On a sunny Friday morning two summers ago, Daniel Vasella got quite a wake-up call. Outside his lakefront home near Zug, Switzerland, gigantic speakers blasted Wagner's Gotterdammerung loud enough to rattle the windows. From across the lake, several boats carrying protesters converged on his house. A helicopter delivered a barrel marked with a skull and crossbones to one of the boats. Baffled, Vasella watched as the barrel was ferried to shore and plunked on his lawn.
The stunt, it turned out, had been organized by Greenpeace to protest an old industrial dump near Basel that was said to be leaking chemical waste into the groundwater. The barrel carried water from a source by the dump in which, protesters said, they had found traces of drugs made by Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant that Vasella leads as chairman and CEO.
Vasella could have summoned the police. Instead, he stepped outside and asked the crowd, "Who's the boss here?" A man stepped forward, and Vasella told him the commotion was scaring his two younger children. Vasella invited the protest leader and two of his companions for breakfast on his terrace to talk things over. Vasella's wife Anne-Laurence served croissants to the rest of the group.
It was vintage Vasella: cool-headed, personable, direct--adjectives that frequently crop up in descriptions of the drug executive. Vasella is exceptionally smooth in dealing with advocates for lower pharmaceutical prices as well as with regulators and lawmakers, whether in his native Switzerland or in the U.S., where he is embarked on a major expansion. He is fluent in German, French and English and says he can muddle through in Italian and Spanish. More important, he is fluent in many cultures, from the elaborate rituals of Japanese business to an American culture that is at once informal and legalistic. Despite his modest public demeanor, Vasella is an exacting boss who demands short, sure answers to his probing questions. And rivals know him as a ferocious competitor who in less than six years has transformed once sleepy Novartis into one of the world's most dynamic and admired drug companies. For all these reasons, Vasella, 48, has earned a reputation as the quintessential global CEO--one who moves nimbly from corporate finance and strategy to science and marketing to p.r. and lobbying.
Novartis, which operates in 140 countries, last year booked sales of $19 billion, up 10% from 2000. While such competitors as GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb are entering a period of declining revenue growth as patents on their major drugs expire, Novartis is poised for several years of steady double-digit expansion. This year its shares in the U.S. are up about 10%--the best performance among major drug companies--even as the Morgan Stanley Capital USA Health Care Index, a basket of big drug stocks, has fallen about 25%. Novartis is the 17th most valuable company in the world, up from 27th last year.