Le Fur flies as GSK exec made Sanofi CEO

By Nick Taylor

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sanofi Clopidogrel

GlaxoSmithKline’s head of North American operations, Chris Viehbacher, is to takeover as chief operating officer (CEO) at Sanofi-Aventis after he missed out on the top spot at GSK last year.

The appointment is a departure for Sanofi, which traditionally promotes from within the company, and suggests a cultural shift is underway at the French pharmaceutical giant.

Viehbacher, who is fluent in French and worked in the country for almost a decade, will replace Gerard Le Fur, who has struggled during his time in the hot seat at Sanofi to replenish its portfolio to replace drugs coming off patent.

Most notably the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not approve its weight loss drug Acomplia (rimonabant), which Sanofi had anticipated softening the financial blow caused by generic competitors to its blood thinners, Lovenox (enoxaparin) and Plavix (clopidogrel bisulfate).

These setbacks caused Sanofi’s share price to fall by 20 per cent over the last year, leading to pressure from key corporate shareholders, Total and L’Oreal, with the former selling some of its stake in recent weeks.

Investors have reacted favourably to Viehbacher’s appointment, with shares rising by as much as 6.8 per cent, more than at any point in the past two years.

To arrest its downwards slide Sanofi has outlined Viehbacher’s objectives, which form a three-pronged strategy.

Viehbacher will be responsible for adapting the company’s R&D to new regulatory and economic constraints, further expand into emerging markets and increase activities in medicines and health care.

However, analysts have commented that any improvements will not replenish Sanofi’s pipeline in the short-term, creating speculation that the company may be on the look out for acquisitions.

In early 2007 there was intense speculation that Sanofi would acquire Bristol-Myers Squibb, its partner in the US, and this deal may now be reconsidered.

Defeated GSK execs depart

Viehbacher’s departure follows that of David Stout in February, meaning both unsuccessful candidates in the race to be GSK’s CEO have now left the company.

Following his defeat Viehbacher was given around $4m in shares, a pay rise and a seat on the board at GSK but the lure of taking the top job at Sanofi has proved too much.

He will take up the new post in early December, taking over from Le Fur who will remain at the company as a scientific advisor for an unspecified length of time.

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