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The Big Take

A Big Pharma CEO Is Battling Wall Street’s Most Feared Fund

GSK’s Emma Walmsley is seeking to survive a challenge from Elliott Investment Management, the activist that no CEO wants to hear from.

Emma Walmsley
Emma WalmsleyPhotographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

One afternoon in mid-April, Emma Walmsley, the chief executive officer of GlaxoSmithKline Plc, logged into what could be one of the most important video conferences of her career. A few days earlier Elliott Investment Management, the U.S.-based activist fund, had contacted the drugmaker’s chairman, Jonathan Symonds, with some alarming news. Without GSK’s knowledge, Elliott had been quietly buying up billions of dollars of its shares. Now Gordon Singer, a managing partner at the firm and the son of its founder, Paul Singer, was going to explain why, and what Elliott wanted.

No corporate leader relishes a call from Elliott, one of the most aggressive investors on the planet, with a long track record of forcing sales or breakups, ousting CEOs, overhauling boards—and even, on one occasion, seizing an Argentine naval vessel over a debt dispute. Walmsley and Symonds, however, were trying to be open-minded about what Singer had to say; under the circumstances, they didn’t have much choice.