- 1 year ago
30 January 2023
“It was probably my destiny to join Vifor and combine my passion outside of work with my focus at work,” says Hervé Gisserot, one year after he left a long career at GSK to join the much smaller Swiss pharma company.
Initially taking on the role of Chief Commercial Officer, Gisserot was appointed General Manager in August 2022 following the company’s acquisition by CSL, bringing with him not only his 35 years’ experience in pharma but also his passion for competing in Ironman challenges.
Known for his infectious energy and enthusiasm, Gisserot laughs easily at himself and at the concept of an ironman joining a company that specialises in iron products but is also quick to point out the more practical benefits his sport brings to his leadership.
“I had my first bike crash of the year last Saturday, so I’m a little bit in pain, but an ironman has to overcome pain and stay committed,” he told MedNews when we sat down this month, the comment speaking both to Gisserot’s almost legendary positivity and his extraordinary resilience.
“I’ve learned a lot from my Ironman experience and I use it often in my leadership and in my life – the commitment, discipline, and never-give-up attitude. You know when you prepare, you will have to go through some difficult moments, so you have to anticipate that and be ready.
“You have to be physically fit but also mentally ready. When you hit the tough times, you visualise yourself crossing the finish line, your wife waiting for you, celebrating the achievement, and you keep going.
“It’s very much the same managing a business. You have to have the same commitment, the discipline, the resilience, and be ready to help others. An ironman mindset gives me the opportunity to manage my stress and fatigue and dedicate my efforts and energy to others, because that’s my job.”
An unusual race start
Gisserot did not plan a career in pharma, choosing instead political science at university. It was also the 1980s and France had compulsory military service, although students could instead choose civil service if they worked for a French company abroad. Gisserot chose the latter and worked for Fournier in Germany.
After completing his service, the company offered him a full-time job, launching a 35-year career in the industry, although Gisserot soon moved to another French pharma in Sanofi where he rose quickly through the ranks, spending time in the US in various Vice President roles before moving back to Europe.
In 2008, he took a country manager role at GSK, the UK-based pharma clearly recognising his strong leadership potential by appointing him a Senior Vice President (SVP) in 2012 and moving him to Asia the following year where he spent the next nine years in SVP roles. The move to Vifor was not an easy decision, says Gisserot.
“I took this decision more with my brain than my heart because my heart was telling me to stay with GSK and my brain was telling me to go because I could achieve more in my career,” he says.
“I thought for a company of that size (Vifor was worth around £2 billion at the time), Vifor had a really interesting portfolio and that I could have an impact. For me, it’s all about having an impact. It’s not about managing the day-to-day routine, it’s about having a positive impact on patients, on people, and on the business overall.
“I also wanted to move to a global role. I’d been the regional head at GSK for a number of years and it was time for me to move to a role where I had global accountability. Ultimately, it was my aspiration to be CEO of a company.”
Overcoming race challenges
While Gisserot was initially appointed Chief Commercial Officer, rumours were already circulating when he joined the executive team that Vifor had attracted the interest of a potential buyer. Acquisition is often seen as a threat by established leaders “but I see these things as an opportunity and not a threat” said Gisserot. That view paid off when CSL appointed him global GM of CSL Vifor in August.
“You have to believe in your ability and convince others that you can have a positive impact,” says Gisserot of his rapid promotion, admitting he now has a big job to do in maximising the growth potential not just of CSL Vifor’s pipeline products, but also its established products.
“It’s a great opportunity but also a challenge because it means you have many priorities. We have to make sure we stay extremely focused and allocate our resources properly. For a company of our size, it’s a nice challenge but something I focus on a lot.”
In Australia, the PBAC twice rejected CSL Vifor’s VELTASSA (patiromer) for the treatment of hyperkalaemia, outcome statements demonstrating a desire to cost-minimise it to a much older therapy. A resubmission is up for consideration again in March suggesting a deal has been struck, but Gisserot says such reticence to pay “is a key challenge in today’s pharma”.
“The key is to put ourselves in their position,” he says. “They want to pay for real innovation, so we have to have the data to demonstrate that our medicines bring real innovation to patients and to the system, but at the same time, we have to acknowledge that there is no funding for me-too products in today’s world, so we have to be first-in-class or best-in-class.”
He says this puts the pressure on leaders like himself to be “extremely selective” in deciding which drugs progress to development, and to be fully aware that “access hurdles will be very difficult to overcome”.
“It’s not a perfect world; it’s a world of constrained resources,” he says. “We hope that governments will continue to embrace innovation but pharma also needs to bring real innovation to patients, particularly if it is to expect public funding.”
Crossing the finish line
Having spent almost a decade in Asia with GSK, Gisserot is well placed to bring CSL’s ambition of increasing its footprint in China to life at CSL Vifor. To date, CSL Vifor has a joint venture with Fresenius Kabi for its iron portfolio in China but Gisserot says it will also look into leveraging its parent company moving forward.
Global expansion is just one area where Gisserot is likely to make his own mark on Vifor, this seasoned ironman and pharma leader clearly having the mindset and the tools to lead the company to global success.
“I’m an Ironman, not a superman!” he laughs. “I don’t have any specific power, I don’t have a magic bullet. I’m just very committed, very disciplined, very resilient and very passionate.
“When people talk about my leadership style, they mention one word: authenticity. I’m a very authentic leader. People can connect easily with me and I like to lead with no filter. I absolutely respect the hierarchy but I think leaders, especially at the senior level, suffer from too many filters. They’re not sufficiently connected. I want to listen with no filter to the real pulse of the organisation.
“We can only win when we are a united team.”