UPDATED: Pfizer's post-megamerger cost-cutting record? 51,500 jobs in 7 years

Pfizer CFO Frank D'Amelio

In the calm after yesterday's Pfizer-AstraZeneca deal storm, it's time to survey the potential fallout. Pfizer's ($PFE) aggressive strategy for avoiding taxes, totted up by The Wall Street Journal, politely thumped by the Financial Times and skewered by In the Pipeline. Fears for the U.K. science community, articulated by any number of U.K. newspapers.

We were intrigued by Pfizer CFO Frank D'Amelio's cost-cutting promises Monday. D'Amelio said Pfizer had promised to squeeze out $4 billion in costs after buying Wyeth in 2009--and then beat that number handily. Much of that squeeze came in the form of job cuts, so we totted up some numbers ourselves, with the help of Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

At the end of 2008, Pfizer had 81,800 employees. Wyeth had 47,426. Total: 129,226.

On Dec. 31, 2009, Pfizer's post-merger headcount was 116,500. Of that number, Pfizer's legacy payroll amounted to more than 74,000, while Wyeth accounted for more than 42,000, the company said in its annual filing.

As the two companies announced that merger, they set a target of about 20,000 job cuts. And Pfizer's employee numbers slid yearly after that, by 6,000 or 7,000 or 9,000 at a time. By the end of 2013, Pfizer's work force had shrunk to 77,700.

Difference between Pfizer and Wyeth's year-end-2008 total? More than 51,000 employees.

That amount doesn't just account for job cuts, Pfizer spokeswoman Joan Campion points out. It also includes another type of slimdown, Pfizer's series of unit sales and spin-offs. Capsugel went to KKR, taking 2,900 employees with it. Pfizer's nutrition business sold to Nestlé, taking 5,400 jobs. And when Pfizer spun off Zoetis last year, the animal health unit's work force amounts to about 9,800. Altogether, that's 18,000 workers, leaving 33,500 job cuts.

Of course, Pfizer wasn't the only Big Pharma company cutting jobs during that period. Every big-name drugmaker and many small ones slashed their payrolls by thousands. Let's take a look at AstraZeneca, Pfizer's current object of desire. From about 65,000 at the end of 2008, AstraZeneca's ($AZN) work force shrank to 51,500 at the end of 2013. A difference of 13,500.

But AstraZeneca didn't do a megamerger during that time frame. So let's check out another company that did: Merck. Before Merck ($MRK) bought Schering-Plough in 2009, it counted 55,200 employees on its payroll. Schering had 51,000. That's a total of 106,200.

And at the end of 2009, the company said that the combined employee total was about 100,000. So far, about 6,000 down.

When the Merck-Schering deal hit the news, the anticipated job-cutting total was 16,000. Merck's employment numbers did indeed decline, and rather quickly. By the end of 2013, the company had 76,000 workers, or thereabouts, the company said in its annual report.

The difference between the 2008 Merck-plus-Schering total? 24,000.

So, when D'Amelio said Pfizer was "rather good" at cutting costs out of integrated companies, he wasn't kidding. From the end of 2008, just before the Wy-Pfi merger, to the end of last year, the combined workforce shrank by almost 40%, including those unit sales. Factoring them out, the job cuts amount to 30%.

By comparison, the Merck-Schering head count dropped by about 23% from 2008 to 2013. And the merger-free AstraZeneca cut 21% out of its employee base. Even if you add in Merck's latest 8,500-job-cuts announcement, Pfizer is way ahead of both.

And according to ISI Group analyst Mark Schoenebaum, Pfizer's cuts after than 2009 merger took about 70% out of Wyeth's cost base. No wonder the U.K. economic boosters are worried. And no wonder Derek Lowe at In The Pipeline is, shall we say, skeptical. With an AZ deal, Pfizer would be "ripping up yet another large patch of the drug industry" to keep itself chugging along, causing "vast disruption and loss of productivity along the way," Lowe writes.

Of course, many analysts and investors take another view: Shrinking the work force improves productivity, rather than hurting it. Slashing tax payments by billions? Even better; who wouldn't want to do that? And if Read can cut those costs, parcel out AstraZeneca's drugs and R&D to his three new operating divisions--and then sell off one or more of them--then that's a triple whammy.

- see the WSJ tax story (sub. req.)
- get more from In the Pipeline
- check out the Independent article
- read the Financial Times editorial (reg. req.)

Special Reports: Top 10 pharma companies by 2013 revenue - Pfizer - AstraZeneca | Pharma's top 10 M&A deals of 2013

Editor's note: This story was updated to include the impact of Pfizer's unit sales on its employment figures.