The group later went out for hamburgers. Rowena didn’t have any money, so she first declined to join the meal. But then Walter offered to pay for her meal, “which was probably 75 cents!” she says with a laugh. The two have been married for 52 years. “He’s the one with the sense of humor,” says Rowena Shaw of their partnership. “I am the very serious one.”
Rowena Shaw was a year ahead of her husband in college, so as he completed his degree, she worked at the University of Kentucky Medical School’s purchasing department as the assistant to the secretary of purchasing. “I took care of emergency purchase orders,” she says. “It taught me a lot for starting up [Avanti], because I created all the paperwork and everything.”
The Shaws then moved so Walter could pursue his master’s degree at The Ohio State University. By the time they got to Virginia so that Walter could take up his laboratory director position, their children were born, so Rowena stayed home to take care of them. In Alabama, she took on running Avanti’s daily operations full-time in 1978 and has been doing it ever since. Rowena is the vice president of the company.
Keeping Avanti ahead
Avanti now has 75,000 square feet of manufacturing and office buildings spread over 25 acres. The Shaws’ son, Trevor, has joined the family business. Their two daughters have chosen other careers.
Walter Shaw says Avanti has been successful because the company makes sure it can stand behind the quality of its products and always listens to its customers. “We used to just make a few simple phospholipids. Now we make a whole host of lipids, from sterols to neutral and biologically active lipids,” says Shaw. “All of these have evolved because the customer has come to us and asked, ‘Can you make this?’”
George Carman of Rutgers University says that, indeed, custom orders for specialized lipids are one of the best services the company offers. Carman was the 2012 recipient of the Avanti Award in Lipids that is given through the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and funded by Avanti.
Both Burgess and Rowena Shaw say Walter Shaw’s commitment to quality is what has helped Avanti earn its good reputation. Rowena Shaw recalls a time when she received inquiries from Europe about making lipids for cosmetics. Although the thought of the revenue was tantalizing, the Shaws decided against going into the cosmetics business, because it would mean making less pure lipids.
Because of Avanti’s commitment to quality and willingness to help customers, lipid researchers view the company as “more of a collaborator than a supplier,” says Daniel Raben of Johns Hopkins University, who heads the ASBMB’s Lipid Research Division. In line with its philosophy of always thinking of customers, says Walter Shaw, Avanti is a generous supporter of the ASBMB because many of his customers are members of the society. Starting in 2013, the ASBMB’s Lipid Research Division will give out a young investigator award in Walter Shaw’s name.