Heart act to follow: Book examines Termeer legacy of generosity with daring

[Source: Article on bioworld.com]

By Randy Osborne, Staff Writer

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His parents likely expected Henri Termeer to find his position in the shoe business that the family had run for several hundred years but, after his advanced schooling, Termeer had other ideas. Biotech observers today may wonder who can fill the moccasins of the trailblazer that Termeer became.

John Hawkins, author of a new book about Termeer, regards him as “if not the founding father of biotechnology, one of the founding fathers. It’s astonishing the impact that he had on so many threads within the development of biotechnology over the past three decades.”

Longtime CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Genzyme Corp., Termeer stayed active after his firm was acquired in a $20.1 billion deal by Sanofi SA, of Paris, in 2011, accepting board positions and continuing his philanthropic work. He died a little over two years ago at age 71. Conscience and Courage: How Visionary CEO Henri Termeer Built a Biotech Giant and Pioneered the Rare Disease Industry tells the story. (See BioWorld, Feb. 17, 2011.)

When he first met Termeer, Hawkins was a health care banker with Alex. Brown & Sons, where he took about 40 companies public. The job provided an “interesting perch [from which] to look at leaders of these companies.” Later, as chief financial officer of mammalian cell culture firm Invitron Corp., Hawkins got “a privileged look at the pipeline of over 30 biotechnology companies” in the space, then nascent. “I don’t want to portray that I knew Termeer well,” he said. “I didn’t.”

Hawkins said that a few years ago, after an extended coffee date with Termeer, “I was startled when he just sort of dropped in conversation – not wanting to bring attention to it – that he was actively mentoring 46 CEOs at that time of his life.” The author filed the remark away, interpreting Termeer’s pro bono work as a measure of his generosity and “how much he valued the human dimension of this business.”

For the book, Hawkins interviewed 130 people over a period of almost two years, resulting in about 3,000 transcribed pages. He read some 200 boxes of materials, including speeches, presentations and Congressional testimony. He whittled it all into a 222-page tome. “This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

Along with Termeer’s backstage generosity, Conscience and Courage (which Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press is taking into a second printing) examines its subject’s corporate strategical acumen. Hints of shrewdness surfaced at age 12, when Henri – fourth of six children – turned into an avid chess player. “He wouldn’t go to the pool hall after school, he would go to the chess hall,” Hawkins said. “There are stories of him playing six or eight boards at the same time and beating everybody in the room.”

The mature Termeer “loved to smash preconceptions” in biotech, Hawkins said, pointing to the program with Ceredase (alglucerase) in Gaucher disease as an example. “His scientific advisory board, comprised of MIT and Harvard faculty members, advised him strongly not to pursue it.” The board was hardly alone. “Of course, Henri did it anyway,” based on the strong response in one early patient, Brian Berman. “Even though seven other patients failed, it changed his thinking for the rest of his career.”

The Gaucher effort yielded success in the end, but “some others didn’t work quite as well, things like the cystic fibrosis gene therapy program,” a high-profile bid in the early 1990s that “laid some of the foundation for what was to follow,” Hawkins said, even if it fizzled for Genzyme. Some investors also fretted over the Termeer scheme of establishing several tracking stocks for Genzyme’s various efforts. “People thought he was crazy,” and in the end it didn’t work out, “but he wasn’t afraid to try different ways of doing things.”

Termeer goaded others to experiment. “He was the ultimate human capitalist, a master at not only identifying but also developing talent,” Hawkins said. Those skills he may have learned from his own mentor, William Graham, CEO of what is known today as Baxter International Inc., of Deerfield, Ill., who hired Termeer out of business school. “The notion of putting his executives into sink-or-swim situations” became key for Termeer. “I can’t tell you how many people talked about this,” Hawkins said. Employees were brought in low on the totem pole and enabled to climb via their own grit and ingenuity. “He’d give them all this advice, but then at the end, with a stern look on his face, he would say, ‘It’s your responsibility'” – one of his favored phrases – to deliver.

Genzyme, along with Amgen Inc., Biogen Inc. and Genentech, represented biotech’s “four horsemen” in the early days, Hawkins said; Genetics Institute might be included in the mix. “Henri was by far the most durable of all the CEOs that served,” holding his post as chief executive for 26 years, as president for 28, and as combined chairman and CEO for 24.

Hawkins noted that, at the funeral for Termeer, attended by about 600 people, his daughter’s eulogy highlighted his fondness for The Giving Tree, a bittersweet tale that writer Shel Silverstein intended for children but has been adored by many adults since it appeared in 1964. “I got there early and stood in the entrance foyer from about 10:15 to 11 o’clock, when the service started,” Hawkins recalled. “I watched this procession of leaders, really the Who’s Who of biotechnology.”

As he began interviews for his book in the summer of 2017, Hawkins found himself in “a period of discernment, trying to figure out if this [project] made any sense. I was a first-time author. Should I do this? The reaction was unanimously, ‘John, go for it.'” Though trade publishers tend to want biographies that are “less flattering than I wanted [my book] to be,” he said, Cold Spring was open to his plan for a business profile that could prove compelling for general readers. “This was about letting me write the book I wanted to write.”