Sharp focus: Pascal Soriot at AstraZeneca’s new offices in London’s King’s Cross
Sharp focus: Pascal Soriot at AstraZeneca’s new offices in London’s King’s Cross © Charlie Bibby

Pascal Soriot does not look like a bare-knuckle fighter. Aged 56 with a trim frame and well-groomed crown of dark hair, the chief executive of AstraZeneca is more easily imagined pursuing his weekend pastimes of horseriding and cycling.

Rewind to the 1970s, however, and skirmishes were common among youths on the gritty housing estate where he grew up in the suburbs north of Paris.

“I haven’t had a fight in the last 40 years,” he says. “But the first 14, 16 years? I had one probably every week.”

This revelation may startle those who know Soriot as a calm and affable presence at the head of the UK-based pharmaceuticals group. Yet he has also demonstrated resilience in resisting a $100bn takeover by Pfizer in favour of a high-stakes turnround effort — the success of which remains in the balance.

Soriot’s CV suggests his training for this challenge started with an MBA at HEC Paris. But he traces some of his most important lessons to those teenage years when he and his friends would rush to each other’s defence. “The thing I learned is the value of loyalty and teamwork and courage,” he says. “People who cannot be relied on are people I really have trouble working with.”

Perhaps this helps explain the sense of mission that Soriot has instilled in AstraZeneca since taking over in 2012. He recalls being accused of committing career suicide by swapping a top job at Roche, one of Europe’s best-performing drugmakers, for leadership of an industry laggard. AstraZeneca has roots in the now-defunct ICI chemicals conglomerate and when Soriot arrived it looked in danger of following its forebear to the corporate scrapheap.

Three years later, the peril has not passed. AstraZeneca still has to clear one of the industry’s steepest “patent cliffs”, as some of its biggest-selling drugs lose market exclusivity. But whereas before there was pessimism over the company’s ability to replace lost sales, today it boasts a resurgent research and development pipeline.

“I spent the first two months just listening,” recalls Soriot. “I must have run 200 roundtables.” He found a demoralised workforce exhausted by incremental cuts, yet it was obvious more radical surgery was needed.

His response was a restructuring that involved the loss of several thousand jobs and closure of a historic R&D base at Alderley Park in the north-west of England. But at the same time he set out his vision for a risk-taking, science-focused strategy embodied by plans to replace Alderley with a new £330m hub in Cambridge, putting AstraZeneca at the heart of one of the world’s strongest centres for medical research.

“For a long time, people didn’t believe it. They thought, ‘okay, there will be another round [of cuts]’, or ‘he’s not going to succeed’, and then over time people started believing.”

An important moment was the revival of a drug discarded by the previous management. During gardening leave after quitting Roche, Soriot pored over data to understand what had gone wrong in AstraZeneca’s R&D engine. He was puzzled why a promising ovarian cancer therapy called olaparib had been scrapped.

“Our scientists were pulling their hair out because they wanted to move forward, but there was a commercial mindset that it was too small and not interesting.” So he cancelled the $285m write-off booked for olaparib and put it back into trials. A year later, the drug was approved by US and European regulators. “Olaparib was really very useful culturally because it changed the mindset and people have accepted, ‘yes, we follow the science’.”

The son of a tax collector, there was little in Soriot’s upbringing to predict a high-flying career in pharmaceuticals.

“I had none of the sophistication that some French families have. I didn’t have any clue about business.” His mother wanted him to become a doctor but, inspired by a childhood love of horses, he opted to study animal medicine.

After his father died of a heart attack he spent three years supporting his mother and three younger brothers as a newly qualified veterinarian. But he soon tired of the equestrian stables of northern France and decided going to business school would open up new horizons.

“I learned things I had no idea about. You come from a scientific environment and suddenly get exposed to balance sheets . . . and think, ‘what the heck is this?’”

He lagged behind at first but caught up by working harder than his classmates. The experience influenced his approach to talent development. “I’m careful to not judge people too quickly because I’ve seen people I wasn’t sure were going to do well and they did, and vice versa.”

After graduation, he used his MBA to travel. He joined Roussel Uclaf, then a big French drugmaker, and took a post in Australia, where he put down roots. His two children and grandson still live there.

In Australia he had the first of several encounters with big acquisitions when Roussel was bought by Hoechst of Germany. Later he was with Aventis, another Franco-German drugmaker, in the US when it merged with France’s Sanofi. His experience of these deals was mostly negative. “Sanofi-Aventis didn’t work,” he says. “People were telling me, ‘you’re French, you’re going to do well at Sanofi’. But it had nothing to do with being French because the cultures of the companies were so different.”

These memories helped stiffen his resolve when Pfizer launched its raid on AstraZeneca in 2014. Giving evidence to a UK parliamentary hearing into what could have been the biggest foreign takeover of a British company, he claimed the deal would cause deaths by delaying life-saving drugs. This angered Pfizer executives, who saw it as a cheap shot aimed at stirring political opposition. But, almost two years later, Soriot says he has been vindicated by the launch in November of Tagrisso, a lung cancer drug, which moved from lab to market in record time. “We could not have done that in a disrupted environment.”

Big mergers can work if conducted the right way, he says. While at Roche he was in charge of integrating Genentech, the Californian biotech company, after a $47bn takeover.

“I got on the plane and I was absolutely shaking because I was thinking, I’m going there to San Francisco and these guys are going to look at me and think, ‘He comes from Switzerland, they’ve just taken over our company. On top of it, he’s got this weird French accent. What is this guy?’” But he won over employees by embracing the culture of ‘casual intensity’ — informality combined with hard work — which Genentech claims as its ethos.

Soriot has tried to bring some of that Californian spirit to AstraZeneca, where he works in an open-plan office with a framed picture of his grandson on the filing cabinet beside his desk. The next two years will determine whether a leadership style forged between the Paris banlieue and San Francisco, via Sydney, can succeed in turning round one of Europe’s biggest drugmakers. Investors will be convinced only once growth in new drugs begins to outweigh decline in older ones — a turning point predicted for 2017.

How much longer after that will he stick around? “Half of me would like to keep going, the other half would like to spend time with my grandson. I’m not going to be one of these guys who feels like, if he stops working, he’ll die. I think I’ll do the time needed to get this company in a good place and then, if the board allows me, I’ll find a successor and enjoy Australia.”

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