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Sailing Mirrors Life

Wes Wheeler ’78 Navigates an Uncharted Path

Wes Wheeler '78, wearing jeans and a blue shirt, stands beside the cabin of the Pilar, a 38-foot Wheeler Playmate boat like one owned by Ernest Hemingway

Wes Wheeler says he never thought of himself as a turnaround guy. But the pull to reinvigorate something forgotten, foundering, or just not living up to its potential has always been too strong to resist. Whether it’s a company or something as personal as a legendary boat from his family history, he sets his sights on something and finds a way.

In December 2019, when Wheeler accepted the role of president of UPS Healthcare, a new vertical business unit of UPS, he was looking forward to the challenge. As an experienced pharmaceutical industry leader, he was focused on running a new unit with more than 100 global locations, 6,000 employees, and a continued devotion to improving healthcare on a global scale. Then came COVID-19.

“I started in January,” he says, “and then the whole world went crazy.”

UPS Healthcare is now deeply involved in COVID-19 resources, and although each day brings a new challenge or problem, Wheeler is using a tactic that has served him well since his days at WPI. Part of his approach is how Wheeler thinks (how all engineers think, really, he says) of identifying a problem, breaking it down, and solving it successfully. The problem-solving process, especially when it has a successful impact, delivers the kind of satisfaction and results that led Wheeler to major in mechanical engineering at WPI.

His goal was clear from the start. “I wanted to be an engineer and wanted to go to a really top school,” he says. From his hometown of Port Chester, N.Y., Wheeler cast a wide net of college applications—from the University of Michigan to Syracuse.

“My dad [Wesley Wheeler ’54] was a graduate of WPI,” he says, recalling his familiarity with the school. “WPI was a top choice, and then it came in with a scholarship,” he says, noting that he put himself through school. “The scholarship was the deciding factor.”

WPI gave Wheeler the education he wanted and enjoyed. “I am humbled to have been a part of it,” he says. “It had a lot to do with how I started out.” The rigorous curriculum also developed his ability to plan and assess for the long term. Wheeler bucked family pressure to continue a marine-oriented career path, choosing instead to chart his own course.

Wes Wheeler's boat

When I was done, I realized the measurements gave me an exact copy of the boat, to the inch. I said, ‘I’m going to build one!

Wheeler’s great-grandfather founded the Brooklyn, N.Y.,–based Wheeler Shipyard Corporation (now Wheeler Yacht Company), which is most famous for its meticulous craftsmanship and legendary for designing and building Ernest Hemingway’s beloved Pilar, a 38-foot Wheeler Playmate on which he wrote The Old Man and the Sea and spent the last couple of decades of his life.

A devastating 1963 fire was the beginning of a quick end to the company’s operation, but the family legacy continued and clearly shaped how Wheeler has lived his life. “My family is a boating family,” he says, so he knows even the most well-planned journey can veer off course almost instantaneously.

About 10 years ago, an unexpected call began a domino effect that has led to the most remarkable outcome. Hilary Hemingway, niece of the author, was working on a movie about her uncle and needed a replica of his boat—fast. The movie was never completed but Wheeler’s ability to find a boat and have it restored for the movie sparked a flame for him. He and Hilary even traveled to Cuba to verify the authenticity of the original Pilar at the Hemingway museum, which he did with a series of precise measurements.

“When I was done, I realized the measurements gave me an exact copy of the boat, to the inch” says Wheeler, noting the original plans were lost in the fire, but with reverse engineering he could recreate it exactly. “I said, ‘I’m going to build one!’”

Thus began the dovetail of an intense career with an equally intense side interest.

Personal Attention and Rigorous Work

Although Wheeler Shipyards closed while Wes was still young, his father pursued a marine-focused consulting business and expected Wes to follow in his footsteps. But despite his lifelong passion for the ocean, boats, and sailing, this plan didn’t steer his overall career.

“I didn’t want to do that,” he says. “The marine business is a difficult one. It’s cyclical, and it’s not recession proof. I didn’t want to do what my dad did.” Instead, Wheeler followed his interests in mechanical engineering and fascination with thermofluids for the hybrid education for which WPI is so well known.

At WPI he also received the kind of one-on-one encouragement that made a profound difference in his college years. “Jim Boyd was my advisor,” he says, “and he had more to do with my education than anyone else. He always made time for me.”

The Comp was one of the defining moments of my life. It was tough, but I’ll tell you what—it defined me.

Boyd offered a distinctly engineering-based life perspective. “He brought everything back to the first law of thermodynamics,” says Wheeler. “It’s a simple equation of the conservation of energy. He made everything so simple, even though it was complicated, and I loved that about him.”

Like many WPI alums, Wheeler’s experience with the Competency Exam (Comp) presented a meaningful demarcation from college student to professional engineer. “The Comp was one of the defining moments of my life,” he says. “It was tough, but I’ll tell you what—it defined me.” The long (and internet-free) preparation for the “pass-or-do-not-graduate exam” was combined with the expectation of a precise oral defense.

“I was sorry to see it go,” he says. “It was an important part of the WPI Plan, and it all culminated in that. It made college meaningful. It wasn’t just about the technical side—it was about learning to control your time, putting together a document you could talk about. It had to be professionally written, defended, and presented. It was the equivalent of taking the bar to become a lawyer.”

Launching a Professional Journey

The confidence and knowledge gained from that professional-level challenge polished Wheeler’s problem-solving and presentation skills. He entered the job market with a clear idea of what he wanted.

