Five years after spending $13.2 billion to acquire Serono S.A. as a growth platform, Merck KGaA finds itself with much higher pharmaceutical sales than it could have achieved on its own, but no obvious way to sustain them. The company's challenge is twofold: on the one hand, the pharma division has a cost base higher than its peers, and on the other, it lacks a pipeline of products to hold up the top line as sales of mature products flag.

To deal with the first problem, Merck in February announced a cost-cutting program aimed at trimming the fat across all its businesses and functional areas. Details are not disclosed, but the company has recently brought on a CFO who is fresh from a restructuring of his last company, chemicals firm Lanxess AG.