Agnes Varis, 81; leader in generic drug industry

Agnes Varis, with her husband, was a philanthropist, who helped Tufts University’s veterinary school among others. Agnes Varis, with her husband, was a philanthropist, who helped Tufts University’s veterinary school among others. (Don Hogan Charles/New York Times/File)
By Margalit Fox
New York Times / August 5, 2011

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NEW YORK - Agnes Varis - a daughter of threadbare immigrants who parlayed a chemistry degree and $50,000 into a profitable drug company and in so doing became a prolific philanthropist whose causes included the Democratic Party, access to generic drugs, and access to opera - died last Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 81.

The cause was cancer, said her cousin Ted Leonsis, an entrepreneur who owns the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards basketball team.

Ms. Varis, a leading figure in the generic-drug industry, was the founder and longtime chief executive of Agvar Chemicals, based in Little Falls, N.J. The company supplies active ingredients to international drug makers. Privately held, Agvar has annual revenues between $50 million and $100 million, Bloomberg News reported in March.

A major Democratic contributor, Ms. Varis gave the party’s candidates millions of dollars over the years. As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2006, after the election of President Bush she paid tribute to his predecessor by adorning the front and rear of her Bentley with bumper stickers that read, “I miss Bill.’’

Ms. Varis’s long public advocacy of prescription-drug reform did little to endear her to the makers of those drugs. “Her roles as a drug executive, a Democrat, and a gadfly are not always easy to reconcile,’’ read a New York Times profile of Ms. Varis in 2003. That, from all appearances, was putting it mildly.

She helped draft the Hatch-Waxman Act of 1984, intended to ease generics’ passage to market. She also helped draft the Greater Access to Affordable Pharmaceuticals Act, which was intended to close loopholes in the 1984 law. The legislation, sponsored by Senators Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, was passed as part of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003.

Though Ms. Varis stood to gain financially from such legislation, she said in interviews that her chief concern was to put low-price prescriptions in the hands of those who needed them.

“The only way to make drugs affordable,’’ she said in the 2003 article, “is to stop brand people from being greedy.’’

An ardent opera and jazz fan, Ms. Varis was at her death a managing director of the Metropolitan Opera, a position to which she had been recruited by soprano and administrator Beverly Sills. In May 2010, Vanity Fair reported that she had given the company nearly $21 million.

At the Met, Ms. Varis’s best-known projects included the Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman Rush Tickets Program, which she and her husband inaugurated in 2006. The program makes orchestra seats available for $20 at many weekday performances. The seats normally cost $100 or more.

Ms. Varis also underwrote several Met productions, including its premieres in 2008 of Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha’’ and John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic.’’

Last year, President Obama appointed her to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

The youngest of eight children of Greek immigrants, Agnes Koulouvaris was born in Lowell Mass., and was reared in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. Her father, who sold ice cream from a pushcart, died when she was 14. Her mother, who could neither read nor write, sewed buttons in a garment factory.

The only one among the children to go to college, Agnes earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and English from Brooklyn College and later studied at the Stern School of Business at New York University. She shortened her surname to Varis on entering the business world.

Ms. Varis, who said she deliberately avoided learning to type so as never to drown in a typing pool, took a job as a chemist with Fine Organics, a New Jersey manufacturer of industrial cleaning compounds. While there, she founded New Jersey Business Executives Against the Vietnam War.

She became an executive vice president at Fine Organics before leaving to start Agvar with her life savings and her husband’s - $50,000. She later helped found Marsam Pharmaceuticals, a maker of injectable antibiotics, and Aegis Pharmaceuticals, a generic drug maker.

Ms. Varis’s husband died in 2009.