Panos ’77 and Deb (Stephens) ’78 Kalaritis Share Career Success And A Marriage Made at Wilkes
By Vicki Mayk MFA ’13
It wasn’t the most auspicious introduction.
Wilkes freshman Deb Stephens ’78 had joined her Waller Halls roommate, Sherry Meyer, as a score keeper for the men’s soccer team. Milling around with the players before an away game, Deb, clad in dark pants, had taken a seat on the stairs at the Ralston Athletic Complex. Wilkes soccer player Panos Kalaritis ’77, a junior international student from Greece, was there with the rest of the team.
“He was not shy,” Deb says of her first encounter with the man who would become her husband. “And his first words were less than romantic.”
When Deb rose from her perch on the stairs, Panos informed her that her pants were dirty – using a very specific word to identify the location of the dirt. Deb retreated to the ladies room in embarrassment.
The husband and wife laugh at the memory. “It wasn’t intended to be an ice breaker,” Panos says. “It was just a casual comment.”
Despite the dubious first impression, the meeting at Wilkes began a relationship that is now a successful marriage of more than 38 years. And, although they did not know it then, career success lay ahead as well. Panos’ work in the pharmaceutical industry would earn him 35 patents while working with leading pharmaceutical companies such as Abbott Laboratories and Hoffman La Roche, and eventually his own company, IRIX Pharmaceuticals. Deb would make her name in the telecommunications industry, working in marketing for AT&T and Accenture before launching her own consulting firm, Mercury Communications.
Careers weren’t yet the focus when the pair formed a friendship at Wilkes in fall 1975, getting together with friends to play cards. Eventually they began dating. On the surface, it seemed a case of opposites attracting – right down to their choice of major. Panos was studying chemistry and Deb majored in international studies. “I was her international studies subject,” Panos chuckles. In her own tongue-in-cheek take on their early relationship, Deb notes wryly that her brother wasn’t particularly thrilled that she was dating a chemist, given her history with the subject. “My experience in organic chemistry included causing a fire, which my teacher rapidly doused.”
The paths that brought each of them to Wilkes were equally diverse.
A native of Patras, Greece, Panos was salutatorian when he graduated from the High School of Corinth, Greece. His good academic record earned him a scholarship to study at Wilkes starting in 1973 via a program run by the Anglo Hellenic Bureau of Education. The program identified talented Greek students, providing them with a scholarship and matching them with universities in the United States. The program placed about 10 students per year in colleges in the northeast. Students did not choose which school they would attend. The first person in his family to finish high school, Panos’ trip to America also marked the first time he left his country. He and his wife credit his mother, Georgia Kontea, a woman whose education ended in elementary school, for having the vision to allow her only son to leave Greece to pursue a college degree thousands of miles away.
“I went from a small town back then to a huge country without having any relatives nearby to rely on,” Panos says. “The most memorable moment was getting off the Greyhound and seeing Dr. (George) Ralston and the assistant dean, Mr. Domzalski.”
Deb also did not choose where she would attend college. Her father, dentist Joseph D. Stephens ’51, formerly Wilkes Alumni Association president, gently insisted his daughter attend Wilkes. “My dad gave my brother (Joseph D. Stephens Jr. ’79 ) and me a choice: We could attend Wilkes or continue living at home. With five siblings all living at home, it seemed like a good decision to come to Wilkes.”
Once on campus in Wilkes-Barre, both embraced the experience, academically and socially. “One thing I will say for Wilkes is that it was a perfect environment for me,” says Panos. “Coming from a small environment in Greece, it was a school that gave a lot of personal attention.”
A strong background in chemistry, physics and math helped ease his transition to academic life. At Wilkes he was introduced to work in the lab by Dr. Owen Faut, professor emeritus of chemistry , and Dr. John Labose, professor of chemistry.
Faut remembers his student, characterizing him as “dependable” in class and in the lab. “You knew that you could count on him to do what was expected.”
Faut says that Panos’ subsequent success in pharmaceutical research is not a surprise. “His attitude was so very good. One of the most important things we see in a student is their attitude,” he says, noting that the right attitude is often the difference between success or failure.
