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Business News/ Companies / People/  GlaxoSmithKline says CEO Andrew Witty to retire next year
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GlaxoSmithKline says CEO Andrew Witty to retire next year

Witty, a 31-year company veteran, has been under fire from some investors in the past three years as sales and profits have flagged

A file photo of GSK CEO Andrew Witty. Photo: ReutersPremium
A file photo of GSK CEO Andrew Witty. Photo: Reuters

London: GlaxoSmithKline said on Thursday its chief executive Andrew Witty would retire in 12 months time, after leading the British drugmaker through a series of changes since 2008 that have failed to ignite the share price.

Witty, a 31-year company veteran, has been under fire from some investors in the past three years as sales and profits have flagged, while some have questioned his focus on a consumer health business that ranges from headache pills to toothpaste.

His reputation was further tarnished by a damaging bribery scandal in China that landed GSK with a record 3 billion yuan ($463 million) fine in 2014.

On the plus side, Witty has managed GSK through a wave of drug patent expiries without resorting to a major acquisition and the company is now on track to return to earnings growth this year.

His decision to retire at the end of March 2017 is not a huge surprise, since chairman Philip Hampton had already discussed the need for succession planning in meetings with some shareholders.

But the departure comes at a time of continued debate over the direction of GSK and investors may fear a period of limbo before a new CEO comes on board.

There have been calls from a minority of shareholders, including respected UK fund manager Neil Woodford, for a break-up of the group, with critics arguing its pharmaceuticals and consumer health units would do better as standalone businesses.

Witty, 51, has conceded in the past that spinning off the consumer healthcare division could be an option but he has argued this should not happen in the short term.

Deutsche Bank analyst Richard Parkes said that while a new CEO might turn to acquisitions to bolster GSK’s prescription drugs—a move that could be funded by a sale or spin out of consumer operations—an evolution of the current strategy was more likely than major change.

A $20 billion asset swap with Novartis, completed a year ago, which involved the exchange of cancer drugs for the Swiss group’s consumer health products and vaccines, was a centre-piece of Witty’s time in charge.

The deal crystallised his idea of reducing exposure to premium-priced pharmaceuticals and increasing sales of over-the-counter products, as well as selling more lower-priced medicines in emerging markets.

Stock underperformance

Not all investors have been convinced by the diversification play, however, and GSK shares have underperformed, returning an average 10% annually in the last five years against 14% on average for the European pharmaceuticals sector.

Recently, GSK stock has done better, largely on the back of its HIV drug business, which the company had considered spinning off in an initial public offering before deciding to retain it.

In explaining the decision to announce his retirement a year ahead of departure, Witty said it was important the board had sufficient time to conduct the search for his replacement.

“By doing so we will strongly position GSK to achieve the medium-term outlook set out to investors last year and deliver a return to core earnings growth in 2016," Witty said.

GSK said its board would consider both internal and external candidates for the role of new CEO. Executive search firms Egon Zehnder and Korn Ferry have been engaged to help with the appointment.

Internal candidates could include GSK’s global pharmaceuticals head Abbas Hussain, leader of the consumer division Emma Walmsley and manufacturing head Roger Connor, as well as finance chief Simon Dingemans, a former Goldman Sachs banker.

Externally, GSK might try to snare a senior figure from a rival drugmaker, such as Novartis’ respected pharma head David Epstein, or else look beyond the drugs sector to an executive with broader experience in consumer products.

Chairman Hampton also announced plans for “board refreshment" at the drugmaker, with Deryck Maughan, Stephanie Burns, Daniel Podolsky and Hans Wijers not standing for re-election at the annual meeting in May. Reuters

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Published: 17 Mar 2016, 07:35 PM IST
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