It was the fall of 2016 when I began pursuing the idea for this month’s cover feature: Interview a group of former CEOs to gain their perspectives on our industry’s extremely bright future balanced with its currently tarnished image. What advice might these mentors have for today’s current industry executives on drug pricing, corporate culture creation, and so much more? But on Friday, May 12, 2017, the project turned bittersweet as one of the participants, Henri Termeer (71), died after collapsing in his home in Marblehead, MA.
I first shared my vision for the article with Termeer after he spoke on a panel at the 2017 Biotech Showcase in San Francisco. It was there that the former chairman, president, and CEO of Genzyme agreed to participate. In late February we had an hour-long conversation in which Termeer answered my questions very candidly. When asked what he missed about no longer being a CEO, he chuckled and replied, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m very excited about this chapter in my life.” He went on to highlight many of Genzyme’s great moments but also its challenges. Throughout it all he said he had no regrets and seemed proud of what the company had achieved. For example, he noted the role he and his former company played in mentoring future life sciences leaders. One such leader was David Meeker, whom Termeer had groomed to take over the top position at Genzyme. I invited Meeker to share a short story about his former mentor.
“Henri bet on people as much — or more — than he bet on the science. I entered Genzyme as a medical director in the R&D organization. After six years, he sponsored my move to the business side, sending me to Europe to lead the Rare Disease BU in Europe. I had no formal business training, and in fact, had spent remarkably little time in the operating units. But I understood the science, and I understood the diseases we were trying to treat. Henri saw something in that. And I was by no means unusual. We had a remarkable executive team where many of the individuals would be classified as unorthodox choices for the roles they were in. Henri was an unorthodox thinker, and he managed his people the same way.”
But Meeker wasn’t the only success to surface from Genyzme. “I am told that 40 new biotech CEOs came out of Genzyme after the transaction [with Sanofi],” Termeer shared. “They call, we meet, and have reunions at JPM.” He went on to say that there was nothing he missed about being a CEO. “I didn’t step back,” he clarified. “I stepped into a different terrain, with a lot of excitement still happening.” For example, in retirement Termeer served as a company founder of four companies and served on 14 corporate and nonprofit boards.
One of the great insights gained from the experience of interviewing Termeer, as well as the five other biopharmaceutical industry icons, is that for many biopharmaceutical executives, retirement is just an illusion. For these leaders still have so much to offer our community, and the sudden passing of one like Termeer leaves a void we all struggle to fill.