Jeremy Levin has a big task on his hands. The former Londoner has moved to Israel to become boss of the country’s largest company.
Last week he became chief executive of Teva Pharmaceuticals, one of the world’s largest drug manufacturers with a 2011 revenue of $18.3 billion and profit of $4.38 billion. A few days before assuming his new position he took time out at Teva’s Petach Tikvah headquarters to give the JC his first media interview since arriving in Israel.
Dr Levin has come from New York where he was senior vice president, strategy, alliances and transactions, at biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb (BSM) and before that, global head of business development and strategic alliances for Novartis, another pharmaceutical firm. He was responsible for BSM’s “string of pearls” strategy — a series of acquisitions that diversified the company’s drug portfolio and produced a positive turnaround in BSM’s fortunes as the patent of Plavix, their top selling blood thinner, was about to expire.
But he bridles at comparisons between BSM and Teva, and talk of shareholder concerns that the patent of Teva’s Multiple Sclerosis drug Copaxone, with 2011 sales of $3.9 billion and reportedly responsible for one third of Teva’s profit, is about to expire in the next few years.
“Every company faces a different set of challenges,” he says. “Teva is a company with a unique culture. In the time I have been here, I have had the opportunity to meet the leadership and talent that has made Teva the successful company that it is today. In my experience, Teva has some of the best people in the industry with a level of drive, determination and innovation that is second to none.”
He takes over from Shlomo Yanai who in five years as Teva chief executive more than doubled the company’s revenue.
Much will be expected of Dr Levin. A major challenge will be the integration of US company Cephalon, which Teva bought last year for $6.8 billion. Cephalon has a branded portfolio (original, expensive medicines) and a drug development pipeline division while Teva is the world’s largest generics company (cheaper medicines whose patents have expired). Dr Levin is irked by the assumption that he has been brought in to transform Teva into a major branded drug company.
He says: “To a patient, a medicine is a medicine. They depend on medicines to save or improve the quality of their life. Whether that product is a new chemical or proven molecule, the biggest difference between a brand product and a generic is usually the price. Teva has a unique position of truly being both a brand and generic company before others in the industry had really embraced the concept.”
Born in South Africa, Dr Levin, 58, moved to Rhodesia with his family but left after his journalist father fled from the Ian Smith whites-only regime.
He was a teenager when his family took refuge in London where he took his A-levels at Holland Park Comprehensive. He was in the same class as Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central and the shadow secretary of state for communities and local government. The two remain friends today.
Although a promising young rugby player, Dr Levin pursued academia, receiving a PhD in molecular biology from Oxford University. He then graduated as a physician from Cambridge University. He worked at Hammersmith Hospital before pursuing his career as a biopharmaceutical executive in the US. His younger brother David Levin is chief executive of UK-based media giant UBM plc.
“I think it must be unique for two brothers to have become CEOs of two such large public companies,” says Dr Levin. “I haven’t really asked David for any tips on how to be a chief executive but I asked him about his guiding principles and in what way did his core values contribute to the way he runs the business.”
As he takes up the reins at Teva there is a lot of idealism in those core values.
“As a CEO I must worry about shareholders and stakeholders, including patients and employees. My philosophy is that there is a covenant between a company that develops and markets medicines and the patients it serves. I believe that shareholders and stakeholders will be best served by giving the best value to our global body of patients. This means delivering medicines that make a difference to as many people as possible around the world at affordable prices.”
Dr Levin has visited Israel dozens of times over the years, including a period as a young man working in a kibbutz cowshed. His Hebrew is already impressive but he feels improvement is needed before he will be able to manage meetings in the language. He and his wife Margery are enjoying life in central Tel Aviv where they rent a flat. Their two daughters remain at college in the US.
Dr Levin is well aware that Israel’s bio-tech and drug development industry has a lot to offer both Teva and global medicine in terms of new molecules, stem cell and genetic treatments. Israel’s potential is especially important in a world where there is an absence of promising new drugs in the pipeline.
“We will continue to be innovative by focusing not only on how we commercialise but also on how we discover, develop and manufacture — all of which start from the same point – world-class R&D.”