Emerging Pharma Leaders: David Ford

Jul 30, 2012

David Ford, Head of North American Human Resources Operations, Sanofi

Are there parallels between milk and medicine? To David Ford, a native New Zealander who now runs Sanofi's North America human resources operations but spent his early career working for his home country's Dairy Board, the answer is a qualified yes. Both industries are global, vertically integrated, customer oriented, closely regulated and — at least for most — an essential good. The big difference is that pharma earns its profits by saving lives. "What attracted me to this industry is that the metric of success is simple: bringing medical science forward to improve the state of health."

What Ford may not have anticipated when he joined the former Sanofi-Synthelabo in 2002 after completing an MBA at INSEAD is the pace of industry consolidation. Since then, his company has merged with another global Big Pharma player, Aventis, and absorbed multiple smaller businesses. The new Sanofi is today the world's third largest drug company by revenue, with one of the most diversified asset portfolios.

The transition to new business models has upended many of the old assumptions that talent and learning are fixed and finite. Market churn has created rich opportunities for those with transferable skills and an appetite for risk, but it has also exacted a human toll for those reared in a culture of predictable returns and lifetime employment. "The real challenge for the industry today is adjusting to an era where growth is not a given. My first years at Sanofi Synthelabo, as human resources director in the UK, coincided with the peak sales period of a breakthrough product, Plavix. My task then was to rally, recruit, and build, while today it's about rethinking our talent base and finding not more people but the right people."

In 2005, Ford moved from the United Kingdom to join the senior management ranks of the merged Sanofi-Aventis, as human resources VP for the company's global pharmaceutical operations. It was a pivotal time as the merged company needed to consolidate and restructure its combined country operations. Here Ford learned the vital role that country managers play in a global businessÑif you can't execute well locally then the best corporate strategy is little more than a door stop.

In 2009, Ford was asked by new CEO Chris Viehbacher to serve as global project leader for "transforming talent." This was a signature issue for Viehbacher, linked to his strategy of creating a diversified enterprise with footprints in virtually all sectors of healthcare: drugs, innovative and non-branded; vaccines; OTC; and veterinary. To accomplish this goal, Viehbacher knew the company would require a different kind of leader, one that could collaborate across business lines, establish strong internal and external networks, and be open to different management cultures and points of viewÑall the while maintaining a keen focus on company priorities and executing for results.

"I was responsible for developing a talent agenda to advance the company's vision around diversification, one where one business would not dominate the others," said Ford. "We redesigned our performance evaluation and reward structure to move away from command-and-control management and replaced it with training and incentives to promote collaboration, networking, and people development." Emphasis was placed on identifying promising managers from all functions and geographies and then supplementing their progress with assignments that took them out of their comfort zones and allowed for exposure to other business segments. One of Ford's achievements was the establishment of a China Talent Center to get out in front of the competition through closer liaison with all sources of local talent, giving Sanofi first dibs in attracting new staff to counter the impact of a high attrition rate, particularly on the detailing side. The approach is now being adapted in other emerging markets.

Here in the United States, Ford is pursuing much the same goal, to complete the HR integration of three major recent acquisitions: the Merial animal health business; Chattem, a maker of OTCs; and, most recently, the biotechnology giant Genzyme. "Critical to the success of these acquisitions is looking at the talent base and to create a sense of excitement and opportunity. We need to move toward standardization and harmonization, while still having some flexibility among the constituent parts."

What advice does Ford have for young pharma managers? He cites three attributes essential to progress. First is the willingness to take on changeÑthere are no fixed rules; complexity and context is all. Second, distill that complexity into priorities understood by those who work with you. Third, be a good communicator. "Clarity of thought is a prize in every situation but especially when your mandate is global."

— William Looney