How Novartis Vaccines turned fear into function

To hear Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics' head of technical ops tell it, fear was the enemy when Novartis swept into its newly acquired vaccine company, Chiron. And conquering that fear was what allowed the Swiss drugmaker's vaccines unit to deliver H1N1 flu vaccine quickly--and globally--during last year's pandemic.

As reported by Xconomy, Novartis Vaccines' Matthew Stober detailed his company's turnaround at Chiron after Novartis snapped up the share of the company it didn't already own for $5.4 billion in 2006. When Novartis moved in, executives found compliance problems, an ailing supply chain and other problems. But above all, they found fear. "People were afraid," Stober told Xconomy. "They were afraid to make decisions. They were afraid to stand up to senior management, and that hurt the operation."

Novartis replaced lots of Chiron management--the entire management team turned over by January 2008, in fact. Novartis also hired up more technically trained workers to augment the science-based staff. Its staff of engineers, for example, grew to 280 in 2009 from 98 in 2006. But crucial to dealing with the fear, Novartis also launched employee training programs that forced co-workers to give each other feedback. "[O]nce they started doing it, they realized, I can go and talk to the person next to me," Stobel said. "We had this climate where people were afraid to go tell someone something."

Stobel says the company started seeing improved internal metrics by early 2009. But the real proof came with the swine flu vaccine, when the Novartis unit was first to get both U.S. and European approvals for its version of a protective shot. Next goal: A big-time blockbuster vaccine.

- see the Xconomy story