If you wanted to cast someone in the role of chief executive of a 21st century global biopharmaceutical company, you’d probably choose Christopher A. Viehbacher.
Viehbacher, who has dual citizenship in Germany and Canada, runs France’s second-largest company, Sanofi SA. He travels the world constantly, banters about hockey, soccer, and baseball, and can charm customers and argue with regulators in multiple languages.
But on Tuesday, representatives of Sanofi raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic when they confirmed that Viehbacher, 54, is moving from Paris to the Boston area, home to biotechnology giant Genzyme, which Sanofi bought for $20.1 billion in 2011.
“This was for personal family reasons,” said Jack Cox, a spokesman at the drug maker’s headquarters in Paris. “It will have no impact on the operations of Sanofi.”
Viehbacher was unavailable Tuesday to discuss the trans-Atlantic move. Le Monde, the French newspaper that first disclosed the executive’s planned move, reported that one of Viehbacher’s children is attending Northeastern University.
A veteran drug industry executive, Viehbacher was named Sanofi’s CEO in 2008. Since then, he has traveled frequently between Paris, the company’s US headquarters in Bridgewater, N.J., and its many outposts, including those in developing countries where it is one of the largest suppliers of medicine. He has also been a high-profile speaker at industry gatherings.
Under his leadership, Sanofi has been aggressively expanding through acquisitions and partnerships. Viehbacher’s unsolicited bid for Cambridge-based Genzyme, which turned from hostile to friendly during months of negotiations with former Genzyme chief executive Henri A. Termeer, put Sanofi into the fast-growing market for rare disease therapies. It also gave the company a huge presence in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, a major life sciences hub.
Viehbacher has made no secret of his admiration for the Boston region’s cluster of academic research labs and biotech startups. “The Cambridge, Mass., area is a hotbed of research activity,” he said in a 2009 interview with the Globe, even before launching Sanofi’s bid for Genzyme. “So for me, it’s important to start becoming networked into this area.”
Since the Genzyme deal, Viehbacher has expanded Sanofi’s research footprint in Massachusetts even as such programs have shrunk in New Jersey. Sanofi, which now employs about 5,000 in Massachusetts, also agreed in January to pay $700 million to buy a chunk of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., another Cambridge biotech, and tap into its rare-disease drug pipeline.
The company has clashed with French authorities and labor unions over its plans to scale back on drug research and development in that country, though there was no indication that was a factor in Viehbacher’s decision to get a Boston address.