Author: Kurt Greenbaum


About Kurt Greenbaum

As communications director for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to find and share great stories about our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I'm also a U College adjunct faculty member in communications. I've worked for the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management as communications director and as a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sun-Sentinel in South Florida and the Chicago Tribune.

Nina Leigh Krueger

Cat litter isn’t sexy, but it can earn you some scratch—especially when you think out of the … um … box. Nestlé Purina PetCare CEO Nina Leigh Krueger tells the go/no-go story of a kitty innovation in our latest On Principle podcast.

For most of her career with Nestlé Purina PetCare, Nina Leigh Krueger had worked on the pet nutrition side of the business. When the WashU Olin alumna joined the company’s cat litter group to lead its marketing, she found she was a fish out of water—and facing a challenge with a high sales goal in a stagnating business. Leadership, questioning whether or not to exit the business, challenged her to make or break the line. 

Our story sets the stage for that pivotal moment and goes on to share the work she did in building and creating a team dynamic that was creative in its thinking. Then, once Krueger understood how the team worked, how could she blow that up and identify paths to pursue in the business? Could she renovate an existing product or find something totally new to build from the ground up? 

In addition, she did something marketers rarely do and offered up her marketing budget to R&D to help spur growth through product development. And she gave the scientists a seat at the table to listen to consumers. 

The kernel of the idea for lightweight litter came from one of those scientists. They began to toy with potential solutions. A prototype was created using corn husks. A year later, Krueger was promoted to president of the litter business, and it was time to accelerate the work toward lightweight litter. 

The end of the story? Success and a challenge from Krueger to make the company’s litter division—near extinction a couple of years earlier—into a billion-dollar business. That milestone came when the brand reached $1 billion in sales in 2020. 



WashU Olin’s Center for Analytics and Business Insights is on the cusp of creating a machine-learning tool to flag suspicious opioid sales, just as government lawyers announced a multibillion-dollar settlement against three major drug distributors—a settlement that requires a database to track the destination of every opioid dose.

Analyzing a database of more than 400 million opioid transactions from the US Drug Enforcement Administration—a database that includes 277,000 buyers from 2006 to 2012—Olin researchers are building an algorithm that would help law enforcement officials identify shady opioid transactions in the future. The Olin scholars are working to understand key differences in the characteristics and behaviors of convicted buyers who they have identified in the data set to that of unconvicted buyers to inform their model-building approach.

“We want to ‘learn’ what variables distinguish the ‘bad’ buyers from the ‘good’ buyers,” said Seethu Seetharaman, Olin’s W. Patrick McGinnis Professor of Marketing and co-director of the Center for Analytics and Business Insights. “Once we learn the important variables that distinguish bad buyers from good buyers, we train a machine-learning algorithm to take these variables for a given buyer and give a probability score of that buyer being a bad buyer.”

Research to support policy recommendations

Seetharaman, along with CABI co-director Michael Wall, is collaborating with Luoyexin (Annie) Shi, an Olin PhD student in quantitative marketing, on the analysis. The research underpins the first of three projects by the Olin-Brookings Commission. This first project centers on the opioid crisis and what policy measures are needed to confront it long-term.

The entire initiative was made possible by a $750,000 grant from The Bellwether Foundation Inc. This first commission, like the next two, is charged with tackling topics affecting the quality of life for people in St. Louis and across the country.

Seetharaman said the team’s work on the DEA data has quickly shown promise as a law enforcement tool to flag transactions that divert often legitimate prescription therapies toward illicit uses.

“Using the predictive algorithm, the DEA could predict a buyer’s probability of being a bad buyer,” he said. “This way, the DEA can allocate their human and capital resources wisely among high-value leads.”

A well-timed approach

The results come just weeks after lawyers for states, cities and counties plagued by staggering numbers of opioid deaths announced a tentative $26 billion settlement against three distributors of pharmaceutical painkillers: McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. The settlement would also include Johnson & Johnson, which no longer supplies raw material for opioids or sells such painkillers in the United States.

“Under the deal, the three distributors, which control 85 to 90% of the market, are required to establish and fund a ‘clearinghouse’ that shows where every opioid dose is headed,” The Washington Post wrote in its report on the settlement. “They must check the database before sending out each shipment of pills and hold theirs back if it appears that the recipient is asking for an extraordinary amount of drugs, a typical sign that some are being diverted and sold on the street.”

According to The Post, more than 100 billion prescription hydrocodone and oxycodone pills were distributed in the United States from 2006 to 2014. Last year, approximately 69,700 people died of overdoses involving opioids in the United States.

Shi said the database she’s analyzing—known as ARCOS, or Automated Reports and Consolidated Ordering System—covers the sale of 14 main varieties of opioids. Those can be further broken down into 170 kinds of substances, and further broken down into 9,133 different products.

The inaugural Olin-Brookings Commission includes a dream team of data scientists, law enforcement authorities, medical professionals and addiction experts with years of industry and policy experience between them. Commission chair Anthony Sardella—founder of evolve24, Olin faculty member and CABI research advisor—serves as a critical conduit between research efforts and the expertise of the commission.

