• Expanded company by overseeing more than 40 acquisitions
  • Stepped down as lead director at General Electric Co. in 2014

Ralph Larsen, the former chief executive officer at Johnson & Johnson whose strategy of growth through acquisitions propelled the company to become the nation’s fourth-largest maker of prescription drugs and the world’s biggest provider of medical supplies and devices by the time he stepped down in 2002, has died. He was 77.

He died Wednesday at his home in Naples, Florida, according to an e-mailed statement from his family. The cause was cardiac arrest.

During Larsen’s 13-year tenure as CEO, New Brunswick, New Jersey-based J&J spent $21.7 billion to acquire more than 40 companies, building an enterprise that sold products as diverse as Band-Aid adhesive bandages, hip implants and drugs. He also reduced operating costs by $2 billion from 1994 to 1999, enabling J&J to compete more aggressively in the personal care market, according to his profile on Harvard Business School’s website. J&J’s market value was $196.9 billion when he retired, up from $14.7 billion when he took control in 1989.

‘Clear Vision’

“Ralph Larsen had a clear vision for the future of Johnson & Johnson, and he was a tremendous steward of our credo and values," Alex Gorsky, J&J’s current CEO said Thursday in an e-mailed statement. “During his tenure he oversaw a period of significant growth and global expansion that has helped to shape the company as we know it today.”

Major deals he oversaw included acquiring Neutrogena Corp., a skin-care products company, in 1994; DePuy Inc., an orthopedic products company, in 1998; and Centocor Inc., maker of the Remicade arthritis drug, in 1999. Today, J&J is the world’s largest maker of health-care products.

Ralph Stanley Larsen was born Nov. 19, 1938, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, first-generation immigrants from Norway, were Andrew Larsen and the former Gurine Henningsen, according to Marquis Who’s Who.

The family moved to West Hempstead on New York’s Long Island, where Larsen went to high school. He served in the U.S. Navy for two years starting in 1956, then studied business administration at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1962.

J&J Trainee

Upon graduating, he went to work at J&J as a manufacturing trainee and then ascended the ranks of of its consumer and hospital supply divisions. He developed a reputation for streamlining operations.

“I had a knack for mechanical things and a knack for people,” he said in a 1988 New York Times profile.

Larsen served as vice president of marketing at the company’s McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit in 1980 and 1981, when J&J expanded beyond doctors with its marketing campaign for Tylenol. The direct-to-consumer mass market effort, which built on the medicine’s high standing among physicians and included an extra-strength formulation, propelled Tylenol to the top spot for non-prescription pain relief, according to a 1992 BusinessWeek story.

Quits Company

The effort failed to net Larsen a position as president of McNeil, which he felt he deserved, according to the Times story. The fissure led Larsen to quit the company in 1981 and he moved to Becton Dickinson & Co., based in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, where he served as president of consumer products. 

He returned to J&J in 1983 as president of the Chicopee division, which made fabrics for bandages. He was named company vice chairman in 1986, and won the CEO job three years later.

Larsen sat on several corporate boards including those of AT&T Inc., Xerox Corp. and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

He joined General Electric Co.’s board in 2002, soon after Jeffrey Immelt replaced Jack Welch as CEO, and became lead director, stepping down in 2014.

“Ralph was a fantastic director and a key adviser to me and many leaders at GE,” Immelt said Thursday in an e-mailed statement. “He made a long-lasting contribution to the company, and his unyielding integrity guided GE for more than a decade. He will be greatly missed.”

He married the former Dorothy Zeitfuss in 1961. The couple had three children: Karen, Kristen and Garret.

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