Kindler offers Pfizer a fresh consumer focus

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When Pfizer's board named a legal eagle and former McDonald's man to steer the sputtering behemoth through rocky shoals, they voted first for change.

Many analysts have viewed Jeff  Kindler's elevation to CEO as a triumph of legal over
marketing (Katen, Kelly) and finance (Shedlarz), but his appointment—widely read as a rebuke of his predecessor and a portend of an increasingly litigious future—could also signal a renewed focus on the consumer.

Kindler is a question mark, his strategic vision for the company obscured by sweeping statements like his vow to “transform virtually every aspect” of Pfizer's business. Board members saw the makings of a managerial genius in the 51-year-old, Harvard-trained attorney, who learned the ropes at Jack Welch's GE and graduated to McDonald's, where he wasn't exactly flipping burgers. Handed a hatchet and told to dispose of sad-sack Boston Market, Kindler saw market potential where others did not, and rebuilt a desirable property.

He may not have the patient marketing expertise of Katen, but Kindler clearly has a knack for reaching consumers.

“He knows he's got to change what [Pfizer is] doing at every level to stay current with consumers,” said former Pfizer CRM chief Lita Sands, now a healthcare CRM consultant. Sands sees Kindler as a leader who can unify the tribes of Pfizer's legacy companies—a relic that has produced largely hermetic camps of Pharmacia, Warner-Lambert and Parke-Davis people.
His background in consumer products could make him a marketing innovator, bringing a fresh perspective to an industry not known for thinking outside the pill bottle. Most pharma firms, said Sands, “don't look for a lot of opportunities to scale. They replicate the brand-product marketing model over and over.”

Sands suggested Kindler might consider using Pfizer's corporate brand to build relationships with consumers and to cross-sell products. “Instead of thinking of themselves as selling Lipitor or Celebrex, they could see themselves as a marketing company going after baby boomers. They're ripe for multi-product relationships, and few companies can pull it off like Pfizer can.”

In contrast to Hank McKinnell's often off-putting aloofness and managerial style, Kindler
has an outgoing, collaborative approach that should play well with analysts and investors—not to mention employees. “He's probably much more decentralized than previous management, which implies that he's going to empower people,” said Lehman Brothers' Tony Butler, who got a call and an e-mail from Kindler on his first day as CEO.

That's not to say he's a big softie, as former Genotropin marketer Peter Rost will attest. Rost, who has faced off legally against Kindler twice, noted that Kindler implemented a policy of never settling as a means of deterring would-be litigants. He sees Kindler's lack of operational experience as a weakness, making him more reliant on staff, but expects him to make good on his vow to cut organizational layers. “If you're one of the layers, you would start getting a bit nervous, wouldn't you?” said Rost.

Kindler inherits a $4 billion cost-savings plan, now scheduled through 2008, which calls for not-minor reductions in sales and marketing staff. But his appointment carries a mandate for more far-reaching change, as Pfizer faces painful patent expirations, with few hopefuls to replace aging blockbusters. It's clear the old mass-market blockbuster model won't work in an age of increasing generic competition and increasingly specialized medicine, says Deutsche Bank's Barbara Ryan. “What the new model will be isn't clear.”

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