Opposites attract – this seems to be one of life’s funny little ways of surprising us. But surprise wasn’t the only reaction Genentech employees had when, seemingly out of nowhere, Roche offered to purchase all remaining shares of the Californian biotechnology pioneer in 2009. Many were worried. Dedicated employees feared that the Swiss-based pharma giant would swoop in and gut the company, laying off staff and plundering the pipeline. Some employees were terrified that Genentech’s unique culture of “casual intensity” would disappear. Others wondered why, after investing in Genentech since its founding in 1976, Roche would suddenly risk spoiling the hands-off approach to their partnership that had always worked so well.

The merger wasn’t easy. Many influential and highly admired Genentech employees departed, while others were still angry or fearful the company would lose its focus and distinct ways. It seemed easy early on in the integration to blame Roche for a wide range of issues – everything from leadership changes to long lines in the cafeteria.

As time passed, leaders travelled back and forth between South San Francisco and Basel. Employees an ocean apart began collaborating on projects. It wasn’t long before everyone realised there was actually a lot to respect about each other. Roche acknowledged the strength of the Genentech name to scientists, doctors and patients, rebranding its own medicines “Genentech” in the U.S. In addition, Genentech had top scientists, a streamlined decision-making process, state-of-the-art research facilities, and a robust pipeline filled with new molecules.

Roche appreciated Genentech’s culture, understanding that casual intensity is what powers innovation. Roche even went so far as to adopt some of these practices into its own systems. Whereas initial meetings between the groups were a study in contrasts between buttoned-up suits and jeans, Roche teams started dressing down. Genentech employees, meanwhile, started arriving to meetings on “Swiss time,” instead of California’s casual ten minutes late.

I offer my personal conviction that the words of Roche’s leaders are sincere. They want us to not only succeed, but to thrive. And they want to listen to, and learn from, our voices and our ways, not to command.
Genentech CEO Art Levinsonon March 26, 2009 in his announcement to employees about the sale to Roche

Genentech also saw the value in their new global connections, which expanded the reach of their research and medicines to 160 countries and offered new career development opportunities. They also recognised how they could benefit from Roche’s long history of scientific prowess. Since 1896, Roche had pioneered some of the first successful pain medicines, vitamins, antidepressants, antimicrobials, cancer therapies and antivirals. Some of Genentech’s medicines wouldn’t have advanced beyond initial roadblocks to clinical success and health authority approval if Roche hadn’t believed in the science, and been willing to invest substantial resources into further research. Roche has also been on the forefront of diagnostics, which made for an ideal partnership with Genentech in a shared future of developing personalised healthcare and companion diagnostics for their therapies. Furthermore, Roche environmental policies were very strong, and influenced Genentech to go even greener.

Over the years, Roche has stayed true to its commitment to Genentech’s unique culture, brand and identity. And despite their perceived differences, the cultures and companies of Roche and Genentech have a great deal in common. “Underneath it all, Roche employees and Genentech employees are very similar,” says Geoff Teeter, vice president of corporate relations at Genentech, “in our passion, our integrity, our focus on science and our desire to do what’s best for patients.

The full version of this story originally appeared on gene.com.

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