A Two-Career Couple
Panos headed to the University of Kansas to earn a master’s degree after his 1977 graduation while Deb fast tracked her bachelor’s degree completing her program in three years. The couple were married in 1979, just after he completed his master’s degree. Deb landed a job with AT&T in the years before the company’s breakup and restructuring. Deb’s relocation prompted Panos’ entrance into a doctoral program at Washington University in St. Louis.
The Kalaritises became the quintessential two-career couple, frequently taking turns relocating to accommodate a new job or opportunity for either spouse.
“Panos supported me in my career and vice versa,” Deb recalls. “We used to say if we lived someplace for more than two years, that was a long time. It’s been a very symbiotic and supportive relationship between the two of us.”
Plotting their career moves on a map would find lines taking them from St. Louis and Chicago in the Midwest to East Coast locations in Basking Ridge, N.J., and eventually Florence, S.C. While living in South Carolina, a downsizing at Hoffman La Roche ironically coincided with Panos receiving a bonus for his work there. He jokes, “It left me with a lot of money and a lot of time on my hands.” The combination of capital and time allowed him to launch his own company, IRIX Pharmaceuticals, in 1996. Continuing their pattern of mutual support for career endeavors, Deb, by then running her own marketing consulting firm Mercury Communications, designed the company’s logo and tagline. In ancient Greece, the name IRIX meant falcon.
Panos and his partner, J. Guy Steenrod, interviewed chemists for research positions at the new company, seated on folding chairs at a card table in temporary headquarters and retrofitted their first lab at South Carolina’s Francis Marion University. Panos was the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer. Under his leadership, IRIX grew to 200 employees, including more than 40 scientists with doctoral degrees and annual revenues of approximately $75 million. It was sold to Patheon in 2015.
Main story continues below story about Panos Kalaritis.
Panos Kalaritis ’77 Achieves Success In Pharmaceutical Industry
It started, as it does for so many Wilkes students, with opportunities to work in the lab in Stark Learning Center. Panos Kalaritis ’77 felt at home there.
Originally intending to pursue a medical career, by graduation Panos found his lab experience had pulled him in a different direction: putting his chemistry research skills to work, ultimately in the pharmaceutical industry. “I’ve always felt that things happen for a reason,” he says philosophically. His resume summarizing a 34-year career clearly reflects that fate set him on the path to success.
He earned a master’s degree in medicinal chemistry at the University of Kansas and a doctorate in organic chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis. His research on both the master’s and doctoral levels focused on the design of more effective chemotherapeutic agents for use in cancer treatment.
The word “design” is appropriate in describing Panos’ approach to research, his wife Deborah explains. “His field fits his personality,” she says. “He’s not a pocket protector chemist….. Panos has such a creative bent.”
That creative bent in the laboratory would earn him 35 patents in the pharmaceutical field and would include innovations that assembled complex molecular structures in creative ways and produced commercial drugs more effectively, reducing the number of chemical steps, the processing time, and, ultimately, the costs. “Developing chemical processes for commercial products that are friendly to the environment was always at the forefront of my research endeavors,” he notes. His portfolio of such green commercial manufacturing processes includes well-known commercial drugs like Xeloda, used in treating cancer,; Lumigan, Xalatan and Travatan, which are all used for glaucoma; the cardiovascular drug Berapros; Remodulin, used for COPD; and the blood thinner Warfarin.
He began his career working for a combined 13 years for two of the world’s major pharmaceutical companies – Abbott Laboratories and Hoffman La Roche. While there, he advanced through the ranks to the position of director of synthesis development. He was actively involved with developing many investigational drug candidates, commercializing several of them.
He was involved with the commercial manufacturing of Accutane, used in acne treatment, Dormicum, used to treat insomnia; the osteoporosis drug Rocaltrol; and the antibacterial drug Sulfisoxazole. He also worked on a large number of clinical development candidates, including drugs used to treat cancer, HIV, anxiety, ulcers, psoriasis and bacterial infections.
“Chemistry is a common thread that ties most of the activities relating to new drug product development from early discovery, to market introduction, and commercialization,” he explains. “I was fortunate to have the opportunity to develop experience across the entire spectrum.”
Panos was instrumental in two new drug introductions to market, the anti-bacterial Omniflox and the anti-cancer drug Xeloda. “The most rewarding moments of my career were when we introduced a new drug to market. The feeling of satisfaction is hard to describe,” he adds. “It is the thought of having played a small part in the creation of a product that improves human health or saves lives.”
