Big Pharma CEOs' Chinese names: Here's how they look and what they mean

For a better corporate image in China, many CEOs of Big Pharma companies have got themselves Chinese names. (SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Tuesday marks the 70th year since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. To honor the event, dozens of biopharma execs in the country appeared in a music video that’s nothing short of patriotism.

You’ll see top China executives from AstraZeneca, Allergan, BeiGene, Pfizer, Fresenius Kabi, Zai Labs and more waving flags, chanting slogans and singing a decades-old patriotic song that people of all walks of life in China use to express their love for the country.

CEOs of Big Pharma companies have their own way of cozying up to the world’s second-largest pharmaceutical market—by getting themselves Chinese names. I think this anniversary is the perfect time to take a news break and offer a glimpse into China itself, not as a business opportunity—well, maybe just a little—but as a cultural heritage.

It's not uncommon for students to choose a name in another language when they start learning it—as is my case with English. But for multinational CEOs, Chinese names can serve as a second brand alongside the firms’ own.

And though local execs from Western countries must weather many challenges in China, including what Harvard Business School scholar Lynn Paine called “cultural understanding and adaptability,” CEOs might make do with basic knowledge and a friendly face. And a Chinese name can be a good start.

Remember, these are not fan-dubbed nicknames—e.g., Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne is better known in China as “Little Freckles”—but officially sanctioned. They appear in the companies’ Chinese press releases, for instance.

What's in a Chinese name?

Technically, turning an English name into a Chinese one could be a matter of syllable-by-syllable adaptation, and one executive on our list below did just that. But in China, a true Chinese name usually is a combination of two or three characters, and those combinations can bear loads of meaning.

For Chinese people, names usually convey parents' wishful thinking (or good hopes). Foreigners would keep that concentration of meaning in mind when developing Big Pharma execs’ Chinese names, to one degree or another. Some adopt the Chinese norm of family name first, some follow the original order and others focus on just the surname or the given name.

Below, I’ll show you how the CEOs’ names look in simplified Chinese characters, how they are pronounced in Mandarin and what the given names mean. (Obviously, the surname is supposedly inherited without the function of carrying meaning.) The names are in alphabetical order by company.

Many themes appear within them, including personal virtue, wisdom or knowledge. My personal favorite? Former Sanofi CEO Olivier Brandicourt’s. My least favorite? Newly minted Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson’s. I’ll elaborate later. And please let us know which one you like most.

Abbott, CEO Miles White

白千里 /bai chi-an lee/ The name doesn’t remotely sound like the original. That’s because it’s the exact Chinese meaning of white miles. In Chinese, 千 means “thousand,” or implies “many.” So here, White’s name means “going afar.” It can refer to your business, your personal health or anything you hope will endure time and distance.

AstraZeneca, CEO Pascal Soriot

苏博科 /soo boh ker/ If any biopharma CEO should have a Chinese name, it would be Pascal Soriot; after all, about 20% of AstraZeneca’s business comes from China. 博 means “abundant,” or “full of.” The Chinese for a Ph.D. degree uses this character. 科, when used with the Chinese character 学 (kind of like the Chinese equivalent of suffix “-ology”), means “science.” So, Soriot’s name means “knowledgeable about science.”

Boehringer Ingelheim, CEO Hubertus von Baumbach

冯保和 /ferng bao her/ 保 means “protect” or “maintain,” and 和 means “peace” or “harmony.” There is a popular traditional Chinese combo medicine with the name 保和. It's used for a variety of gastrointestinal conditions such as dyspepsia and lack of appetite, and the name points to its ability to preserve the stomach's inner balance and peace. So, Baumbach's name could be interpreted as “maintaining wellness.”

Eli Lilly, CEO David Ricks

戴文睿 /dai wen ruei/ 文 is a widely used character in Chinese names. It can mean anything connected to literature, literary topics or civilization. And in the educational realm, it refers to liberal arts. 睿 means “astute” or “smart.” Put together, the name means “perspicacious in literature.”

GlaxoSmithKline CEO

GSK CEO Emma Walmsley is notably absent from this list. It’s surprising, because GSK is one of the world's largest consumer health players and among the first to enter China when the People’s Republic opened up in the 1980s. Its over-the-counter drug brands are household words in China. Plus, Walmsley once headed up L'Oreal's Chinese consumer business based in Shanghai.

In Emma Walmsley’s place, I’d like to mention Thomas Willemsen, who previously served as GSK’s China head and just recently jumped to Takeda as senior vice president of Asia Pacific, according to his LinkedIn profile.