“My dream job was to design power plants,” he says, yet he found himself accepting an offer with Exxon. The move was a powerful influence on his future career, and his devotion to Exxon is still evident as he reflects upon that journey. “I loved Exxon, and I cried when I left there,” he says. “I learned how to manage big, massive projects—including the memorable installation of two 35,000-ton oil platforms—and it defined my approach to my professional life.”

During his 12 years at Exxon, Wheeler rose through the ranks, relying upon the organization and self-discipline he learned on project work like his IQP and MQP.

Eventually, Wheeler felt stuck professionally. So when he received an out-of-the-blue call from a 919 area code (“I had to look it up in the telephone book. It was North Carolina—a place to stop for gas on the way to Florida,” he quips) and an offer from a small company called Glaxo, he was interested. “I took a pay cut and I took a chance,” he says, about the company and the pharmaceutical industry.

Pharmaceutical Work Leads to COVID-19

While at Glaxo, Wheeler helped launch 24 products and kicked off his own next phase. “Engineers don’t make it far in pharma,” he says. “So I got my MBA and crossed into the business side.”

As Wheeler navigated his career, he realized that his natural take-charge approach worked in many business applications. Moving into a CEO role for DSM Pharma in the Netherlands, Wheeler knew he was joining a company that had a plant that had been warned about poor quality practices. Rather than be intimidated or discouraged, he was invigorated by the idea of finding a solution. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll be a turnaround guy and fix it.’” Thus, his path became clearer.

Wheeler assumed the director of engineering role at Glaxo and then became vice president of marketing at GlaxoWellcome. He then held executive leadership roles at GlaxoSmithKline and Valeant Pharmaceuticals before becoming CEO of both Patheon and Marken, which is now a subsidiary of UPS Healthcare.

I never thought I would be a turnaround guy, but it’s what I’m known for. I know I could never take a job and turn the crank every day. I love being the CEO.

Wes Wheeler '78 sitting on his boat

He finds the pharmaceutical industry distinctive in both its product and process. “You’re talking about human health, so what you’re doing really matters,” he says. “You’re moving drugs, biologics, samples, and blood.” Because of his deep experience with large technical projects and his industry knowledge, he knew the role was a big opportunity. “It’s clinical and commercial. It’s a challenge. It’s something I know I can do,” he says, “and I can speak the C-level language about what healthcare’s about.”

Within a month of joining UPS Healthcare, Wheeler held Zoom calls all day to figure out the logistics of getting supplies around the world. As part of President Trump’s Task Force called Project Airbridge, UPS Healthcare jumped in in a big way, moving 20,000 tons of PPE from China and Asia on 230 chartered 747 freighter flights with FEMA.

“Every day we checked the latest—who needs PPE, what companies are doing test kits, where labs are located,” he says. “Meanwhile we’re trying to set up a division from scratch and develop a strategy. But we had to drop our pencils and go to work on COVID.”

Now, months later, Wheeler focuses on the efficient and safe global transport of tests, test kits, vaccines, and treatments—the timing, location, and scale of which are dynamic. UPS Healthcare is mapping out supply and trade routes and distribution plans to get vaccines out of countries where they are produced and into areas where clinical trials happen and—eventually—to the public. “We’re preparing for what we think might happen,” he says.

With some vaccines requiring constant storage and transport temperatures of -80º, logistics are complicated. UPS adopted the phrase “freezer farm” to describe the ways it uses equipment to manage the storage.

He didn’t expect to jump into the firestorm, but he relishes it. “I never thought I would be a turnaround guy, but it’s what I’m known for,” he says. “I know I could never take a job and turn the crank every day. I love being the CEO.” During a time of his life when many of his friends and colleagues are debating or pursuing retirement, Wheeler takes an opposite approach. In addition to leading UPS Healthcare through its initial year, he is also chairman of the board for Bushu Pharmaceuticals in Japan.

Boats, Pharma, and the Pursuit of Happiness

During all of his career moves, Wheeler has remained steadfastly devoted to recreating one of the most celebrated sportsfishing boats to ever exist. “You can’t not think of the Wheeler legacy when you’re in the family,” he says. “I wish my dad was alive to see this.”

You can’t not think of the Wheeler legacy when you’re in the family. I wish my dad was alive to see this.

Steering wheel on a boat

His mission to create a modern version of the Pilar led him to Bruce Marek and Bill Prince, yacht designers, and then to the Brooklin Boat Yard in Maine. He and his team have brought many custom pieces such as a searchlight from the Netherlands, a horn from the UK, and compass and gauges that look like the old pieces. Even the boat’s mahogany came from just two trees.

The attention to detail is both astounding and a love letter to the fine craftsmanship and elegance of a past era. It’s also a family affair as Wheeler’s wife, Marianne, chooses the details that upgrade the boat to the most modern environment with obvious roots in its storied past. “Everything on the boat was built by hand,” Wheeler says.

Last September, the boat took its first East Coast journey with Steve White, Brooklin Boat Yard’s owner, captaining and Wheeler joining for part of the time. In a twist of literary powerhouses, White happens to be the grandson of literary icon and Hemingway contemporary E.B. White, author of many popular books for children, including Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.

Although COVID has become all-consuming right now, Wheeler says this project might lead to a new career. “I hope I can do this once I’ve left my day job,” he says. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

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