Joseph Jimenez thrives on competition. As a teenager the CEO of pharmaceuticals giant Novartis spent four hours a day, seven days a week, practicing for swim meets. That effort paid off: At Stanford University, where he earned a BA in economics in 1982, Jimenez was a three-time National Collegiate Athletic Association All-American swimmer. In his senior year the California native led Stanford to No. 3 as captain of the swim team.

Jimenez, 52, dove into the deep end of the rapidly changing pharmaceuticals and health care industry when he succeeded physician Daniel Vasella as chief executive of Basel, Switzerland–based Novartis in February 2010. He had joined the 124,000-employee company three years earlier as head of its consumer health division. A former president and CEO of ketchup purveyor H.J. Heinz Co.’s North American and European businesses, Jimenez seemed an unusual choice to lead a multinational stocked with scientists. But with his consumer products background, he brought an outward-looking perspective to the world’s No. 2 drugmaker by sales, which operates in more than 140 countries. Recognizing that in a changing market Novartis had to stay focused on understanding its ultimate customer — the patient — one of the first things he did as CEO was invite an asthma sufferer to a management meeting.

Founded in 1996 through the merger of Swiss companies Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz, Novartis has five divisions: pharmaceuticals, generics, vaccines and diagnostics, eye care, and over-the-counter and animal health. When Jimenez took the reins, the company was coming off a strong decade. Between 2001 and 2010 sales increased at a 13 percent compound annual growth rate, while operating income climbed 12 percent and earnings per share rose 13 percent.

But Jimenez knew that Novartis couldn’t afford to be complacent. Before his appointment as CEO, he had led the pharmaceuticals division, where he’d boosted sales of new products — a category he regards as the company’s lifeblood. In his new role he’s slashed spending: Last month, for example, Novartis announced that it would eliminate about 2,000 U.S. positions by the end of the second quarter. But Jimenez also invests more in research and development than many of his rivals: 20 percent of pharmaceuticals sales. (The industry average is 18.9 percent, according to London-based research firm EvaluatePharma.) As part of that push, he’s emphasizing early-stage drug research and encouraging scientists to explore blue-sky ideas.

So far, so good. Novartis’s sales hit $58.6 billion last year, a 16 percent increase over 2010. This year the company expects group net sales to be in line with 2011, partly because the patent for its blockbuster heart drug Diovan is expiring. Since Jimenez was named CEO, Novartis’s stock has risen roughly 3 percent, to $55 as of late January.

Like most big corporations, Novartis has made a bet on emerging markets. Jimenez, who holds an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, says the key is to take a local approach to each country. Novartis is investing $1 billion in China to build the nation’s largest pharmaceuticals R&D center, in Shanghai. It’s also pouring $500 million into a new manufacturing plant in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Jimenez arrived at Novartis with some knowledge of the pharmaceuticals business, having spent five years as a nonexecutive director of British pharma and biotechnology firm AstraZeneca. He started his career in 1984 as a group marketing manager in the food division of Oakland, California–based Clorox Co.; in 1993 he moved to ConAgra Foods, where he became president of several divisions before joining Heinz in 1998.

Last month Jimenez talked to Senior Writer Julie Segal about Novartis’s plans to weather global changes in health care and how a consumer products veteran learned the science of drug discovery.