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Cultural synergy at Millennium Pharmaceuticals

It’s the way of the business world. When a global drug company takes over a biotechnology firm, it can be expected to streamline operations, decree new management structures, and impose its rigid Big Pharma corporate culture on the locals.

But something different happened when Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. bought Cambridge-based Millennium Pharmaceuticals for $8.8 billion in 2008. Yasuchika Hasegawa, president of the Japan-based buyer, made it clear that he wanted to retain Millennium’s talent and capabilities — and the access they could bring to cutting-edge cancer research.

“One of the things he said to us was, ‘I want to make sure the people stay,’ ” recalled Millennium chief executive Deborah Dunsire. “He said, ‘You have to preserve the culture.’ ”

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Four years later, Millennium’s success at running a workplace that prizes collaboration and cross-cultural sensitivity has earned it the top spot among the largest organizations on this year’s Top Places to Work list.

Millennium was recognized for its community support — specifically, its philanthropy under its Millennium Makes a Difference program. Also cited were its work with senior management from Takeda to foster a transparent culture and a benefits program that includes financial counseling, flexible work arrangements, and employee discounts on everything from yoga to pet insurance.

The company, now formally Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co., is best known for Velcade, a first-of-its-kind treatment for multiple myeloma. Because Takeda opted to move its own cancer research programs under the Millennium umbrella, the company’s workforce has grown roughly 50 percent to about 1,500 since the acquisition, including about 1,200 employees in Massachusetts.

Millennium’s turnover rate, which had been 20 percent during a retrenchment last decade, has dropped to 5 percent — among the lowest in the industry, said Steve Gansler, senior vice president for human resources. Retention is particularly important in Cambridge, where companies constantly compete for biotechnology workers.

“Cambridge is the only place you can work where you can change jobs without changing your parking space,” Gansler said in jest.

Zimbabwe-born Dunsire, who took over Millennium’s top job in 2005, said it has long had a unique culture. “I came to a company that always punched above its weight in terms of the concentration of talent and the energy and the drive,” she said.

Once the takeover was complete, Dunsire said, her challenge was to expand Millennium’s drug pipeline without altering the atmosphere. “Entrepreneurial start-ups have a way of engaging people,” she said. “But if you keep doing it as a company gets bigger, decision making gets very difficult.”

Dunsire and her team of managers keep employees informed at monthly meetings at which managers discuss everything from research progress to financial targets to volunteer efforts.

“We debate, but then we decide,” she said. “If people feel they’ve been heard and the leader decides to go in a different direction and explains it, they’re basically satisfied.”

Many employees, especially those who travel to Takeda’s home office in Osaka, have taken part in a daylong workshop in which they learn how to hold business cards and the proper protocol for bowing, exchanging gifts, and drinking beer. The program has proved so popular that Takeda has begun running similar sessions for its employees who come to America.

Ryan Cohlhepp, Millennium’s senior director for US marketing, transferred from Takeda’s office in Deerfield, Ill., after the acquisition and was struck by how the company operated.

“The people collaborate, and you don’t have the edginess, the cutthroat nature you see in some other organizations,” Cohlhepp said. “People here are interested in working together, getting it done together, and not letting egos get in the way.”

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