French Revolution

Jul 01, 2009

"I have probably got six months to ask tough questions and push the boundaries before I fall in love with the company," Chris Viehbacher said last winter after taking over the top spot at Sanofi-Aventis. Whether or not Viehbacher has in fact fallen for the French firm only he can say, but it's clear from Sanofi's share price that Wall Street is a little smitten with Viehbacher. "Sanofi is one of the very few pharma stocks that is up for the year," says MillerTabak's Les Funtleyder. "As far as grading his job performance so far, the market is satisfied, and investors are happy." Shares have gained 9.8 percent in the past year, far outpacing the Dow Jones Health Index, which fell 9.6 percent. This is a reversal for a stock that had spent many months as the lamest among the big European pharmas.

Although still in the honeymoon phase, Viehbacher acts more like a suitor eager to prove himself. For all his careful talk about respecting Sanofi's culture, he's wasted no time in issuing a barrage of bold directives that are undoubtedly shaking the fourth-largest global drugmaker to its very foundations. Rarely has pharma witnessed such a high-stakes encounter between tradition and an agent of change.

A GSK Duel?

Viehbacher hit the ground at full sprint. Since taking over on December 1, he has done a flurry of deals, establishing Sanofi almost overnight as the number one generics maker in Latin America and earning the season's loudest buzz in oncology. He installed a new generation of leaders at the top. He spent a week in China, breaking ice, scoping opportunities, and proclaiming, "I am looking at this market as being at least as important as the United States."

Such statements have made Vieh-bacher one of the more quotable of pharma CEOs. The tall, lanky 49-year-old has dual Canadian-German citizenship, and his 20-plus years at GlaxoSmithKline, where he oversaw the French market before taking over North American business, turned him into what Nigel Keegan, an analyst at Royal Bank of Scotland, aptly described as "a transatlantic character."

Sanofi by Sales
But he wears his worldliness lightly. "I grew up in this little village east of Toronto. Most of my career decisions were made around getting as far from that little village as I could," Viehbacher says. "That's why I became a chartered accountant. Finance was just a means to an international career."

During the drama surrounding the megamergers at the beginning of the year, Viehbacher kept having to swat down persistent rumors about Sanofi-Aventis and Bristol-Myers Squibb. In a February interview with Forbes, he cast a cold eye on the trend. "If you get two ugly people, the odds of creating a beautiful child are small," he said. "Consolidation and taking out costs buys you time, but it does not get you to growth."

Evaluating Viehbacher's early moves at Sanofi, analysts have been quick to spot a GSK stamp: pursuing emerging markets, diversifying into generics and over-the-counter products, shifting from internal to external R&D, and refocusing a diffuse pipeline on hot diseases like oncology, neurology, and autoimmune disorders. "He's modeling the GSK playbook, turning a traditional science-based pharma into a consumer-focused healthcare company that can compete," says Stan Bernard of Bernard Associates.

But that may be too easy a reading of both Viehbacher and Sanofi. "What people don't realize is that Sanofi took steps very early on to grow out into the world," says Viehbacher. "We are the number one company in emerging markets. We are the first foreign company to go to China. We have manufacturing facilities throughout Africa."

Top-Selling Products
Sanofi's revenue derives in equal parts from the US, the EU, and the rest of the world (including Japan). Says Viehbacher: "We've got growth platforms like vaccines, OTCs, branded generics—an extremely strong global footprint in emerging markets that's ahead of everybody else. Everybody says they want to go there. But we're already there. We're in business while other companies are still trying to find their way from the airport to the hotel."

If Viehbacher sounds a bit defensive, it may be a sign of his growing affection for his new home. Plus, he has something to prove after losing the race to succeed Jean-Pierre Garnier at GSK in 2007. Yet based on his first six or seven months on the job, Viehbacher loses nothing by comparison to Andrew Witty. If anything, it's a tribute to GSK's commitment to leadership development that two of its veterans are each running a leading global pharma. But that only makes the competition that much more intense.

"Who wouldn't like to be able to say, 'Hey, you made a mistake when you didn't pick me?'" says Funtleyder.

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