A pledge to advance science, with deference to the past

Genzyme employees listened to their new boss, Sanofi chief Christopher A. Viehbacher, yesterday as he toured the biotech’s Cambridge office. Genzyme employees listened to their new boss, Sanofi chief Christopher A. Viehbacher, yesterday as he toured the biotech’s Cambridge office. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — For a corporate conqueror who yesterday took control of his Genzyme Corp. prey after an eight-month pursuit, Christopher A. Viehbacher struck a humble tone in his first remarks as the new boss.

The chief executive of Sanofi-Aventis SA, a global pharmaceutical giant based in France, said his company can learn as much from Genzyme as the Cambridge biotechnology company can learn from Sanofi. In particular, Viehbacher cited the “patient-centricity’’ and “open collaboration’’ model of his newly acquired business.

“What I really want to do is see if I can take some of the aspects of Genzyme and infuse them into Sanofi,’’ Viehbacher, 51, said in an interview before the start of a series of “Day One’’ events at Genzyme. They marked the beginning of the company’s new incarnation as the hub of Sanofi’s global research and development for rare diseases.

Viehbacher said Sanofi has plenty of resources that can help Genzyme, including a massive worldwide sales force and a corporate discipline for processes ranging from budgeting to quality controls. But he insisted that he doesn’t want “planeloads of people coming from Paris over here to kind of Sanofize Genzyme.’’

In keeping with that thinking, Genzyme will keep its name. Viehbacher and former Genzyme chief executive Henri A. Termeer will serve as cochairmen of a transition panel, and Viehbacher will act as chief executive of both Genzyme and Sanofi, at least for the next several months, to assure a smooth transfer of control. But he has no intention of running both operations for an extended period. “I can’t do this forever because the Paris-Boston commute is a little far,’’ he said.

Viehbacher said many decisions have yet to be made, such as how many employees will be needed in various functions and how many layers of workers will report to various managers. “There is a balance to be struck,’’ he said. “Everybody wants to know what’s going to happen. But there is also a need to be thoughtful and make the right decisions.’’

He said he already has made one move: Sanofi will bankroll a trio of Genzyme research programs that stalled in recent years because Genzyme had to spend so much fixing manufacturing problems. One is a treatment for the enzyme deficiency Niemann-Pick, the second is a biosurgical treatment for hip and knee pain, and the third is an ophthalmology product for macular degeneration.

The funding boost is intended to demonstrate Sanofi’s commitment to supporting Genzyme’s drug pipeline and to signal that Sanofi is able to move quickly despite the reputation of big pharma companies as slow-footed, Viehbacher said. He said Sanofi will be reviewing three other Genzyme drug development programs that had been frozen to determine whether they should go forward.

“I had not appreciated the degree to which Genzyme had been financially constrained over the last couple of years,’’ he said.

Now that he’s leading one of the largest biopharmaceutical research teams in the Boston area, Viehbacher said he will examine all of its programs carefully in the coming months. While some Genzyme jobs may be eliminated because they overlap with Sanofi functions, he said, the local Genzyme workforce could see growth in other areas. But he said no determination has been made on Genzyme’s future head count.

To kick off the integration campaign, Viehbacher said he invited more than a dozen Sanofi and Genzyme regional and country managers from around the world to a gathering in Paris earlier this week. Genzyme has 10,000 employees globally, including about 4,500 in Massachusetts, while Sanofi has 100,000 employees worldwide.

Viehbacher said Sanofi will seek to preserve the more entrepreneurial culture of Genzyme — which stopped trading on the Nasdaq stock exchange yesterday — just as it has done with its vaccines business, Sanofi Pasteur, the leading maker of flu vaccines in the United States. While Genzyme and Sanofi have “completely different cultures, completely different dimensions, and completely different product lines,’’ they share a commitment to quality and patient safety, he said.

As part of the transition, Sanofi and Genzyme have set up a “cultural workstream,’’ Viehbacher said, suggesting that European companies such as Sanofi tend to be more sensitive to cultural differences. One similarity, he said, was the commitment of both trans-Atlantic partners to that notion that “we never give up.’’

Toward that end, as they flew across the ocean on a corporate jet Tuesday night, Viehbacher and his Sanofi team watched “Extraordinary Measures,’’ a film starring Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser based on a Genzyme orphan-drug development project.

Robert Weisman can be reached at