In their current project, supported by CABI, the group is charged with identifying strategies for combatting the epidemic of opioids and recommending any changes in local, state and federal policy that might help curb the problem and sharpen the response from experts.

The commission’s next meeting is set for August 19. The group intends to issues its final report and policy recommendations in early 2022.

In the summer of 2017, a data breach occurred at Atlanta-based credit bureau Equifax affecting the records of more than 140 million consumers in the United States. The company announced the incursion in September, arguably one of the largest such breaches in history at the time, giving hackers access to private information—names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, credit card numbers, even driver’s license numbers.

​“We had people being attacked publicly, people avoiding mentioning the fact that they worked for Equifax.”

Into that scene, WashU Olin alumnus Paulino do Rego Barros Jr. stepped as the company’s interim CEO, charged with managing the fallout from the situation. Employees were scared as they faced furious backlash—even threats from consumers. Systems were overloaded as consumers flooded the firm’s call centers and websites. “The building was on fire,” do Rego Barros said.

In this episode, we examine the steps he and his colleagues took to confront the situation and begin to restore trust among consumers, customers, regulators and policymakers. While avoiding the regulatory and legal issues—these won’t be relitigated in this episode—we focus on three primary decision points: Engaging with employees, engaging and reassuring consumers (e.g., individuals), and doing the same with customers (e.g., banks and other institutions).

The subject remains topical today as companies and institutions continue to be vulnerable to data breaches that expose private consumer information. What decisions had to be made in the immediate aftermath of the breach? What were the implications? How does a business re-establish trust with customers under those circumstances? Then, once the immediate fire is quelled, how do you propel the business into a better place?

Listen to more of On Principle’s first season.

MItch, Karen and Sam Margo.

Karen Margo, who followed a stellar career in banking with nearly 29 years of alumni development work for WashU Olin, died July 17, 2021, after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

After joining Olin Advancement in 1985, Ms. Margo was appointed executive director of development for the business school in 2009. Renowned for her talent for making and cultivating relationships with Olin alumni, parents and friends of the business school, Ms. Margo was herself an alumna after earning her MBA from WashU in 1979.

Ms. Margo was beloved by Olin staff, faculty and alumni and had an extraordinary talent for fundraising on behalf of the business school. During her years working for University Advancement on behalf of Olin Business School, she was known for tripling scholarship support and increasing Olin’s endowment to $309 million—a sixfold increase under her tenure. She retired from the role in 2014.

“Over the past 30 years, I believe the Olin School has had the good fortune to have the best director of development at any business school in the country,” David Blasingame, AB ’69/MBA ’71, said in a story in the 2014 edition of Olin Business magazine. Blasingame was WashU’s former executive vice chancellor for alumni and development programs and Margo’s predecessor in the role at Olin.

Karen Margo with former Olin Dean Mahendra Gupta.

Prior to her promotion to executive director, Ms. Margo collaborated with Olin leadership and volunteers, driving the school’s participation in the Campaign for Washington University, where the effort led to contributions in excess of $142 million—exceeding an initial goal of $105 million—for the school.

“Through her long career here, she has helped us realize our vision as a school, and she has built a strong team of fundraising professionals who have learned from her thoughtful and gentle approach to fundraising,” Mahendra Gupta, former Olin dean and the Geraldine J. and Robert L. Virgil Professor of Accounting and Management, said in Olin Business magazine.

At her retirement party, Olin Dean Emeritus Robert L. Virgil, MBA ’60/DBA ’67, announced an endowed scholarship fund in her name. More than $1 million in gifts and pledges had been received within three months of the announcement.

“You also have made a legion of friends,” Virgil said in his tribute. “Every place in America. Around the globe. Alumni. Parents. Companies. Staff. Faculty. People you have recruited, developed, and launched on their own successful careers in development. You are their model.”

Prior to joining Olin, Ms. Margo was president of the Mark Twain Bank in Fenton, Missouri, and earlier earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Lawrence University. She was the salutatorian for her class upon graduating from both St. Lawrence and WashU.

No funeral or memorial service has been planned at this time. Ms. Margo is survived by her husband Mitch, son Sam and his fiancée Eva Gonzalez, her sisters Beverly Brown and Barb Romig, and her brother David Miller and his wife Carol.

Pictured at top: Mitch, Karen and Sam Margo.

Lisa Hu (dark hair falling to the side of her face, white dress with a lilac jack draped over her shoulders)

How do you decide to toss aside one vision of your career for another one—especially when the new path is littered with failure? Lisa Hu’s journey into fashion entrepreneurship as a designer of high-end women’s handbags.

Hu, PMBA ’16, failed at least 40 times before succeeding. It’s as simple as that. The founder of Lux and Nyx, maker of handbags designed for “jet-setter luxury and boardroom quality,” had the idea in mind, and worked on it while ascending the corporate ladder. Yet she failed over and over to find the right manufacturer to execute the vision she had in her mind.