Fate once again played a role in Panos’ career when a global reorganization at Hoffman La Roche ended with him and several research and development colleagues losing their jobs. Once again stating, “things happen for good reasons,” Panos and a fellow chemical engineer launched their own company, Irix Pharmaceuticals, in 1996. “I always wonder, if certain things had not happened, would I have had the nerve to do it,” he muses.
Irix was a science-based company that offered research and development services to the pharmaceutical industry. It specialized in making difficult-to-manufacture active pharmaceutical ingredients, also known as APIs, for drugs from early and late development, through commercial launch. “New drug discovery and early phase clinical development today is primarily in the expert hands of approximately 2,000 small pharmaceutical discovery companies in North America, not the major pharmaceutical companies” he explains. “Irix played a pivotal role in helping these companies advance their clinical candidates.”
Before the company was sold to Patheon in 2015, Irix supported the development of approximately 80 investigational drugs per year and served more than 200 pharmaceutical companies worldwide. Most recently, the company was also instrumental for the market introduction and commercial manufacturing of Viberzi for irritable bowel syndrome.
Continued from above.
A New Chapter
The Kalaritises found a new focus in their lives after Deb weathered treatment for breast cancer in 2001. She notes that her husband’s knowledge about cancer treatment, forged during graduate school, added an extra measure of support. “It was a long time after his master’s and Ph.D., when he researched chemotherapy, but he spoke quite knowledgeably with my oncologist, Dr. Michael Pavy. We were surprised there was not significant change in cancer treatment from 1979 to 2001… same drugs with improved administration protocols.”
After facing down cancer, Deb stepped up her volunteer activities in the Florence, S.C., community, for church, civic and charitable organizations. With the help of friends who supported her during her cancer treatment, she raised more than $10,000 for the American Cancer Society in 2002. She served on the board of the Florence Symphony Orchestra, chairing its Taste of Symphony benefit, and also lent her talents to supporting the community’s library, museum and domestic violence shelter.
Deb and Panos, being avid advocates of higher education, have supported undergraduate academic research and established scholarships. Panos offered scientific internship programs at IRIX Pharmaceutical. He also funded undergraduate research programs at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., and the endowed Coffen-IRIX Research Fund at the University of South Carolina. The couple also have taken a personal interest in helping promising students receive a college education. Remembering the help that Panos received, they have founded scholarships for worthy students at Wilkes, Francis Marion University in South Carolina and Towson University in Baltimore, MD.
“The passion that Panos and Deb have for higher learning, particularly here at Wilkes, has established a unique opportunity for our students to experience the global education that is key to their success and at the core of our mission,” says Wilkes President Patrick F. Leahy. “The Kalaritises are role models in every sense, from their business success to their ability and desire to provide philanthropic support for our students. We are so proud to count them among our most valued alumni and friends.”
In addition to scholarships at other universities, two scholarships at Wilkes have allowed the Kalaritises to honor their parents while helping the next generation of Colonels. The Dr. Joseph Donald Stephens, DDS Global Scholars Award, named in honor of Deb’s father, provides students with scholarships to pursue their education in another country. Three scholarships will be awarded annually.
The first three $5,000 awards were presented to three Wilkes students. During summer 2017, Ana Castillo, a nursing major, traveled to Spain for a six-week program to complete her Spanish minor and improve her Spanish language skills in health-care terminology. Junior biology major Dillon Davis completed a two-month summer internship at Southampton University in England. He assisted a doctoral student studying retinal pathophysiology with a focus on age-related macular degeneration. Jacee York, will use her scholarship to study in Australia in 2018.
Another scholarship established at Wilkes brings Panos’ experience at the University full circle. In summer 2016, he contacted the principal of the high school he attended in Corinth, Greece, to request his help in identifying a student who would benefit from attending Wilkes. Maria Dima, a sophomore biology major, became the first recipient of the four-year scholarship, established in honor of Panos’ mother, an uneducated person who had great appreciation for education, who supported the decision of her only son to study in the United States.
Meeting her benefactors just before traveling to the States, Dima was impressed by their friendly and approachable demeanor. “They are so much fun!” she says. Dima learned she was coming to Wilkes only one month before her arrival, so she didn’t have time to think about the giant step she was about to take. “Looking back, it scares me more now,” Dima states. “I ask myself, ‘How did I do that?’ ” She says she has benefited from advice that Panos offered – “In order to be successful in your new environment you will need to adapt in it. Get involved on campus and socialize but not only with international students.” She has joined Enactus and the UNICEF Club.
