’s a little boy, at heart.”
Shaeffer recalls that during the early construction phase of building the new South Lake Union campus, a backhoe operator allowed some of the Hutch executives to take out chunks of the former Muzak office building to make room for the Robert M. Arnold Building. “Randy had operated a backhoe before, apparently,” said Shaeffer, “and you couldn’t get him off it.”
Now that it can be told, the Hutch general counsel and chief financial officer once spent the end of an afternoon throwing rocks at windows of a vacant apartment building, which was being taken down for a Hutch parking lot at Yale and Aloha. “Someone reported to police that two guys wearing suits were breaking windows,” Shaeffer confessed. “The police never found us.”
Despite the occasional urge to bust windows, Main said he is humbled by the opportunity to have worked at the Hutch. He still recalls clearly being moved to see patients — and their family members — on the second floor of the old Hutch facilities on First Hill, where bone marrow transplants were saving the lives of people who otherwise had no hope.
“Certainly the significance of our mission was clear,” he said. “I feel lucky to have spent most of my career at a place that does such good work, and work that is so important.”
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs.