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Starting out with limited pharma business knowledge, how the lessons learned and realizations made helped to forge a destined—and globe-spanning—leadership path for Christophe Bourdon, where today, as CEO of LEO Pharma, he is tasked with steering the longtime company’s return to profitability.
For the past two years, Christophe Bourdon has been CEO in relatively quick succession for two companies: first at the small biotech Orphazyme A/S and now at midsize LEO Pharma. His extensive experience prior in roles of increasing responsibility in large pharma with Sanofi, Amgen, and Alexion—along with his own closely-held values—prepared his journey through the CEO door.
Bourdon has managed extremely large business revenues, including Amgen in Germany, the largest in the European market. France, Norway, and Central and Eastern Europe for Amgen were also foundational to his roles at Alexion, where he headed Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), as well as Canada, representing one-third of the company’s revenues and responsibility for 40 countries. His ability to empathize with the patient experience, impact the physician’s role, and understand the intricacies of healthcare delivery on a global basis were critical in shaping these roles, says Bourdon.
When he was hired at LEO Pharma last year, the 114-year-old company was on the tail end of a five-year transformation plan. It began with the resignation of a long-time CEO in 2019, the passing of the torch to another CEO for an additional two years, and culminated with Bourdon taking the reins in April. He was tasked with bringing the company’s transformation to fruition, and continuing momentum forward.
“The company had decided to accelerate the pace of innovation with a clear vision to upgrading its portfolio through in-licensing,” Bourdon tells Pharm Exec. “In 2023, the very short-term plan is to deliver operating profit [for] the first time since 2018. And then we will continue the journey of profitable growth and of being a leader for innovation in medical dermatology.”
At LEO Pharma, Bourdon relies on his three-core values of curiosity, optimism, and conviction, layered with approachability, authenticity, and transparency to inform his leadership approach.
Curiosity allowed Bourdon to look at the legacy organization, with a strong reputation, he says, for success and integrity, to understand its history.
“LEO Pharma is not a biotech that was created in Boston in an open space two weeks ago,” he notes. “You need to understand the past because you cannot start from a blank sheet of paper.”
To that end, Bourdon took the time to learn about his employees in a more relatable way.
“On my first day to Ballerup (the company’s Denmark home base), which is about 20 [kilometers] from where I live in Copenhagen, I took the subway. I showed up on the first day carrying my own bag and coming from the subway station, and I’m not sure the employees had seen many CEOs showing up like that,” recalls Bourdon. “But I remember overhearing them riding to work on their bicycles, [saying,] ‘Hey, that’s the new CEO coming by train.’ And they welcomed me. People like to identify with you. And I think that’s exactly what the company needed.”
In addition, he regularly lunches in the canteen because he believes that surrounding himself with people from different parts of the company allows him to listen and learn from them as well as foster an environment of open communication and approachability.
This approachability comes full circle to support Bourdon’s optimism.
“To share that optimism with employees that are five years into a transformation, they want to hear the CEO be optimistic,” he says. “Is the CEO convinced there is a path forward? Is it clear what success looks like at the end? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Why should I stay at LEO Pharma? It is the CEO that is the ambassador of the path forward.”
Approachability, he contends, also inspires the organization’s employees to be a part of the collective and be inspired by Bourdon’s conviction.
“An organization is a team sport,” explains Bourdon. “As a CEO, it is critical in my role that an environment where people can be their best is created—that there is no fear in flagging issues and a strong desire to win collectively.”
He believes the nature of people is to want to succeed.
“LEO is a brand that stands for integrity and quality, and it is well recognized among the dermatology community,” adds Bourdon. “People want to see what kind of impact they can have in this journey—how can they help this 114-year-old European midsize company transform itself to the leader in dermatology?”
Prior to LEO Pharma, Bourdon joined Orphazyme, based in Copenhagen, in March 2021 as CEO when everything in biotech seemed on the up. But as many know, that can easily change due to circumstances out of your hands. Orphazyme had submitted a new drug application for a therapeutic to treat Niemann-Pick type C, an ultra-rare orphan hereditary neurogenerative disease, with a Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA) date of June 17, 2021. However, instead of preparing for commercialization, the company received a complete response letter from FDA, leaving newly-minted Bourdon exploring any and all options. Those included a costly potential regulatory pathway forward, a company restructuring, bankruptcy, or sale.
If this wasn’t enough to test any CEO, there was a strange meme stock-induced social media escapade involving a 300% value jump of Orphazyme shares just days prior to the PDUFA decision (with Reddit speculating a PDUFA decision leak). Bourdon quickly addressed the viral spin with a direct and transparent statement, which forwardly reminded shareholders of the very strict rules around trading stocks.
But ever the optimist, Bourdon reflects on what he learned from leading Orphazyme.
“When you have money and good news, it’s easy,” he tells Pharm Exec. “But when there is a problem, it’s super tough… There is a moment of truth where every minute counts. The way you show up in front of your team, the way you look your team in the eyes—you cannot give up as a CEO.”
There have been key moments during Bourdon’s career that affirmed that pharma was the right place for him. He entered the industry serendipitously while studying business administration in Japan and landing an internship at Hoechst, which was right across the street from his school.
Bourdon, who was born in France to a German mother and French father, headed back home seven years later to take up his MBA. When Aventis was being created in 1999 from the merger of the French company Rhone-Poulenc SA and the German corporation Hoechst Marion Roussel, the CEO was looking for a chief of staff. “Being French and German, obviously, that made me ideal for the role,” says a smiling Bourdon. While serving as chief of staff in Germany for two years, overseeing the strategy and financial piece of the integration, he realized he truly wanted to stay on the pharma path.
“They said, ‘you have no clue about this business,’” says Bourdon; so, off he went to learn the commercial part of the industry.
Bourdon became a sales representative for Aventis, “carrying the bag” for a year in France. Another clarifying moment came with his physician interactions.
“I was unsure in the beginning…I wasn’t a scientist or a doctor. Why would a doctor listen to me?” recalls Bourdon. “But doctors draw upon a breadth of experience when they see patients—they need to know everything about many diseases. And the rep doesn’t have the breadth, but they do have the depth on a very specific disease, product, or topic. And informing those depths, the doctor then can see the rep as someone [who] provides useful information.”
With this realization reinforcing Bourdon’s decision to stay in pharma, he went on to gain marketing experience.
His last role at Sanofi (which merged with Aventis in 2004) was general manager of Norway. “I was 34, and it was my first position as head of an affiliate, which is almost similar to getting the keys to your first small company,” explains Bourdon.
He thought if one were to fail at the GM job at a smaller affiliate, the damage would not be too large; but if you win, then points will be scored.
“My team, they were saying, ‘Oh no, here come the French.’ And one of the medical directors said, ‘Christophe, I don’t yet know exactly why you are the leader, but don’t behave like Napoleon. You need to involve us in the decision-making process.’”
Bourdon leaned into this leadership advice.
At this point, Bourdon had rounded his business acumen. It wasn’t until he was appointed executive director for the business unit for oncology/hematology in France for Amgen that he experienced additional clarity around his choice to be in an industry that could make a difference. When Bourdon took the role in 2008, he spent a week with an oncologist who wanted him to understand the oncology patient experience.
“I was invited to sit behind the doctor during a consultation. It was with an old couple, and the man was diagnosed with metastatic colorectal cancer,” says Bourdon. “It was then I realized, when a patient is diagnosed with cancer, they don’t come alone to the oncologist. And I remember exactly the way the man and his wife were holding hands during the 30 minutes in front of the oncologist...You could see in their eyes they were so scared. Then the doctor said, ‘we’re going to try something. We have a good product from Amgen, and this guy’s actually working at Amgen.’ It was one of the very proud moments when I could really see the impact we have on patients.”
This mixture of humbleness and hope for others contributed to Bourdon’s long tenure with Amgen, from four years spent in France, to general manager in Central and Eastern Europe, and then vice president and general manager for Germany. He would then join Alexion, serving in two roles in Switzerland—first as vice president of midsize markets, EMEA, and then as senior vice president across the same regions, plus Canada. Throughout his cross-European and Asian experiences, Bourdon learned about countries’ differences in healthcare systems and GDP healthcare spend, access to therapies for patients, inequitable standards of care, and how to engage with payers, governments, and physicians to influence innovation and understand or elevate those standards of care through clinical trials and research.
While Amgen offered patient insights into the oncology experience, Alexion provided Bourdon an understanding of rare diseases. He recognized those moments for people with rare diseases, who struggle for years to see the right doctor and be diagnosed properly. In Alexion’s case, one focus was around its drug Soliris for the treatment of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria—a rare, acquired, life-threatening disease of the blood, characterized by destruction of red blood cells, blood clots, and impaired bone marrow function. For three years, Bourdon helped payers, regulators, and country heads understand there was no therapeutic option for these patients besides Soliris.
“We helped them to identify patients and understand the patient journey,” says Bourdon.
In January 2018, he returned to Amgen, but this time based in the US, first as VP of the US oncology business and then SVP. He would learn more about the complex healthcare market in North America, which he described as efficient for innovation but inefficient from a cost perspective.
“You have access to the best doctors in the best centers, especially in oncology. But the very fragmented healthcare market means, unfortunately, the best is not available to everyone in the US,” says Bourdon. Here, he learned to ensure that the key decision-makers of payers, providers, and networks understood the critical value drivers of his company’s therapies.
During his three years in Amgen in the US, he spent the latter one working from home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bourdon then left the US and Amgen to join Orphazyme in Copenhagen. The move filled both a professional desire to take on an impactful role at a smaller company and a personal desire, amid the stresses of the pandemic, to relocate back to his and his partner’s European roots.
At Pharma 2022 in Nice, France in October, Bourdon spoke in his keynote, and later to Pharm Exec, about his task to crystallize and implement LEO Pharma’s vision. It included 1) how to be innovative as a midsize pharma; 2) to redeploy capital efficiently; and 3) to be agile in regard to resources and processes. Here, he touched on plans to innovate externally, taking advantage of the many small biotechs worldwide that are advancing dermatologic therapies at a faster scientific pace. That could lead LEO Pharma to in-license late-stage development and, potentially, take new therapies across to commercialization.
As part of this agile strategy, LEO Pharma recently announced that 300 employees, of which many were in R&D roles in Denmark, were being let go. Bourdon took to LinkedIn to announce this, thank and reach out to employees affected, and work to help find new positions at local Danish pharma as well as other biotechs.
When Pharm Exec interviewed Bourdon for this profile, he was attending the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, meeting with several biotechs—potential industry partners for LEO Pharma’s future assets and alliances. He described the cultural elements of biotechs that he appreciated and would like to bring a piece of to LEO Pharma. “There is a single, very laser focus on making a difference for patients. Where everyone shows up at work, and it is about trying to get a drug developed or approved or launched so that a patient can benefit from it,” says Bourdon.
In May 2022, soon after starting at LEO Pharma, Bourdon spoke at the BioInnovation Institute in Copenhagen on “how to steer a pharma and biotech company through both ups and downs”—clearly, a topic he has become very well-versed in just two years. While we didn’t ask Bourdon what his plans were for the future (serial turnaround CEO; hired stability guru; and chairperson of confidence all come to mind), at one point he did mention that he envisions another key task of the CEO—to inform employees and stakeholders on how the world is ticking outside and serve as a transparent and gut-level check for the business. For Bourdon, it’s another example of the rising CEO’s authentic communication and leadership style.
Lisa Henderson is the group editorial director for Pharmaceutical Executive
and can be reached at email@example.com.