Like her benefactor, she found the culture at Wilkes has been the most significant factor in her transition. “What made me the most comfortable is that everyone was here to help me.”
Most recently, the Kalaritises added a third four year scholarship at Wilkes University in their name that will go into effect with the 2018 academic year.
Bucket List and Beyond
Since selling IRIX, the Kalaritises have traveled, checking items off their bucket list of places to visit. Stops have included the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest in Australia and international wine tasting at Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, at Barossa, Eden, and McLaren Vale valleys in Australia, and Rioja, Priorat, and Ribera del Duero in Spain. Other stops included the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, and visits to Seville, Granada, the Spanish Riviera and the Greek Isles. “Panos had his first taste of golf at St. Andrews in Scotland and we both visited shrines amid the cherry blossoms in Kyoto, (Japan),” Deb says.
Their new home in Austin, Texas, signals another development in his pharmaceutical career. “I am looking to start a new company with focus on commercializing pharmaceutical products with improved therapeutic profiles over their current commercial proteges,” Panos says, explaining that his new company concept will also help to shorten existing approval processes and timelines to bring such products to market. Deb meanwhile, is gearing down her involvement in real estate company Evelpis, LLC to devote more time to managing their donor advisory fund to further their philanthropic efforts.
Neither is using the word retired to define their status.
Deb (Stephens) Kalaritis ’78 Marketed Telecommunications Giants
Deb (Stephens) Kalaritis ’78 worked in the telecommunications industry in its heyday, when communications technology was rapidly developing. It was 1978, long before cell phones could be found in everyone’s pockets. A new Wilkes graduate, Deb went to work for industry giant AT&T.
“I was part of a marketing organization that was developed within AT&T,” Deb says. “I loved every day that I worked there.”
Focusing on business-to-business marketing of AT&T’s products, she was based in St. Louis while her husband completed his doctorate at Washington University. “My last job in St. Louis was implementing a private network for Southwestern Bell,” she recalls. The project was the largest electronic tandem network, or ETN, ever installed at the time. The terminology refers to technology used to route calls within a private company network.
Her efforts earned Deb a promotion to the Competitive Assessment Organization at AT&T’s headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J. and a position in the Management Development Program. During her time in New Jersey, she earned an MBA at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she would later teach as an adjunct professor. In 1988, when Panos accepted a positon with Abbott Laboratories in Chicago, Deb transitioned to the AT&T regional vice president’s staff.
In the Windy City, Deb made her next major career move, joining the technology consulting firm now known as Accenture. As marketing director, Deb helped position the global firm’s cutting-edge business solutions within the telecommunications industry.
“I interfaced with some amazing visionaries at Accenture,” Deb recalls. “Al Burgess was at the top of the pack. He was the global telecommunications visionary at Accenture. “
Burgess, who was a managing partner at the time, is credited with initiating several firsts during his career at Accenture, including the creation of the annual Customer Contact Forum in 1989, which is the global communications industry’s premier conference for senior-level executives.
“I would set up interviews for him with national and industry publications (Business Week, Newsweek, Telephony), and he could speak eloquently and brilliantly about anything to do with the telecommunications industry; absolutely an amazing man,” Deb says.
Panos’ move to South Carolina with Hoffman La Roche brought with it the opportunity to start her own marketing consulting firm, Mercury Communications. Accenture became one of her customers during the five years that she ran the firm.
More recently, Deb runs her second business start-up, Evelpis LLC, a real estate development and management company with vacation and residential rental properties in the Myrtle Beach, S.C., area. Evelpis is also parent to two partnerships with another Wilkes graduate, her brother, Joseph Stephens, Jr. ’79. Eline-Stephens focuses on commercial real estate in Maryland while Evelpis Aruba features vacation rentals at Desert Dolphin, an estate home in Aruba.
Deb also has turned her marketing acumen to philanthropic efforts ,including fundraising for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life and the Florence Symphony Orchestra. She says her philanthropic direction focused early in her career. Her parents had always been civic-minded but, she states, “My interest in philanthropy came from my time at AT&T where community involvement was an organizational objective.”