GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty to Retire in March 2017

  • Board will search for CEO candidate inside, outside drugmaker
  • Chairman Hampton also plans `board refreshment' this year

GlaxoSmithKline Plc Chairman Phil Hampton began an overhaul of the biggest U.K. drugmaker by launching a search for Chief Executive Officer Andrew Witty’s successor and replacing a third of the board as he seeks to pacify some disgruntled investors.

Witty, 51, will retire next March, after almost a decade at the helm, the London-based company said in a statement on Thursday. Glaxo also plans what Hampton termed a “board refreshment” as directors Deryck Maughan, Stephanie Burns, Daniel Podolsky and Hans Wijers won’t stand for re-election at the annual meeting in May.

Andrew Witty
Andrew Witty
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Witty, once hailed as one of the pharmaceutical industry’s most visionary managers, has faced criticism for Glaxo’s lagging share performance, sluggish sales and a pipeline lacking promising medicines. A bribery scandal in China that led to a $489 million fine last year also tarnished his image, which he had built with initiatives to develop the world’s first malaria vaccine and reform the way medicines are marketed to doctors.

“Glaxo needs a shakeup at the top,” said Gareth Powell, a portfolio manager at Polar Capital LLP in London whose holdings include Glaxo shares. “There’s a lack of truly innovative products, and that’s what they need to sort out.”

Right Time

Last year, Witty oversaw the biggest reorganization since the merger that created Glaxo 15 years ago. He sold the company’s cancer drugs to Novartis AG in exchange for the Swiss firm’s vaccines business and cash. The companies also formed a joint venture, controlled by Glaxo, to sell consumer health products.

Glaxo shares fell 1.3 percent to 1,394 pence at 12:07 p.m. in London trading. The stock has returned an average of 10 percent a year over the past five years, compared with a 17 percent average annual return for the Bloomberg Europe Pharmaceutical Index.

“By next year, I will have been CEO for nearly ten years and I believe this will be the right time for a new leader to take over,” Witty said in the statement. He began leading Britain’s largest drugmaker in 2008 after more than 20 years at the company, including postings in the U.S., Asia and Africa.

Avoiding Deals

Both internal and external candidates will be considered for the role. Glaxo investor Neil Woodford said he would like to see someone from outside the company take the top job. One of that person’s first tasks may be to slash the dividend, investors said.

Potential candidates include Emma Walmsley, head of Glaxo’s consumer-health division, and Abbas Hussain, president of its drug business, according to reports in U.K. media. Chief Financial Officer Simon Dingemans and Roger Connor, who oversees global manufacturing and supplies, may also be considered as internal successors. David Epstein, head of Novartis’s pharmaceutical unit, may also be approached, the reports said.

Witty’s views have diverged from those of his peers. He has avoided large-scale acquisitions that have consumed others such as Pfizer Inc. and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. And in 2011, he started a program called Patient First that eliminated the link between sales targets and bonuses for Glaxo’s U.S. marketing team, following allegations of illegally promoting drugs. Few drugmakers followed his lead.

Fresh Board

Glaxo’s sales declined to 23.9 billion pounds ($34.2 billion) last year from a peak of 28.4 billion pounds the year after Witty joined. Core earnings per share will probably surge this year, the company has said, after two years of declines.

“The decision will allow him to step aside at a high point following the company’s expected return to double-digit earnings growth in 2016,” Richard Parkes, an analyst at Deutsche Bank AG in London, wrote in a note to clients.

One bright spot has been Glaxo’s portfolio of HIV medicines, which the company considered spinning off in an IPO before opting to keep it. The British drugmaker also has one of the broadest drug pipelines in the industry, with more than 70 new medicines in development (though many are early-stage drugs that won’t deliver sales anytime soon), according to a Bloomberg Intelligence pipeline analysis.

A breakup of the company, favored by some investors including Woodford, might not generate that much value, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Sam Fazeli. Separating the drugs, vaccines and consumer-health units will probably increase Glaxo’s enterprise value of 83 billion pounds ($118 billion) by 10 percent or less, he estimated.

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