Thought about this experience the other day as I was thumbing through my longtime friend Don Bolden’s new book about the history of LabCorp, Alamance County’s largest employer and a global giant in medical testing. Yes, LabCorp is headquartered in downtown Burlington but its branches spread throughout the community — and the nation. Indeed, specimens for testing are flown into the airport off Alamance Road 24 hours a day. The work done at LabCorp, much of it in Burlington at its mega-lab right on the city’s border with Elon, is a fascinating operation. Don gives a nice overview of how the company started and evolved into what it is today. It’s beginnings start, as many do in stories concerning the “American Dream,” with the premise, “why not?”.
LabCorp is not without controversy, the latest a class-action lawsuit reported in the Times-News over the past few days. And it’s a company with a lot of proprietary information — most research and medical firms are. It keeps a lot of information closely guarded by design.
But in the fall of 2013 they offered a handful of us from the newspaper a tour of the massive lab on York Court. It was thoroughly scheduled and guided. We saw only what they wanted us to. That was to be expected. It was still interesting. I wrote my thoughts about it in October of 2013.
The first thing I notice about Mike Roberts is that he pronounces the name of the company he works for correctly.
In fact, he makes sure of it.
Every single time in the first 10 minutes after I meet him, it’s on the money. “LabCorp” — emphasizing that final “p.”
LabCorp, of course, is short for Laboratory Corporation of America. But no one ever calls Alamance County’s largest employer by its full name. The company’s distinctive and neat corporate logo in blue letters clearly states, “LabCorp.”
But how it’s actually said is another matter entirely. Note that it doesn’t read as LabCorps, like, for example, Marine Corps. Thus, it’s not supposed to be pronounced “Labcore,” which is the way most tend to say it.
Drives me crazy and always has. I have pet peeves like that. It’s an occupational hazard. Put it this way, I refuse to eat at Dunkin’ Donuts because I can’t bring myself to do business with a company that intentionally misspells its primary product.
For those unaware, there is no such entity as a “donut.” It’s spelled d-o-u-g-h-n-u-t.
So shortly before we began a tour of the company’s sprawling and impressive York Court campus of high-tech laboratories in Burlington last week, I took Roberts aside and told him how much I appreciated his attention to detail.
“Dr. Powell insisted on it. When I started here he told me ‘LabCorp … it’s not like the Peace Corps.’”
Roberts was referring to Dr. James Powell, the founder of LabCorp, a business he famously began in a hospital basement in Burlington. It’s now a company that leads the nation in medical testing of all kinds. It employs around 31,000 people nationwide and more than 3,000 in Alamance County — 1,500 of those at York Court. Thousands of medical tests on specimens are conducted each day there. Thousands.
By coincidence, Roberts is telling me this as we stand in the kind of building you see in science fiction movies — tall, bright, impeccably clean with architectural lines unfettered by needless ornamentation. It’s also fabulously clear of extraneous clutter found in most workplaces. They call it the Powell Building. Actually, it’s Powell South. It was completed in 2012 and made the York Court site LabCorp’s largest laboratory and one of the largest in the world. Ultimately we’ll tour Powell North before the night is done.
Roberts is leading this particular adventure that includes three people from the LabCorp media team, Times-News publisher Paul Mauney and reporter Molly McGowan. Roberts is the general manager and senior vice president of esoteric laboratories — the backbone of LabCorp’s operations. He’s been with the company for 31 years.
We compared notes as the tour began. Roberts is a 1977 Williams High graduate, which would make him my age. I decided that he looks a good 10 years younger than I do, which made me ponder whether fountain of youth experiments are going on here. Roberts was raised in a textile family — his mom worked for Burlington Industries, his dad was a supervisor for McCuiston Fabrics in Haw River.
The irony of his work in the industry that replaced textiles as the economic engine for Alamance County isn’t lost on Roberts as we visit sterile work sites embedded along endless corridors.
This particular tour is more than a month in the making. LabCorp reached out to the newspaper as summer headed toward fall. Relations between the two entities separated by only a few yards and a stoplight in downtown Burlington haven’t always been the best. Sounds ridiculous when you think about it. I believe they sometimes see us as too negative in our coverage, that we could do more about the company’s contributions to area education, healthcare and the arts. From our perspective, they seem sometimes too unwilling to answer questions and don’t always tell us about the good stuff they do.
Both sides have fair points. We all quickly agreed to as much during a meeting at LabCorp’s headquarters in early September. This is how compromises are reached.
Anyone in Raleigh or Washington paying attention?
So I looked forward to the tour of the York Court campus for some time. So much so that I was willing to miss game one of the World Series — featuring my team, the St. Louis Cardinals — to be there.
As it turned out, I gained a lot by taking the tour and didn’t miss a thing in bypassing the game.
I learned, for example, that LabCorp operates its lab 24 hours a day. There is seldom a time when testing of one kind or another isn’t being done there. It has equipment that takes automation to the levels seen in “Star Trek.” It has a lot of signs that warn of “biohazards.” Its lab technicians are on the ground level of healthcare’s good and bad news for patients — and that the bad news, like when an unknown patient has cancer — takes a powerful toll on the people doing the testing. And I learned that LabCorp’s goal is to efficiently conduct tests and disperse results to help doctors, hospitals and patients.
“We see ourselves as partners in health care,” Roberts said several times on our tour.