Heading up a multinational drug firm is a high-wire act. When you aren't struggling to satisfy investors, you're justifying the high cost of your products to consumers. Daniel Vasella, CEO of the Swiss company Novartis, seems to pull off the act effortlessly. Urbane, understated, uncommonly charming, Vasellaa physician by trainingspeaks three languages fluently and flits easily between the varied social and commercial cultures in which his company operates. He's Swiss and proud of it, but his business sense is quintessentially American.
Vasella, 50, says his first responsibility is to his investors. But in an industry that has plenty of critics, he believes in a credible commitment to ethical practices. Novartis was quick to sign on to the U.N.'s Global Compact, which requires that its corporate signatories commit to the highest environmental, human-rights and labor standards wherever they operate. "He epitomizes a kind of leadership that puts equal emphasis on the social value created by the product and its economic value," notes Rosabeth Kanter, a consultant and professor at Harvard Business School.
Vasella hasn't practiced medicine since he started his business career at the age of 34, but he brings a physician's sensibility to his job. Still, he doesn't run a philanthropy. Thanks to aggressive marketing in the U.S., Novartis' sales surged 19% last year, to nearly $25 billion, as it became the world's fifth largest and fastest-growing of the giant drug firms.