Sanofi’s chairman has issued a bullish defence of his decision to oust the French drugmaker’s chief executive last month and laid bare tensions between Chris Viehbacher and the board.
Serge Weinberg, chairman, insisted he had received “positive feedback” from investors about the decision, citing “multiple operational missteps” under Mr Viehbacher’s leadership.
“Investors don’t like surprises but the board does not like surprises either,” he said, in an apparent reference to communication problems between Mr Viehbacher and the board.
Addressing investors in Boston, Mr Weinberg said one of the requirements for the next chief executive would be an ability to communicate with important stakeholders, including “sometimes with the board”. Mr Viehbacher could not immediately be reached for comment.
Some investors were alarmed by the firing of Mr Viehbacher because the German-Canadian was generally perceived to have made one of France’s biggest companies more dynamic and global.
However, Mr Weinberg, a veteran French business leader with strong political connections in Paris, dismissed suggestions that the decision signalled a shift towards a more insular, domestic-orientated company.
“We are a fully international company [with] 93 per cent of our business outside France . . . so don’t believe too much the stories that have been told.”
Mr Viehbacher’s relationship with the board was not helped this year by an abrupt deterioration in outlook for the company’s crucial diabetes business and a contentious asset disposal plan leaked to a French newspaper before directors had been briefed.
However, he also led a turnround in Sanofi’s previously moribund research and development efforts, with a range of new products nearing market, including the first vaccine for dengue fever and a promising new treatment for high cholesterol.
Mr Weinberg on Thursday predicted an “unprecedented” period of product launches – with up to 18 new drugs by 2020 – but refused to give any credit to his former chief executive. Instead, he cited the strategy set by the board in 2008 “even before the appointment of Chris Viehbacher”.
The 63-year-old said he would remain interim chief executive until a permanent successor was found, assuring investors that there was “a driver in the seat”.
The search was well under way, he added, but cautioned it could take time to find the right person, citing strong pharmaceuticals experience, particularly in the US, among necessary qualifications.
Mr Weinberg has said nationality is not part of the criteria, but speculation has focused on French executives with international experience, including Olivier Bohuon, the chief executive of Smith & Nephew, the UK medical devices company, and former president of Abbott Pharmaceuticals in the US.
Christophe Weber, president of Takeda of Japan, and Olivier Brandicourt, head of Bayer’s healthcare division, have also been touted.
Sanofi’s upbeat R&D forecast came two days after AstraZeneca gave a similarly bullish update on its prospects, increasing optimism that big pharma is moving beyond the “patent cliff” of recent years. Nearly 200 new drugs are forecast to be launched worldwide in the next five years, the highest rate since the mid-2000s, according to IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.
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