How the wheels came off for Sanofi's CEO

Mon Nov 3, 2014 2:27am EST
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By Noëlle Mennella and Carolyn Cohn

PARIS/LONDON (Reuters) - Chris Viehbacher speaks plainly. "We had somewhat of a mess in Brazil," he told financial analysts in August 2013, "so that's why I decided to change management."

Fifteen months later he has gone the same way as the Brazilian employees he sacked so decisively - fired as chief executive of French drugmaker Sanofi (SASY.PA: Quote) at a dawn board meeting, with the "mess in Brazil" cited as one of the reasons.

Investors were stunned, having hitherto seen the affable German-Canadian as one of the best in the business, despite some setbacks and a tough few years for the drugs industry worldwide.

The whirlwind week began on Monday Oct. 27 with a leaked letter to the board, dated Sept. 4, in which Viehbacher wrote of rumours of a plot against him at board level and demanded clarity. On Tuesday he presented quarterly results.

"We had a conference call and questions were asked about his position but he was being reassuring," said Andrea Williams, European fund manager at Royal London Asset Management.

"Then at 8 AM on Wednesday he was gone. There was no opportunity for shareholders to say they did not want him to go."

In truth, Viehbacher's downfall was a rather more slow-burn affair. This is the story of how the high-flying former GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L: Quote) executive fell out with members of his board - to a point where they were plotting to replace him, only to find their hand forced by the leaked letter.

Viehbacher declined to be interviewed for this article.   Continued...

Chris Viehbacher attends Sanofi's 2012 annual results presentation in Paris in this February 7, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen