(Adds report from Les Echos, detail on shareholders)
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, Sept 9 (Reuters) - Chris Viehbacher, GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s (GSK.L) head of North American operations, is to take a top job with French drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis (SASY.PA), a person familiar with the situation said on Tuesday.
His exact role was not immediately clear, but he is thought to be set to replace Sanofi’s current Chief Executive Gerard Le Fur, the source added.
A spokesman for Sanofi said on Tuesday he had no information about the move, while Glaxo declined to comment.
French business daily Les Echos later reported on its website that oil company Total (TOTF.PA) and cosmetics group L’Oreal (OREP.PA), both big shareholders in Sanofi, had decided Le Fur should go, following a series of problems.
Officials at Total and L’Oreal, which together own over a fifth of Sanofi, declined to comment.
Investors were encouraged by the news of the arrival of Viehbacher, 48, which could signal a change of strategy at Sanofi — a laggard of the European pharmaceuticals sector, with shares trading at just eight times forecast 2009 earnings.
Shares in Sanofi ended up 2.8 percent to 47.50 euros.
“People know that out of all the large-cap pharma (companies) Sanofi is in pretty dire need of an injection of ideas because their pipeline is not going well,” said WestLB analyst Simon Mather.
Le Fur only took over as chief executive of Sanofi in January 2007, but industry analysts and people close to the company say relations with Sanofi’s powerful chairman Jean-Francois Dehecq have been strained.
Dehecq was responsible for building Sanofi into the world’s third-largest drugmaker via a string off mergers over 30 years.
Sanofi has suffered a series a blows to its new drug portfolio, most notably with the failure of weight-loss drug Acomplia to win approval in the United States after it was linked to suicidal thinking.
Le Fur, as the group’s former head of research, had been closely linked to the product.
That has left the company ill-prepared to deal with new competition and potential generic rivals to its top-selling blood thinners Lovenox and Plavix.
“I think this is a good strategic move for Sanofi-Aventis,” said Damien Conover, an analyst at Morningstar.
“Chris has a lot of experience in North America and Sanofi is one of the few companies that has tended to focus on the European theater. It will be good for them to gain more exposure in the U.S. market.”
As an example, Conover said Sanofi is one of the only European companies that holds its conference calls in European time, which can make it difficult for U.S. investors to access.
“Sanofi is such an ingrained European company that it has been hard for it to gain exposure in the U.S.,” he said. “Bringing in Chris will help them do that.”
Viehbacher — a widely respected figure in the drugs industry — lost out to Andrew Witty in the race to lead Glaxo a year ago. Witty took over as CEO in May.
Glaxo, the world’s second-largest drugmaker, announced on Monday that Viehbacher was standing down from the board with immediate effect and would leave the company on Dec. 1 to pursue another, unspecified opportunity.
Viehbacher gave up a retention package that would have been worth around 2.5 million pounds ($4.5 million) in shares by deciding to leave Glaxo.
Viehbacher is a dual citizen of Canada and Germany who also speaks French. (Additional reporting by Ben Deighton and Astrid Wendlandt in Paris and Toni Clarke in Boston; editing by Elaine Hardcastle and Gerald E. McCormick)