Vivus officially names ex-AstraZeneca exec Zook as new CEO

With Astrue in as chairman, revamped board pledges to expand Qsymia sales
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New Vivus CEO Tony Zook--Courtesy of AstraZeneca

The dust is settling over at Vivus ($VVUS) after an intense proxy fight that top shareholder First Manhattan Co. waged for months leading up to last week's shareholder meeting. But now, having gotten what it wished for--control of the company's board--the new management is moving in and moving fast.

Tuesday, the company officially announced Tony Zook as CEO and Michael Astrue as chairman, and the pair revealed a plan for boosting sales of the drug at the center of the fight: obesity treatment Qysmia.

The two got their entrances in last-minute negotiations last week before control of the company was put to vote, with the two sides agreeing to an expanded, FMC-dominated management team absent of the company's CEO, Leland Wilson. And the new-look board is hoping Zook, a former sales chief at AstraZeneca ($AZN), is just what Vivus needs.

After all, it was sales that got Vivus into trouble in the first place. First Manhattan chief Sam Colin himself praised Wilson's work as CEO, calling Vivus' four new-drug approvals an accomplishment "unheard of" among small pharma firms. But FMC's grumbling began when the company chose to forego a Big Pharma sales partnership for the much-anticipated Qsymia, causing sales of the drug to flop.

But the company's new board is convinced Qsymia still has potential, and Astrue announced Tuesday a four-pronged attack for boosting its revenue--expanding use of the drug through targeted patient and physician education, finding a sales partner, creating a pathway for European approval and eliminating non-essential expenses for the drug. "We are thrilled to have an executive of Tony Zook's caliber already pushing hard on these four goals," he said in a statement.

The new Vivus team will now be finding out whether Zook can translate his Big Pharma experience to success in the CEO's position. Zook, whose job was eliminated during AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot's restructuring of that company, successfully launched one of AZ's greatest all-time sellers, Nexium, and the more recent blockbuster Crestor. But he will have his hands full with getting Qsymia into position. The weight-loss drug landscape has gotten a little more crowded since Qsymia first hit the market: Arena Pharmaceuticals ($ARNA) rolled out competitor Belviq in June with marketing and distribution help from Japan's Eisai.

- here's the Vivus press release
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