Behind the scenes of Sanofi's boardroom bust up

Wed Oct 29, 2014 8:27am EDT
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By Natalie Huet and Noëlle Mennella

PARIS (Reuters) - A boardroom tussle brewing for months at Sanofi came to a head on Wednesday when France's top drugmaker fired its chief executive, wiping more billions off its share price.

While the showdown played out in leaks to national newspapers has stunned investors as a "how not to do it" guide to corporate governance, the writing was on the wall in the deteriorating relationship between Chairman Serge Weinberg and CEO Chris Viehbacher.

The decision, which will see Weinberg take the helm until a new CEO is found, follows a dramatic few days during which Viehbacher had to present quarterly results without being able to reassure investors of his board's support.

Instead, German-Canadian Viehbacher told Reuters on Tuesday that Weinberg had declined to clarify his future at a meeting the previous day, confirming reports of increasingly frosty relations between the CEO and the rest of the board.

On Wednesday, Sanofi said a special board meeting had decided unanimously to remove Viehbacher, its CEO of six years. Weinberg, a former top civil servant and a pillar of the French business establishment, said there had been no clash over strategy, but rather blamed Viehbacher's management style.

"For 15 people to unanimously take this kind of decision it is not a problem that has to do with personalities, it's a problem ... of cooperation with the board, fundamentally of management style and also of execution," he told reporters.

Viehbacher transformed a very French drug company by making it much more international in outlook, in large part through the $20 billion acquisition of U.S. biotech and rare diseases company Genzyme in 2011.

Sanofi's first non-French boss was applauded by analysts and investors for his global approach to running a complex business and for his communication skills.   Continued...

Chris Viehbacher delivers a speech at the beginning of the Sanofi's 2013 annual results press conference in Paris, February 6, 2014.  REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer