Sanofi Approached AstraZeneca PLC's Soriot For CEO Role

Sanofi Approached AstraZeneca PLC's Soriot For CEO Role

October 30, 2014

By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

In light of yesterday’s ouster of Sanofi CEO Christopher Viehbacher, insiders have reported that the company’s board discussed the CEO position earlier in the year with AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot. The sources indicate Soriot was not interested in the position.

Viehbacher, who ran Paris-based Sanofi since 2008, was let go yesterday after a unanimous vote by the Board of Directors. Board Chair Serge Weinberg will step up as interim CEO while—or if—a replacement is found. Weinberg will continue as chairman.

Although very effective as a CEO from the perspective of investors, Sanofi’s board often was at odds with the first non-French Sanofi executive officer. Despite doubling the company’s share prices since taking over, the board often fought with him on strategy, most recently regarding a potential sale for $7.9 billion of a portfolio of 200 mature drugs.

Currently bringing in about 2.1 billion euros annually, the portfolio was expected to decline by 40 percent over the next ten years because of patent expirations and overall cuts in the European healthcare budgets. The portfolio includes blood thinner Plavix, epilepsy treatment Dapekine, and antibiotic Pyostacine.

In addition, earlier in the year Viehbacher had moved to Boston, where he spent eight to nine months out of the year. He only spent about a third of the year in France, with the rest of the time in the U.S. or traveling to company locations internationally.

In yesterday’s conference call, Weinberg indicated Sanofi will be looking for a new CEO and will mostly focus on external candidates. Soriot, who is 55, ran the pharmaceutical components of Roche Holding AG before taking the reins at AstraZeneca. A native of France, he also once worked for Aventis, a predecessor of Sanofi.

Despite Viehbacher’s aggressive and sometimes off-putting manner, most analysts and shareholders were in support of him because he got results. Although he clearly made mistakes, including investing several hundred million dollars in BiPar Sciences, which had a potential ovarian cancer drug that later failed, and made missteps in drug pricing for Regeneron ’s colon cancer compound, the board didn’t cite either of those in his firing. Writing in Forbes, Matthew Herper says, “They seem mad that he made too many moves without them (see that swagger thing) and that the job cuts he’s executed—a reality at every single big pharma firm—were extending (gasp!) to France.”

And again, much is made that Viehbacher is not French, which seems to carry at least a touch of xenophobia from the Sanofi Board of Directors and the media. The stock market is showing little confidence in the board’s decision, with the company’s shares on the New York Stock Exchange dropping 9 percent yesterday and another 5 percent in today’s pre-market movement.

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