Sanofi's patient CEO finally lands his prey

LONDON Wed Feb 16, 2011 8:52am EST

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LONDON (Reuters) - Chris Viehbacher has been chief executive of Sanofi-Aventis SA for just over two years -- and a third of that time has been spent stalking Genzyme Corp.

At last, he has landed his prey. It's taken a level of patience that has at times frustrated both investors and many in the media tracking an apparently never-ending takeover saga.

Nine months after first broaching the idea with a deeply reluctant Henri Termeer, Genzyme's CEO, he can claim that he hasn't ended up overpaying for an asset that will help offset Sanofi's looming patent losses.

Helped by cheap debt, Genzyme at a price of $20.1 billion in cash plus payouts tied to the success of key drugs should deliver returns well above the cost of capital.

"With this deal he's turned a patent cliff into a patent plateau," said Dominic Valder, an industry analyst at Evolution Securities. "He's gone out there and he's not been rushed into anything, and he's got a price he can justify."

The 50-year-old dual German-Canadian national has been around the block a few times in the drugs industry. He spent 20 years at GlaxoSmithKline before being passed over for the CEO's job at the British group following a close fight.

He jumped ship in 2008 to become the first non-French CEO at Sanofi's headquarters on the banks of the Seine in Paris -- a deft career move befitting the shrewd operator he is.

"He's ambitious as an individual and he was extremely disappointed when he didn't get the GSK job," said one senior industry consultant, who has known Viehbacher for years. "But he's very measured. He doesn't react in a knee-jerk way."

That calm approach proved crucial last year when investor calls mounted for Sanofi to increase its initial hostile $18.5 billion all-cash offer, while Genzyme scoured the pharmaceuticals landscape for a friendly counter-bidder.

In the event, no "white knight" ever showed up and Viehbacher, who insisted all along he would not bid against himself, finally got Termeer to come to the table to negotiate a sweetened deal.

A relaxed and easy speaker, Viehbacher has won fans among Sanofi shareholders who see him as an catalyst for much-needed change. A chartered accountant by training, he has been on a mission to inject an Anglo-Saxon culture into a bastion of French business since arriving at Sanofi.

He has overhauled research and development -- ditching many products in the process -- and leading some employees to dub him the "Smiling Killer" for plans to shed 4,000 jobs by 2013.

But he has scored well with the investment community, which appreciates his clear-talking and down-to-earth strategy, including a keen focus on external growth as one of the company's top priorities.

His previous smaller deals have already help diversify the French group, but Genzyme is the opportunity to really transform the firm by taking it into a whole new area -- rare diseases -- and increase its presence in biotech and in the United States.

So what's next?

Viehbacher won't be giving up on his drive to make acquisitions -- but they will more bite-size buys in future. Buying Genzyme is the biggest deal for Sanofi since its merger with Aventis in 2004.

"We will be looking to bolt onto growth platforms in emerging markets but not anything of a Genzyme size any time soon," Viehbacher told reporters on Wednesday.

(Editing by Kate Kelland and Louise Heavens)

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