Who Executes The Executives?

By Gil Roth, Editor | May 4, 2012

Changeover issues at pharma . . . or conspiracy?

Maybe I’m an issue or two early for Top Pharma / Top Biopharma talk, but the news that David Brennan, AstraZeneca’s chief executive officer, is, um, taking early retirement made me wonder about the landscape at the top of the tops. We’ve seen plenty of changeover among pharma CEOs since Pfizer’s Jeff Kindler got bumped in December 2010, but it took a smart writer at the Elsevier Business Intelligence site to note the connections among them.

Michael McCaughan, in a piece called Big Pharma’s Health Reform Transition (bit.ly/IwjMbu), noted that, of the six major pharma executives involved in shaping and selling the healthcare reform deal, five of them — Mr. Brennan, Mr. Kindler, Merck’s Richard Clark, J&J’s Bill Weldon, Amgen’s Kevin Sharer — are no longer CEOs at those companies, while the sixth, Miles White, decided to spin off Abbott’s branded pharma business and focus on the company’s other units.

Mr. McCaughan leaves off that thread to discuss the implications for pharma’s involvement in healthcare reform, but I found myself focusing on the potential conspiracy of these firings and retirements. (Surprise!)

Sure, these could all be natural transition-points for companies, but that doesn’t account for Mr. Kindler’s hasty departure (chronicled by Fortune at bit.ly/mZWMoT), Mr. Brennan’s (and his chairman’s) ignominious exit before an earnings call, and Mr. Weldon departing immediately after all those quality setbacks at J&J/McNeil. (Oh, I forgot: he didn’t depart until three years after the initial ‘phantom recall,’ and he got a raise. That does stretch credulity, but is seemingly true.)

Other big pharmas and biopharmas have also seen changes at the top in the last year or two. Take Jim Mullen: the former top man at Biogen Idec is now chief executive officer of Patheon and the subject of this issue’s Newsmakers interview. One of the key points of our conversation was the question of how his client-side experience informs his new role as a contract service provider.

No, I’m not proposing that some Watchmen-like conspiracy has been at play, knocking off CEOs from major pharmas and biopharmas because of their involvement in the healthcare reform negotiations — not like in 2007’s Top Companies Report, when I grew suspicious of how the chief financial officers for Merck, Pfizer, Wyeth, Amgen and AstraZeneca all took a powder in the same year — but as they say in the school of shoddy journalism: three anecdotes make a trend!
(I also should note that Billy Tauzin, the PhRMA president who steered the industry’s negotiations with the White House, got canned in early 2010.)

So maybe it wasn’t some sort of conspiracy behind all these executive exits. As Mr. McCaughan put it in his article, “This was an unusual group of dissimilar personalities operating large companies in a time of shared challenges.” Still, it makes me wonder if the next generation of CEOs at major pharma and biopharma will be so willing to work with legislators to negotiate discounts and givebacks.

Gil Roth
Editor • gil@rodpub.com / twitter.com/contractpharma

What I’m Reading
Let’s not worry about fake online drugs
Felix Salmon, Reuters – reut.rs/Izwvf4 
Comment: Reuters financial writer/blogger breaks down a New York Times op-ed piece about online pharmacies and discounts the “fake drug menace” in the U.S., before going on to postulate what a free market in pharmaceuticals — in which Americans can buy cheaper drugs from overseas — would mean for pharma.

Darkness Visible
William Styron – amzn.to/K2Thtz
Comment: The writer of Sophie’s Choice wrote about his battle with depression in this brief memoir from 1990. It’s an exhausting, enervating, but revealing look at how destructive depression can be. It also made me feel much better about myself. Sadly, there’s a twist at the end that almost makes it feel like a ghost story, rather than a memoir. (Hint: I could’ve labeled this one “Pharma” too.)

William Shakespeare – amzn.to/I6J3wc
Comment: Soldiers don’t do well during peacetime. Since I went to a Diamondbacks game during the PDA meeting in April, I thought I’d read another Shakespeare play to keep up my “Shakespeares-read-to-MLB-ballparks-visited” spread (16 to 13, if you’re keeping score at home).

What are you reading?
Let me know — at gil@rodpub.com, www.goodreads.com/groth, www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=1775433 or www.facebook.com/contractpharma — and the first respondent wins a prize!
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