She tried doing it herself. She hired a seamstress. She looked at professional bagmakers—all the while, collecting prototypes that didn’t fill the bill. Mind you, all this was happening while she was still working as finance director for a large corporation. At some point, the process became unsustainable. The moment came. She had to make the leap. It was all or nothing for this handbag. She quit the corporate world in October 2017 and focused exclusively on Lux and Nyx.

In some ways, this is a story about being unwilling to compromise. She wasn’t fulfilled in the corporate world. She wasn’t satisfied with the first 40 prototypes for the bag she envisioned. That may be what she means when she says the pivotal moment was the moment when she found her “ultimate voice.” “It was never really about just bags—it was what the bag made possible,” she said. “It made possible an emerging community of rock-star women, moving fluidly through daily challenges with confidence.”

Cliff Holekamp, founder of Cultivation Capital, WashU Olin alum (MBA ’01) and former director of Olin’s entrepreneurship platform, lends professional perspective to a story that carries a lot of … well, a lot of baggage.

Listen to Hu’s story, coming July 13.

See the Lux and Nyx website. The site includes Lisa’s story.

Tony Sardella and Paolo De Bona, MBA

Metoprolol combats high blood pressure. Furosemide is used in treating congestive heart failure and liver disease. Midazolam is essential before doctors put patients on a ventilator. Azithromycin fights infections.

All are commonly used and, indeed, classified as essential by the US Food and Drug Administration. None are manufactured in the United States. And all of these and more have come into critically short supply—some in the last decade, some in the last year, some right now.

The solution: Take some difficult steps to bring the production of critical pharmaceuticals back within the borders of the United States, according to a new research study by data scientists associated with WashU Olin.

Tony Sardella is an adjunct lecturer and senior research advisor to Olin’s Center for Analytics and Business Insights. Paolo De Bona, PMBA ’20, is a consultant and formerly a staff scientist at WashU’s School of Medicine. Together, the pair conducted an extensive review of academic research, media reports and public policy statements to discern the causes of chronic pharmaceutical shortages in the United States and develop policy solutions to address them.

“These drugs are not just in shortage. They’re essential medications for patient care,” said Sardella, also founder of the data research and intelligence firm evolve24. “And currently the economics are not conducive for US based production.”

The work has gained the attention of policymakers in Washington, DC, and compelled the pair to join with the Brookings Institution in hosting a public forum on the subject. The webcast event, open to the public, is June 11, 12:30 – 1:30 p.m. CT.

Overview of results

In their review, Sardella noted that, in many cases, drug shortages didn’t become urgent because the international supply chain was essentially resilient enough to mask them. But the issue became painfully acute during the global pandemic, when borders closed and governments or private industry kept the supply of chronically scarce drugs within their own borders.

“The risks from not having domestic sources for these drugs weren’t as significant before,” Sardella said. But once the pandemic hit, “what was a public health issue became a national security risk as well.”

In their paper, Sardella and De Bona make the case that the dynamics of the pharmaceutical industry are unique and often disincentivize new players from entering the field. Indeed, those dynamics reward mergers as industry players get bigger to compete. The result, often, is that international players scoop up what were once domestic drug producers.

Their research also identified another weakness in the pharmaceutical supply chain: a deeply fragmented industry in which many players survive on thin profit margins. That leads to just-in-time merchandising, which creates vulnerabilities in drug supplies.

For example, the researchers noted that for every $100 spent on medicine, manufacturers yield $15, wholesalers make 30 cents, pharmacies make $3, insurers make $3 and pharmacy benefit managers make $2. The rest is eaten by production costs.

“This low profitability was responsible for several M&A activities, which in turn led to high consolidations that resulted in three large wholesalers accounting for more than 85% of the current market,” the researchers wrote.

Incentivizing domestic drug manufacturing

Their paper acknowledges deep concern over the notion of drawing more drug production back within US borders. Some of that concern focuses on systemic issues, not the least of which is the reliance by all drug makers—foreign and domestic—on overseas sources of the raw materials for many drug formulations.

“That is the most challenging issue—to get that kind of production back here—because they rely on big chemical factories requiring extensive capital investment,” Sardella said. “That would be part of a massive change.”

Ultimately, Sardella’s and De Bona’s proposed solution to the problem includes a host of policy and funding recommendations. Some are highly technical, such as redefining what “made in America” means in the context of drug production in order to guard against unfair competition for federal drug contracts by foreign manufacturers.

Others are literally dollars-and-cents proposals.

“The government should support reshoring by giving financial aids, such as tax credits and forgivable loans, to build or renovate production plans,” the pair wrote. “However, the government should increase transparency in the grant assigning process and establish criteria to determine which company would offer a stable and reliable supply based on its track record.”

In addition, the data scientists suggest policy changes such as creating streamlined approval processes for new production facilities and avoiding the practice of creating guarantee contracts with manufacturers. Those contracts, they say, can limit the supply for certain medications and undermine the resilience of the supply chain.

“From our analysis, shortages of essential drugs and dependence from potentially hostile countries constitute very close but distinct issues that may require separate actions,” the researchers wrote.

Pictured above: Tony Sardella and Paolo De Bona, MBA ’20.