Thursday, October 18, 2007

Musical Chairs at Novartis, Except When the Music Stops, 1250 Fewer Chairs

Novartis posted its third quarter results this morning and missed its profit guidance. Genericization, delays to Galvus, and the withdrawal of Zelnorm all contributed to a 12% decline in earnings. And so out comes the axe. Oddly enough, the press release was titled "Novartis delivers record earnings in first nine months of 2007 thanks to strong operational performance and divestment gains." Is it time to revive IN VIVO Blog's 'press release of the week' feature?

Novartis is cutting 1250 jobs (mostly in sales, and including 510 'third-party' sales positions) in the US, a move cheered by analysts and expected to result in savings of about $230 million in 2008. The layoffs are part of a restructuring of its pharma development and commercialization organization.

Most conspicuously Thomas Ebeling, the current head of pharma, will be shuffled over to Novartis' consumer business--a position perhaps more suited to his background: he came to Novartis from Pepsi a decade ago. At pharma he'll be replaced by American Joe Jimenez, the current head of the consumer business who joined Novartis earlier this year (and was until 2006 European president and CEO of the food giant Heinz), effective immediately, "to expand management experience and provide fresh impetus." That might be a new euphemism, we're not sure.

Less surprisingly, the company is also establishing Novartis Biologics "as a focused unit to accelerate and optimize the potential of research and development of innovative biologic medicines." We've noted before (and discuss at length here) certain pharma's need to bulk up in large molecules. Novartis says:
This unit will unify and expand the expertise within Novartis by bringing together the key elements necessary for fast and high-quality R&D activities and to help attract top talent. Biologics comprise 25% of the pre-clinical research pipeline at Novartis and are increasingly a priority in R&D activities.
It will be interesting to see whether Novartis feels the need to augment its internal biologics capabilities with the kind of external moves being pondered by Sanofi-Aventis and Pfizer. The company has inked some 22 deals in large molecules over the past five years and most impressively has bulked up in vaccines (through the full acquisition of Chiron) and in RNAi, though a first-mover deal with Alnylam.

But back to the layoffs for a moment. Novartis' cutbacks don't approach the level of some of the other Big Pharma that have cut back this year--see the chart below from the September issue of IN VIVO--and will mainly be executed by not filling vacant positions, the company says.

Nevertheless, can the decision be seen in the broader context of the general shrinkage of Big Pharma sales forces, thanks to a variety of factors including but not limited to the rise of biologics and a shift toward specialist medicines? Which brings us back to the pharma/consumer reshuffle; both execs' backgrounds are more grounded in consumer marketing than pharmaceuticals. To say the least appointing Jimenez to the pharma post goes against the grain of the specialist marketing trend.

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