Firing Of Sanofi CEO Mirrors Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Limited's 2013 Shakeup

Firing Of Sanofi CEO Mirrors Teva's 2013 Shakeup

November 5, 2014

By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

The recent sacking of Sanofi CEO Christopher Viehbacher has generated speculation that culture clashes, as opposed to strategic decisions, were behind the Canadian-German’s firing by the French board of directors.

Viehbacher was fired on October 29. The Sanofi board indicated that the primary reason for his dismissal was disagreement over how to execute the company’s strategy. Particular emphasis has been placed on Viehbacher’s plan to sell off the company’s portfolio of mature drugs worth about $7.9 billion. The portfolio included approximately 200 drugs, many of whose patents were soon expiring. Included in the portfolio were blood thinner Plavix, antibiotic Pyostacine and epilepsy medication Dapekine. The board found out about the plan from press releases based on leaked internal documents.

But no discussion of Viehbacher was complete without mention that he had recently moved to Boston for family reasons and that he only spent about a third of his time in Paris, otherwise splitting his time between the U.S. and international locations for the company. Certainly every article leading up to the dismissal mentioned that Viehbacher was the first non-French head of Paris-based Sanofi.

However, there is some speculation that Viehbacher, who doubled the share price during his tenure, may have irritated his French board by expanding the company’s operations in the U.S. and internationally while cutting French operations.

Comparisons have been made between Viehbacher and Jeremy Levin’s ouster a year ago from Israel’s Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. . Born in South Africa, Levin worked at Bristol-Myers Squibb and Novartis before joining Teva as president and CEO in May 2012. He stepped down less than 18 months later over a dispute with the company’s chair over how to restructure the company.

“When you bring a truly global, competitive mentality of doing things into a company like Teva or Sanofi,” said Gilad Alper, senior analyst at Israel-based Excellence Nessuah Brokerage in a statement, “with their own peculiar way of operating, there will sometimes be a clash of cultures.”

Although both Sanofi and Teva are international companies, their boards are primarily made up of individuals from their respective countries. Viehbacher’s move to the U.S., in particular, upset the Sanofi board, with French government officials expressing concern that “corporate decision-making was leaving the country.”

“Chris did a great job in terms of deals and efficiencies,” said David Munno, head of pharmaceutical research at Tel Aviv-based Sphera Global Healthcare in a statement. “When he moved away from France, though, he probably disenfranchised the local board and politicians.”

Despite the speculation and hints of xenophobia and nationalism, Sanofi Chairman Serge Weinberg dismissed the accusations. “We are deeply committed to being an international company,” he said in a conference call last week. “There shouldn’t be any misunderstanding about the issue of the French versus the rest of the world.” He also indicated nationality would not be on the list of search criteria for a new chief executive.

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