Pharma with a Soul: A visit to Novartis in Basel…

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

16 August 2014

Okay – maybe the title is a bit much – but by the end of my visit there, I was feeling pretty excellent.

Summary: Last Monday – August 11th – I had the chance to visit Novartis. I met with their CEO, Joe Jimenez, their head of government and public affairs, Dr. Petra Laux, and then – most nourishingly – I met with their Executive Female Leadership Program (EFLP) cohort. After that gathering, I toured the stunning campus – experiencing the array of architectural masterpieces.

Some highlights:

  • Novartis in the USA – Novartis provides yet another example of great Swiss-American relations. Their almost 30,000 employees in the US represent about 20% of their total number of worldwide employees. (yes – that’s almost 30,000 US jobs they are generating!). One of their main locations is their research center in Cambridge Massachusetts. They took over the former NECCO headquarters – New England Confectionary Company. For those who drive Mass Ave between Harvard and MIT, you would have seen the shift in 2003 from NECCO’s famous candy colored smoke stack to a double helix. Here’s a fun historical nugget from that transfer (from this history website)

“From 1927 until 2003 NECCO was headquartered in this building, and its water tower painted to replicate the familiar NECCO wafer roll was an iconic part of the Cambridge skyline. In 2004 NECCO moved production and headquarters to Revere and the building was occupied by Novartis Biomedical Research and the water tower was redesigned with a double helix….

“The Novartis conversion of the factory was a $175 million project partly to remove sugar spores in the pores of the walls and sticky residue from the floors.”


    • Meeting with their Executive Female Leadership Program: I had the honor and privilege of meeting with them to share some of my experiences, answer their questions and discuss my “crucible leadership moment” (we discussed this Harvard Business Review article) . It was very thought provoking and I was deeply moved by the caliber and candor of the group. At the end, the Global Head of Leadership Development for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Eric Pardell, shared the last few lines of this Dawna Markova poem (I quite like the whole thing!)
  • Campus tour: Last but not least, I toured their campus and was deeply impressed by the thoughtfulness of the layout – designed to foster collaboration and creativity. (You can do a virtual tour here.) They’ve engaged famous and fantastic “starchitects” from around the globe – including Frank Gehry from the US, Diener and Diener from Switzerland, SANAA from Japan, and more. Two among many architectural highlights:
  1. In one research building I visited, I walked up and down stairs that look like a spinal column (you walk on the vertebrae)
  2. In the Gehry building, they stay cool by using the water from the Rhein circulated into cooling pipes and also by having a light detection mechanism that lowers internal shades when certain strings get warm and exposed to light.

Overall, it was a great introduction to a Swiss company that invests in its people, in its surroundings and in making the world a better place!