Lars Sorensen: Business chief who would love to have fewer customers

A Day in the Life: Lars Sorensen campaigns for diabetes awareness, while leading a company making the insulin needed by the millions of sufferers worldwide
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The Independent Online


As chief executive of Novo Nordisk, the company that provides half of all the insulin given to the world's 250 million sufferers of diabetes, it would be easy to assume that Lars Sorensen would be fiercely opposed to that extra teaspoon of sugar on his cereal, or to piling the bacon on the morning fry-up. Yet for a man at the forefront of the world's battle against obesity, he is very relaxed about his diet.

"I'm very much of the opinion that you can eat whatever you like, as long as you burn the calories," he says. "I even drink beer."

Less surprising is that Mr Sorensen is a fitness fanatic. After his early-morning breakfast, which usually does end up being cereal, he heads to a local fitness centre for a session on the stationary bike. "I'm a bit of an amateur cyclist," he says, before causally mentioning the 105-mile charity bicycle ride through Death Valley he recently did to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Recalling the ride, he adds: "You have some serious conversations with yourself during the day as to why you are doing this."


Mr Sorensen has two homes, one in the country about an hour from Bagsvaerd in Denmark, where the headquarters of Novo is located, and an apartment in the city, where he stays during most of the week to cut down on travel time.

Once in the office, he checks his emails to catch up on any developments overnight. Running the world's largest insulin producer with operations in 79 countries, there is a lot to keep track of.

He'll then often have a meeting with one of the various charities he works with, such as the Oxford Health Alliance, a London-based group he started in 2003 in conjunction with Oxford University to foment research into chronic disease.

"We are having a bit of a battle at the moment. The director is trying to wring more money out of me," he says with a chuckle.

That is followed by a meeting with the chief scientific officer, to go over any issues that have cropped up, whether it be on new lines of insulin to personnel problems or financing issues.

The main push at the company at the moment is on Liraglutide, a new product to increase patient insulin production and promote weight loss – it comes up for regulatory approval next year.

"It's good to make sure that there is nothing coming up not so nice that I don't know about," he says.


Yet another meeting, this time with the secretary of the board of directors. In addition to preparing the ground for the next month's board meeting, he is making last-minute preparations for World Diabetes Day. The event is a milestone in raising awareness of a disease that, while well known, does not get the same airtime as others, such as HIV/Aids, although it is set to overtake the latter in terms of deaths caused worldwide. On Wednesday next week, more than 150 monuments will be lit up with the World Diabetes Day light blue circle logo around the world, including the London Eye, the Empire State building, and the Sydney Opera House.

It will be the first time that the day will be officially recognised by the United Nations, which passed a resolution in December last year recognising diabetes as a "chronic, debilitating, and costly disease".

For Novo, the explosion of the disease is a double-edged sword. Business, not surprisingly, is great. As the world's leading insulin supplier, things has never been better. As Mr Sorensen puts it plainly: "The more fat people are, the greater the prevalence of diabetes."

But the rising fortunes for Novo are mirrored by the rapid worsening of the problem across the globe. "This is the biggest public health problem we have ever had. I say that without exaggeration. Our public health systems are not geared to deal with it."

Indeed, of the 250 million sufferers, only 10 per cent are stricken by type-1 diabetes, which develops due to genetics and most often in children. The remaining 90 per cent suffer fromtype-2, which is related to obesity and other lifestyle factors.

A large part of Mr Sorensen's time is thus spent evangelising, raising public awareness about the disease and trying to get people to change behaviours that can lead to its onset. He is a tireless, effective campaigner. "Type-2 diabetes can mean a slow, painful death: you might lose limbs, lose your sight, kidney function. The worst thing about it is that it is unnecessary, if people were just a bit smarter about it," he says. "We need to redesign our societies."

That was the thinking behind the World Diabetes Foundation. Mr Sorensen set up the charity in 2002 with a pledge of $100m hived off from Novo profits – today it funds 110 projects in 75 developing nations where access to treatment is severely limited.


It's lunchtime. As on most days, this means gathering around a common lunch table in Novo's open-plan offices where Mr Sorensen, his chief scientist, and their respective secretaries assemble for a gossip. A run through the newspapers while digesting, and then it is back to another succession of meetings, the first of which is with the product development committee.

Insulin was discovered in 1921. Today, selling it represents more than 80 per cent Novo's business, "and will probably be more in the future," he says. Yet that does not mean there is not innovation to be done. The development committee gives a rundown of progress of new types of insulin, as well as different ways to deliver it. Pfizer recently halted what it had hailed the biggest innovation in insulin since it was first discovered by bringing Exubera to the market, a system that allowed insulin to be inhaled rather than injected. It failed miserably, criticised for its awkward, fire-extinguisher size inhaler. Novo is working on its own version, though it is still a few years away from market.

Mr Sorensen is convinced Novo's version will be better. "If it's a convenience product, you better make sure it's more convenient," he says.


At such a sprawling organisation – headcount was up to 23,600 at the last tally – there are always new employees to meet. In comes a fresh batch, for which Mr Sorensen sets aside about an hour to chat with them and answers questions. Every year, the task is more taxing, he says, but it is clearly an exchange he enjoys. "When I started out, going to work was simply about having a job. People are beyond that point today," he explains. "Every year they are younger and younger, and they are more critical and vocal. They all want my job, and want to know how on earth I got here," he adds with a smile.


The end of the day brings him to Steno Diabetes Centre, a world-class research hospital which operates as an independent department within the company. Mr Sorensen sits on the board of the hospital, which he says is a major draw for research scientists who come to the company to carry out clinical, in-the-field research. But because it is run as an independent operation, not even the hospital's biggest benefactor is given preferential treatment. "I really have to try hard sometimes to convince them to prescribe my medicines," he says.

Sadly, as the global waistline widens, he is not likely to find that a problem elsewhere.

The CV

Name: Lars Rebien Sorensen

Age: 53

Educated: Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Denmark (MSc Forestry); Copenhagen Business School (BSc International Economics).1982: Joined Novo Nordisk in Enzymes Marketing. Posts in the Middle East and America followed. 1994: Appointed to corporate management team, responsible for healthcare.2000: Appointed president and chief executive. Board member: ZymoGenetics, DONG Energy, Bertelsmann.

Family: Married,three children.