Sanofi revamps 'underperforming' U.S. sales team under new diabetes chief

Sanofi's U.S. diabetes sales team are under a worldwide spotlight--and not because it's time to take a bow. It was bad enough that Sanofi ($SNY) announced poor expectations for 2015 sales as part of its earnings report last week. But then, the now-ex-CEO Chris Viehbacher suggested that U.S. sales of Lantus, the French drugmaker's diabetes powerhouse, were to blame for the expected shortfall.

Chairman Serge Weinberg wasn't as coy: On a call with analysts, he said "local management" in the U.S. weren't doing their jobs. Sales managers in particular. "It appears that our sales force management on Lantus in the U.S. could have been better," Weinberg said. "[C]learly we have not been as good as we should have in managing this sales force in this market."

Weinberg declined to be much more specific. He said sales reps' work with doctors was inadequate, and rep-physician relationships were a bigger problem than Sanofi's relations with payers. Managers weren't focused on "adequate targets." The company's "market access capabilities" needed to be reinforced. "We really had been underperforming there," he said.

In fact, he admitted after some pressing from analysts, Sanofi had lost market share in the U.S.

He promised that Sanofi got to work on fixing those problems earlier this year. With problems in the U.S. evident at the beginning of 2014, "changes have been made" in the months since, he said. "I hope we will recover a better position in the next quarters," he added.

Among those changes: Sanofi brought in Andrew Purcell to head up its U.S. diabetes business; he joined the company a few months ago, spokeswoman Susan Brooks told FiercePharmaMarketing.

And then there's the change at the top of North America Pharmaceuticals. This summer, U.S. chief Anne Whitaker left Sanofi for a CEO post at Synta. Obviously, she was deeply involved in the diabetes business, because it's among Sanofi's biggest. There's been no suggestion that she was forced out; obviously, she had a job waiting for her. So, her departure may simply illustrate the problems in the company's U.S. operations. But Weinberg did mention execution issues among local management. After Whitaker left, Sanofi quickly brought in Jez Moulding, who previously headed up its operations in Japan, to replace her.

"Under their leadership, we are assessing and evolving our commercial approach to continue to offer our existing treatments to help people living with diabetes," Brooks said in an emailed statement. "We are also preparing for the upcoming launch of Afrezza in Q1 2015 and the potential launch of Toujeo in 2015."

Afrezza, of course, is MannKind's ($MNKD) brand-new inhaled insulin product; Sanofi recently signed on to market the product, which has some very vocal supporters--and some equally vocal detractors. Toujeo is a longer-acting basal insulin intended to step into Lantus' big shoes; it's awaiting approval by the FDA.

The Sanofi dust-up hasn't gone unremarked in the diabetes world. During last week's earnings call with Novo Nordisk ($NVO), the biggest seller of drugs for the disease, analysts specifically asked whether Sanofi's plans to revamp its U.S. sales approach would prompt Novo execs to do the same.

"[A]re you worried about them getting their act together, so to speak, if I may say so?" Novo CEO Lars Rebien Sørensen asked President and COO Kåre Schultz.

Schultz wouldn't comment on Sanofi's sales force performance, but gave kudos to Novo's sales operations in the basal insulin market, where Sanofi's Lantus competes with Novo's Levemir. "We're very happy with the market share gains we've been seeing consistently on Levemir over the past couple of years," he said. "I don't have any plans to dramatically change the size and the way our salesforce works. We're very happy with the way it's working right now."

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