Chiron Corp.'s incoming president and CEO, Sean Lance, has accepted what could be the single most interesting job in biotech today. He is being asked to take a company that Wall Street regards as a slow-growth laggard with a research operation run more like a university lab than a business, and turn it into an efficient commercially oriented machine with high growth, high margins and an exciting pipeline.

In addition to continuing the rationalization of the company's multiple business units, investors will be looking to see how Lance redeploys assets, how well he focuses the corporate culture on commercialization while retaining and attracting top-notch scientists, where he identifies CHIR's competitive technological advantages, how well he gets the platform working to revitalize the company's pipeline, and what new opportunities he identifies to partner or in-license new products.

Lance does not start until May 1, and clearly needs some months to review the company's programs in detail before making final decisions. But in a discussion with BioCentury, he outlined his initial thoughts about how to approach the job ahead. These include identification of CHIR's technological advantages, more critical review of projects and increased integration between the company's businesses.

The task

For several years, Wall Street has been saying that the company needs to strengthen its earnings and shed or revamp its less attractive business units. Excluding one-time items, CHIR's income from continuing operations in 1997 was $72 million ($0.41 per share) versus $57 million ($0.32 per share) in 1996. The company had 1997 product sales of $839 million and revenue of $1.2 billion, compared to 1996 product sales of $805 million and $1.1 billion in revenue. CHIR's 50 percent share of the pretax profit from its blood screening business with Ortho Diagnostics Systems Inc., reported separately as equity in earnings of unconsolidated joint business, was about $106 million in 1997 and $102 million in 1996.