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Saturday, November 2, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Determination pays off for Corixa's CFO

Seattle Times business reporter

Michelle Burris


Title: Corixa chief financial officer

Age: 37

Previous jobs: Boeing, several strategic planning and management positions, October 1988 to January 1995; Cypress International, a Washington, D.C.-based defense consulting firm, research analyst, October 1985 to October 1988

Education: Master of Business Administration specializing in finance, Seattle University; bachelor's degree in statistics and marketing, George Mason University

At 22, Michelle Burris was digging up information for defense contractors on Capitol Hill. At 26, she was giving presentations to Boeing's chairman. At 29, she was hired to help turn a startup into one of Seattle's leading biotech companies.

She has made her name as an intensely focused strategist, but Burris' latest summer project really opened eyes. The 37-year-old chief financial officer of Corixa lined up $45 million to solidify the company during one of the worst financial climates ever for biotech.

It was one of only four private biotech investments of that size in the entire country this year, according to Pacific Growth Equities. Burris' boss, Chief Executive Steve Gillis, called it the "Miracle on Columbia Street" in a recent staff meeting at the company's First Hill offices.

Burris clearly didn't operate single-handedly. Investors are betting on Corixa's science, the odds its lead cancer drug will be approved, and her boss' track record as co-founder of Immunex. She did, however, bring her usual drive to the corralling of investors.

"Her attitude is, 'Here are the terms I want, here are the terms I'm going to get, let's do it tomorrow. If you can't, we'll find someone who will,' " said Stephen Graham, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, which has Corixa as a client. "She really knows how to go into a deal and get what she needs without giving away the store."

Burris said investors went for it because Corixa wasn't desperate for cash, and because it is a rare biotech company with a shot at making money quickly.

"In a down market, you can invest in a company like Corixa with one product near the finish the line and multiple other product opportunities; or you can invest in private company XYZ that's not public, you don't know what its valuation is based on, and there's no liquidation time frame," she said. "Where would you rather put your money?"

Roots in Georgia

Burris was born Michelle Griffin in August 1965 in Georgia, the youngest of three children of an Irish father and a German mother.

Her family moved several times when she was young, settling in the Washington, D.C., area when she was in fourth grade. She says her father made a "great decision" to switch from the Army into a civilian technology job in the Department of Defense, partly to avoid disrupting his children's schooling.

The household was strict, and the family was close. Saturday-morning chores were nonnegotiable. Her parents expected her best effort in school.

"I had parents who never said it's tough for a woman out there," Burris said. "They said I could do anything, and shouldn't limit myself."

Marlies Griffin said her youngest daughter has always been gifted with numbers. She recalls her in first grade, practicing multiplication tables with her father at dinner.

In college, Burris majored in statistics and marketing at George Mason University in Virginia, earned straight A's her first two years, then got a full-time job. She took night classes and was able to graduate with her class on time.

At the time, she worked for a defense-marketing firm, through military connections of her father. She said she wanted real-world experience and an edge in the job market. There, she dug out information on the status of defense contracts and learned the machinations of Congress. She was making more than $50,000 a year in the mid-1980s but left Washington "very cynical" about the political process.

Burris moved to the Northwest for a job with Boeing in defense, but quickly migrated to the commercial-airplane side. Boeing paid for her MBA at Seattle University, where she studied with her future husband, Mike Burris, who now heads airplane economics at Boeing.

She was one of the youngest people at Boeing ever to be on the senior management track.

By the mid-1990s, she was making strategic presentations to then-Boeing Chairman Frank Shrontz.

But Bob Mooney, a friend and president of the Staubach Co. commercial real-estate office in Seattle, knew Burris was restless at Boeing and uneasy about working for the same employer as her husband.

In 1994, while Mooney was handling real estate for Corixa, a new company led by Immunex co-founder Steve Gillis, he learned it needed someone to handle books and establish a business framework. He urged Burris to apply.

She was seven months' pregnant at the time and, other than doing some homework for the interview, was a biotechnology novice.

"She wasn't ready to be a CFO at the time," Gillis said. "But then we were six guys and a dog starting off. What we needed was someone to make the numbers work, a controller. She really grew in the organization. She's grown to the point where she's one of the pre-eminent CFOs in this business."

At Corixa, Burris has managed an initial public offering, helped raise more than $200 million in various financings and played a key role in acquiring four companies. She hasn't yet cracked Corixa's top five in compensation, a group of experienced scientists, but says she is being paid in line with industry standards.

Burris, now a mother of two in elementary school, said she feels the pressure of being a key decision maker at a fast-paced public company. She wants to be there for her kids' soccer games and plays as they grow up, but she doesn't have to do it all: She and her husband employ a nanny.

She golfs, skis, exercises three or four times a week and attends church on Sundays. Since she tends to go "all-out" in most activities, she is embarrassed by her golf handicap. She likes to break 100.

"If I made it more of a priority, I'd probably be OK," she said.

Balance with family

Burris said she's trying to better balance work and family and travel less. On a recent family vacation to Sun River, Idaho, she limited her connections to work but couldn't cut herself off.

In her office on Seattle's First Hill, she has numerous pictures of her children, who are in first and second grade in the Issaquah School District.

Griffin said her daughter also has a sensitive side. She still calls home every day, tears up quickly at sad images on television and still has ashes from a beloved dog and cat that died.

"She's very close with her family, and has always been a leader in our family," Griffin said. "Even with all her success, it's never gone to her head. I'm really proud."

At work, Burris expects other people to be well-prepared and driven.

Bernie Paul, Corixa's vice president of human resources, said Burris has some qualities like basketball coach Phil Jackson, in bringing out the best in high-ego professionals to create a greater whole. She also has a fiery side like that of former baseball manager Earl Weaver.

"People sometimes ask me, 'Can't you just relax and smell the roses?' " Burris said. "But this is how I relax. The way I look at it, life is a gift, OK? Remember that Army motto, 'Be all you can be'? That's my motto. It's stuck with me."

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com.

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