Pascal Soriot answers AstraZeneca’s 911 call

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In the end the tough job of running AstraZeneca fell neither to a high-profile industry veteran nor a company insider with first-hand knowledge of its myriad problems, but to the relatively unknown Pascal Soriot.

To be sure, it would have been asking a lot for a prominent pharma old hand to stake a hard-earned reputation on attempting to give AstraZeneca the kiss of life. But those betting on a merger or takeover of the UK company will take heart in the fact that having a low-profile chief executive usually favours the M&A scenario. With the company’s stock virtually unmoved on the news today investors will now keenly await signs as to which direction Mr Soriot will pursue.

His background is in marketing and operations management – 16 years at Aventis and its predecessor companies followed by the last 10 at Roche. In 2009 he was named chief executive of the Genentech division to oversee its integration into the Roche business after it was acquired fully by its Swiss parent, and the following year became chief operating officer of Roche’s pharma division. While the step up to a chief executive role can therefore be seen as a natural career progression, it is surprising that this should immediately have come at one of the world’s major pharma groups.

Poisoned chalice

Still, ever since David Brennan’s sudden departure as chief executive earlier this year it seemed obvious that whoever accepted the huge task of heading up AstraZeneca would take on a poisoned chalice (AstraZeneca needs new strategy after boardroom shakeup, April 26, 2012).

Mr Soriot has been tasked with turning AstraZeneca around and overcoming a huge patent expiry cliff with no obvious signs as to where new revenues are going to come from. After the $15.8bn damp squib that the MedImmune takeover turned out to be, recent strategy seems to have focused on revamping internal R&D and boosting this with bolt-on acquisitions, such as those of Ardea Biosciences and Amylin Pharmaceuticals.

Analysts at Bryan Garnier were keen to point out that Mr Soriot hailed from Roche, which “drives a pure-play strategy”, suggesting that sudden changes at AstraZeneca were not likely. However, they seemed to overlook firstly that his other employer, Aventis, was a major player in big takeover activity, and secondly that as chief executive of Genentech much of his brief would have concerned the smooth integration of the San Francisco biotech into the Roche business.

The fact that AstraZeneca has gone for an outsider is likely to be seen as a positive sign that it is seeking fresh thinking and a break from the past. While it is still too early to tell whether an outright sale of the company is likely, Mr Soriot is clearly no stranger to major strategic changes.

Finance chief returns

After the formal handover of chief executive responsibility to Mr Soriot on October 1, Simon Lowth will return to his previous role as AstraZeneca’s chief financial officer. Mr Lowth had been appointed interim chief executive after Mr Brennan’s resignation, and there had been suggestions that he might himself have been in the running for the permanent chief executive job.

It is clear, however, that the board did see Mr Lowth's role as a purely interim one. How long he is now likely to remain finance chief is open to debate, especially given what tends to happen to those, like Chris Viehbacher at Glaxo, who miss out on the top job.

Whether Mr Soriot also turns out to be a caretaker remains to be seen.

To contact the writer of this story email Jacob Plieth in London at jacobp@epvantage.com

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