ZURICH (Reuters) – Fritz Gerber, the long-time head of Roche Holding (ROG.S) who helped transform the Swiss company from an image-tarnished vitamins, drugs and chemicals conglomerate into a biotechnology and diagnostics giant, has died at the age of 91.
Gerber, who died from a stroke on Sunday, served as CEO and chairman from 1978 to 1998 and until 2001 as Roche’s chairman. He oversaw the acquisition of a majority stake in U.S. biotech group Genentech in 1990 just as use of monoclonal antibodies was poised to radically alter the fight against cancer.
Gerber also spearheaded the acquisition of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology in 1991 and the $11 billion purchase of Boehringer Mannheim in 1997 that expanded Roche’s reach into diagnostic tests that have been deployed widely this year to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
“Fritz Gerber made numerous major acquisitions with intuition and a keen sense of when something is ripe,” Roche said in a statement confirming his death. “Roche still benefits today from his foresight.”
Born in 1929 in Bern and a lawyer by training, Gerber spent his early career at the precursor to Zurich Insurance (ZURN.S) before joining Roche while it was still reeling from a 1976 disaster at a subsidiary in northern Italy – a chemical explosion poisoned hundreds of people, led to the deaths of thousands of animals, contaminated the environment and battered the company’s reputation.
The catastrophe “hung like a millstone” around Roche’s neck, Gerber acknowledged in a 2004 interview with a Swiss newspaper. It wasn’t the only challenge facing the company: the patent on its wildly successful depression medicine Valium was due to expire, taking with it Roche’s most-important revenue stream.
In his first decade at Roche, Gerber oversaw a period of consolidation within the family-controlled company, the diversification of which had extended its activities into agricultural chemicals, aromas, vitamins, diagnostics and drugs.
The 1990 deal for an initial 60% stake in San Francisco-based Genentech for $2.1 billion was perhaps Gerber’s defining move. The transaction resulted in blockbuster medicines including Herceptin and Avastin that reaped tens of billions of dollars for Roche over the years.
“It is largely thanks to Fritz Gerber that Roche found its way back onto the road to success at the end of the last millennium,” Christoph Franz, Roche’s chairman, said in a statement.