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* New CEO poached from Swiss firm Novartis
* Hudson lifted Novartis heart drug sales after slow start
* Englishman brings U.S. market experience
ZURICH, June 7 (Reuters) - In veteran drug salesman Paul Hudson, Sanofi's 100,000-plus employees are getting a new chief executive who relishes a good commercial fight.
The French firm said on Friday it had poached 51-year-old Hudson from Novartis, betting on him to rejuvenate a business hit by sluggish cholesterol drug sales and a diabetes unit facing growing competition for its top seller.
Hudson, the latest of several Novartis executives to exit the Swiss firm, has nearly 30 years of industry experience, including a stint as AstraZeneca's top U.S. manager.
The Englishman, a skilled public speaker and fan of his hometown soccer team Manchester United, will replace Olivier Brandicourt, 63, who is retiring in September.
At Novartis, Hudson kick-started sales of heart failure medicine Entresto that the firm expected to generate $5 billion but whose sales began at a glacial pace after its 2015 launch.
After heavy marketing investment and a sales push, Hudson turned the drug into a Novartis blockbuster.
"We're now starting to see the fruits of all the effort we put in," Hudson told analysts on a Novartis call in April. "Will it continue? We believe it does continue."
At Sanofi, one of Hudson's challenges will be to turn around the fortunes of Praluent, a cholesterol medicine that has failed to meet original expectations due to concerns about its price and a bitter patent dispute with rival Amgen.
"The departure of Paul Hudson is regrettable for Novartis, due to his industry experience in the United States," said Michael Nawrath from Zuercher Kantonalbank.
But his knowledge of the world's biggest drugs market will be Sanofi's gain.
Hudson, awarded an honorary doctorate at his alma mater Manchester Metropolitan University, also has to defend Sanofi's patent-expired insulin Lantus, a top earner at 3.6 billion euros ($4 billion) even after a 20 percent drop in sales.
Competition will come from Mylan's generics and even Novartis, which in 2018 signed a deal with China's Gan & Lee to make Lantus copies.
Hudson has proved a tenacious salesman at Novartis, winning approval for the world's costliest medicine, gene therapy Zolgensma for spinal muscular atrophy, at $2.1 million per patient.
Novartis said Hudson's replacement would be Marie-France Tschudin, 48, who has led the Swiss firm's European cancer unit after joining the company in 2017. She previously worked at Celgene's cancer business.
It marks another change at the top of Novartis, where most of its executive committee was appointed in the last two years.
"The turn-over at the Novartis executive committee continues at high speed," Bank Vontobel analyst Stefan Schneider said.
This week, Samit Hirawat, head of oncology drug development, left for Bristol-Myers Squibb, while Novartis's cancer chief, Susanne Schaffert, has only been in her post since January. In March, the Swiss firm hired a new generics head, Richard Saynor, from GlaxoSmithKline.
A Novartis spokesman said Novartis had a deep bench of global experts to fill talent gaps left by Hudson and others.
($1 = 0.8880 euros) (Reporting by John Miller in Zurich and Matthias Blamont in Paris Editing by Georgina Prodhan and Edmund Blair)