魏廉昇 /Wei lian sheng/ 廉 describes an official as being “incorruptible” or clean of scandals, and 昇 is a verb often used to describe a rising sun, or in its expanded usage, “rise up.” Combined, his name could mean “rising to a higher official rank after being examined and evaluated.” His Chinese name looks quite interesting against the backdrop of GSK’s history.

Willemsen transferred to GSK China from Taiwan in the wake of the company's high-profile bribery scandal. He came to the rescue, arguably, by taking the reins of the very operation at the center of the crisis—its commercial operations on the pharma side. Three years later, he was promoted to the general manager position and later to VP of oncology for intercontinental and emerging markets. Quite a story that coincidentally matches his Chinese name, right?

Merck & Co., CEO Ken Frazier

福维泽 /foo wei zer/ 维 means “maintain,” and 泽 means “luster.” Here, Frazier’s surname 福 also deserves a look. It means “good fortune,” and it can be used together with 泽 to mean the same thing or “blessing.” It reminds of us what happened back in the fall of 2018, when Merck's board tweaked the firm's retirement rule so that Frazier could stay on and keep Merck golden.

Merck KGaA, CEO Stefan Oschmann

欧思明 /ou sz ming/ 思 is about “thinking,” and 明 is “bright.” Together, it’s straightforward—“think clearly.”

Pfizer, CEO Albert Bourla

艾伯乐 /ai boh le/ For this name, we’ll need to travel back in history. Nearly 3,000 years ago, during China’s Spring and Autumn Period, slightly before Confucius' time, lived a mythological person with the name 伯乐. He is known for his ability to identify good horses. By studying the body of a horse, he could tell whether it could run fast, jump far or respond well to training.

These horses in China are traditionally dubbed 千里—the word used in Abbott CEO Miles White’s name, no offense—to imply endurance. Today, 伯乐 is widely used to describe a good judge of talent. So, we could say former Pfizer chief Ian Read is the 伯乐 who recognized Albert Bourla's talent. 

Bourla's chosen Chinese name does have its own meaning. 伯 in traditional Chinese is used for the eldest son of a family, and 乐 means “happiness” or “pleasure.”

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan

万思瀚 /wan sz han/ 思 for “think” appears again. 瀚 describes something vast in range and large in number, such as the sea or the galaxy. The name combined indicates a spacious or powerful mind.

Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen

周赋德 /joe foo de/ 赋 is a formal version of the word “give.” We could also say it's equivalent to “endow.” 德 means “virtue” or “ethics,” as in the good character of a person.

Roche CEO Severin Schwan

施万 /shr wan/ 万, also the last name used for Narasimhan, is ten thousand. In Chinese, hundred, thousand and ten thousand can all generally mean “many.” It’s a no-brainer, yes. Still, what's many is up to interpretation—and imagination.

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson

韩保罗 /han bao luo/ Paul Hudson’s name is a textbook example of how not to pick a Chinese name. 保罗 is the formal, syllable-by-syllable transcription of “Paul.” It's the same name used for former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and the octopus that rose to global fame for accurately predicting the 2010 World Cup results. 

But the Chinese name for Hudson's recently retired predecessor Olivier Brandicourt was clearly selected carefully.

白理惟 /bai lee way/ 理 has many definitions in Chinese. Generally, it's about “reason,” “logic” or “principle.” As opposed to 文, which is used in David Ricks’ Chinese name, 理 refers to natural science.

Now, 惟 is an interesting choice. 惟 means “only” or in some cases “to think” or “hope.” Several Chinese characters are pronounced /wei/, including 维 (used in Ken Frazier’s name), 唯 and 帷. They all look alike—and guess what, sometimes they’re interchangeable. The difference lies in the left part of those characters, and for 惟, it's a morphed version of the Chinese character for “heart.” In my opinion, that word choice elevated the whole name, evoking the image of a well-educated gentleman.

Wait—where's Johnson & Johnson?

Like GSK, Johnson & Johnson is one of the world's biggest consumer health companies and was among the first to set up shop in China in the 1980s. Yet CEO Alex Gorsky doesn't have a Chinese name. Two of the company's brands, however—anti-dandruff ketoconazole (Nizoral) and antifungal miconazole nitrate (Daktarin), both marketed by J&J’s Xian Janssen Pharmaceutical—are probably among the best-known drug brands in Chinese households.

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