Health

Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.

For a company that has aggressively forged its own M&A-driven destiny, Allergan has lately been at the mercy of others. That's about to change. 

Unfavorable comparisons to Valeant have battered its shares. The U.S. Treasury Department ended its engagement with Pfizer. And it has had to wait since last July for Teva to finally close a $40.5 billion purchase of its generics business. If that deal happens as expected in June, then Allergan's future will be firmly back in CEO Brent Saunders' hands. So will an estimated $36 billion in deal proceeds.

The company's acquisitive history suggests such a cash haul would lead to a deal spree. But Allergan is picking a more conservative path. It said in its first-quarter earnings release on Tuesday that it will spend up to $10 billion of that $36 billion buying back shares. At least $8 billion or so will go to pay down debt, possibly leaving about $20 billion in cash when you add the $2.2 billion already on Allergan's books. 

That's still enough for a big deal, but Allergan suggested it was more interested in small, "tuck-in" or "stepping stone" deals, rather than something massive. Shares rose more than 3 percent on Tuesday. 

Considering how other acquisitive specialty pharma firms have faceplanted recently, taking a little time to be boring and pay down debt seems smart. In fact, Allergan seems eager to shed the now-pejorative "specialty pharma" label; Saunders said as much on the call.

Allergic
It's been a frustrating year for Allergan as its planned Pfizer mega-deal fell apart.
Source: Bloomberg

Saunders' preferred descriptor for Allergan is "growth pharma." This approach still involves acquisitions and a different way of thinking about R&D. But it won't follow the Valeant model, where only older products are acquired -- and their prices are raised -- and where R&D is slashed to nearly nothing. Many of Allergan's acquisitions will be pipeline-focused, and there will be plenty of R&D spending -- just not at the earliest, higher-risk discovery stage.  

This is still Allergan, of course; any deal the most wild-eyed investment banker could dream of is potentially on the table. But for now, the focus seems to be more on running the business than hunting giants. 

Saunders has been talking about growth pharma for a while now. But with so many big deals muddying things up -- the $66 billion tie-up between Actavis and Allergan closed in March 2015, and the Pfizer drama was a major distraction -- this approach hasn't really been put to the test. 

The company now has to prove it can consistently develop and successfully launch drugs on its own. In the absence of a megadeal, the viability of the growth pharma model and the company's current product lineup will come under more scrutiny. 

Allergan's branded drug sales, excluding foreign-exchange effects and divestitures, hit $3.4 billion in the first quarter, up 10 percent from a year earlier, led by Botox ($638 million in sales in the quarter) and eye treatment Restasis ($314 million). 

The big hope for revenue growth is in the pipeline. Allergan projects peak annual revenue as high as $1 billion for three recently launched drugs that treat irritable bowel syndrome, chin fat, and schizophrenia. In total, the company sees potential peak revenue of between $6.75 billion and $12.5 billion from its recently launched and more distant pipeline products. 

The test of whether this shift in focus is genuine is all about what actually happens with that cash pile, which will be the biggest in specialty pharma. Allergan's debt pile is also the biggest, but the company is paying off a chunk of it with the Teva proceeds and has committed to keeping an investment-grade credit rating. 

Leader of the Pack
Even after paying off some debt and paying off some shareholders, Allergan will have the biggest cash pile in specialty pharma once Teva buys its generics unit.
Source: Bloomberg
Allergan numbers are estimates based on deal proceed, share buyback, and debt repayment guidance

Investors seem to be cheering the new direction. But the new Allergan is promising to be something unique to pharma -- not a lot of firms combine drugs to melt chin fat with early-stage Alzheimer's research -- and now it's time for Brent Saunders to prove his pet business model actually works.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Max Nisen in New York at mnisen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net