New CEO Veihbacher, Plucked From the U.S., Could De-Frenchify Sanofi

Last Updated Sep 10, 2008 12:28 PM EDT

viehbacher_lores.jpgParis-based pharma giant Sanofi-Aventis may be about to get a little less French with the appointment of Chris Viehbacher, formerly head of U.S. pharma at GlaxoSmithKline, as its new CEO.

The company gets more than half of its revenues on its top drugs from the U.S. (as you can see on page 39 of Sanofi's half-year report) and yet it sometimes behaves as if the American market were an afterthought. The announcement of Viehbacher as the new CEO was written in Franglais ("Septembre ... continue to provide his competences"?), and the company holds its investor calls at a time that is inconvenient for U.S. analysts.

As the above Reuters story points out, some are expecting Viehbacher to bring some U.S. discipline to the company, which analysts feel has fallen behind its European rivals. Already the gossip among the sales reps is that Viehbacher is likely to continue Sanofi's program of layoffs. In the U.S., multiple reps still call on the same doctors to promote the same drug, a situation which everyone agrees has created dwindling returns.

Let's see if there's any guidance for the future from Viehbacher's tenure as American chief at GSK:

First, he can play hardball. Daniel Troy, the Darth Vader of right-wing drug lawyers, was hired as Sanofi's general counsel in the U.S. earlier this year, an event that raised eyebrows even in the politically conservative pharma world.

Second, it was Viehbacher who wrote that letter to the governor of Massachussets threatening to pull GSK's business from the state if the law there was changed to require transparency in drug marketing.

Third, it was under Viehbacher that GSK turned all its employees into an army of pro-pharma dinner table lobbyists when the business's reputation sank to new lows.

Fourth, no challenge is too hopeless for Veihbacher. Here he is on Fox News defending Levitra and its Mike Ditka Super Bowl ads -- which were widely ridiculed at the time. Once you've stopped chuckling, notice this quote at the end of the interview:

One of things that we're trying to make sure happens in the United States is that the price of medicine still is always enough to fund innovation. This is the best health-care system in the world, and more in innovation is being done in this country than anywhere else in the world, and we need to protect that.
Those kind of views are anathema in Europe, where low price structures and national health care rule the day.

But Sanofites expecting a culture clash may be surprised. Viehbacher isn't actually an American. In fact, he's German-Canadian, speaks French, German and English, and only spent the last couple of years in the U.S. As such, he could be the perfect Sarkozy-style candidate to translate the U.S. ethic to a workforce that likes to take a vacation for the whole of August.

In terms of his strategy for the future, watch for him to pay special attention to relationships with government reimbursers and to encourage acquisition or development of a larger number of smaller drugs instead of the usual blockbusters.