A Former Lieutenant’s Tribute to Henri Termeer

I joined Genzyme in 1995, and worked there for almost eight years. Henri Termeer had been running the company for about a dozen years by then and was well on his way to establishing himself as an industry pioneer. He was way ahead of his time in many, many ways.

Chris Rivera, CEO, Nativis

Chris Rivera, CEO, Nativis

Henri recognized that companies were much more than brick and mortar assets, more than just intellectual property on paper. Talent was key. He concentrated on finding the right people for the job to be done, and removing whatever obstacles he could to allow them to excel. One of the reasons I joined Genzyme was that the company allowed me to commute from Seattle to Cambridge, Mass. while advancing my career on the sales and marketing side, ending up as an SVP.  They were one of the only companies in the mid-1990’s that would let key employees do this. Today, long-distance commuting in biotech is nothing unusual.

I remember many flights back and forth and sitting next to other executives from Big Pharma companies.  The conversation would inevitably turn to Genzyme and what we did.  Back then, not too many people knew about Genzyme. When I told them that we developed and marketed drugs for rare diseases, they would always say: “You can’t have a successful company with only a few thousand patients.”

These were the days when Big Pharma focused almost entirely on mass marketed drugs like statins for lowering cholesterol. Henri Termeer not only helped create the biotech industry we know today, he also did more than anyone else to demolish the pharmaceutical industry’s conception of itself. He proved that you could build a hugely successful business by addressing the needs of just a few thousand patients. It took tremendous guts, and a willingness to endure tough questioning from payers and the media, to articulate and defend the necessary high prices. Years later, his rare disease business playbook is standard operating procedure. Every drug company has a “Specialty Division,” code for Orphan Disease.

Henri would hold quarterly business reviews with each business unit.  They were usually at 8am on Monday, and I would usually take the red-eye from Seattle on Sunday night to walk straight off the plane into the meeting, in hopes of preserving more weekend family time.  Bleary-eyed as I may have been, I distinctly remember Henri being amazing in these meetings. I cannot remember him ever taking notes, yet he could look at your budget or forecast and question a specific line item and ask why it changed, up or down compared to what you showed him 3, 6 or even 12 months ago.  There was always a sense of relief if you could get out of those meetings unscathed.

I was fortunate enough to help be part of the team that launched sevelamer (Renagel), a drug to control phosphate levels in the blood, which was the cornerstone of Genzyme’s Renal Division.  I remember when we were asking Henri to approve doubling my sales force from 40 to 80 reps.  Genzyme had never had such a big commercial group and we were unsure if he would approve the expense.  We asked our consultants to send the top guy to present to Henri, and after more than an hour of presentations, questions and answers, Henri asked our consultant, “what would you do?”  He responded, “I do these analyses for most of the industry, sometimes it’s a flip of the coin of whether you should do this, or how big to go.  In your case, this is a no-brainer. You will be leaving a lot on the table if you don’t do this.  Henri looked at me and said, “what are you waiting on?”

On 9/11, Henri was traveling to Palm Springs to speak at a meeting of Genzyme’s entire worldwide renal commercial business. I was in charge of the meeting, and more than a little nervous after seeing the news about the Twin Towers.  I remember my hotel phone ringing that morning when my meeting coordinator called me and asked me to come downstairs.  We began working with our security team to locate everyone on their way to Palm Springs.  Henri was supposed to be on Flight 11 out of Boston’s Logan Airport on his way to LA and then to Palm Springs.  I called his assistant to find out what flight he had taken, and she told me that I would be happy with her because she found a flight through Chicago that would get him to Palm Springs an hour earlier.  When Henri landed in Chicago, he saw the tragic news. All flights were temporarily grounded that day, so he immediately rented a car to drive back to Boston. Thankfully he was not on one of the planes that went into the World Trade Centers that day.  If Henri had gotten on Flight 11 that morning, who knows what Genzyme or the biotech industry would look like today. While Henri was fortunate to make it home safely, we mourned the loss of Genzyme’s VP of Advocacy, Lisa Raines, who was on Flight 77 out of Washington Dulles that day.

Another distinct memory of my Genzyme days with Henri. While I was running the US Sales group for Renagel, Henri would walk down to my office every week when the new prescription numbers would come to us from IMS.  I could recognize his footsteps and was always happy to report to him when we had a good week.  He could remember trends and numbers like no one else I have been associated with.  Henri also loved to get up on the stage in front of my teams.  My managers and I would always have a side-bet to see how long he would speak for.  Our “over-under” was usually an hour, if you took the “under” you usually lost.  He was very proud of his company, you could hear it in his voice every time he spoke.  It was his passion and vision that built the “culture” that made Genzyme great.

Henri and other Senior Executives tried several times to get me to relocate to Boston.  I was told that I could eventually run one of the business units.  I left Genzyme in 2003, not because I was unhappy with my job or the company.  Genzyme was one of the best employment experiences I’ve had in my career.  I left because I was not going to relocate to Boston, and the travel was no longer making sense.  When Henri found out that I was leaving, he asked to see me in his office.  We spent nearly an hour talking about Renagel, Genzyme Tissue Repair and what a great team and organization we had built.  But the most important message that I remember from that conversation was that “we have made a tremendous difference in thousands of people’s lives around the world. You should be very proud of that.”  He wished me success and let me know the door was always open if I wanted to return.

Over the years, I would frequently run into Henri at BIO or the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference.  He always stopped and spoke to me as if I had never left the company.  The year that Genzyme was acquired by Sanofi, 2011, I was at the annual Genzyme alumni reunion at JP Morgan.  The rumors were rampant that Genzyme was going to be acquired, you could see the sadness in Henri’s eyes.  I was lucky enough to share a car ride with him back to Union Square that night.  We were talking about the good old days, Renagel, the people that we met and about making a difference.  I remember saying to Henri, “you must be very proud tonight”.  He asked me what I meant, and I said, “did you see all of those CEOs in that room tonight that came from Genzyme?  You helped all of us get to where we are today.  The impact that you have had on this industry is immeasurable!”  He thanked me, but he was always very humble and did not acknowledge what I meant.

I saw him for the last time this year at JP Morgan at our Genzyme reunion.  He was in good spirits and looked great.  I wish I could say good-bye to him again.  I would have thanked him for all that he has done for me and for our industry.

The impact that he has had on our industry, and countless others, including myself is immeasurable!

Chris Rivera is the Chairman, President and CEO of Nativis.

[Editor’s Note: A celebration of Henri Termeer’s life will be held at 11 am Saturday, May 20th in Kresge Auditorium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 48 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. A reception will follow until 2 pm. A funeral mass will be celebrated on Monday, May 22nd in Our Lady Star of the Sea Church, 85 Atlantic Avenue, Marblehead, Mass. For more information, see the Joyce Funeral Home.]

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