Longtime Roche chairman is stepping aside. Who's up next?

Franz Humer--Courtesy of Roche

There will be room at the top of Roche next year. Chairman Franz Humer will stand down after the Swiss drugmaker's 2014 annual meeting, after 16 years as CEO or chairman or both. The company ($RHHBY) plans to pick a successor by autumn.

Who might that be? Well, it won't be CEO Severin Schwan, not if Schwan wants to keep his CEO title. Roche says it plans to choose another non-executive chairman, to keep the CEO and chairman roles separate. (Humer himself held both jobs from 2001 to 2008, but since then has served only as chairman.)

It might be former Genentech CEO and current chairman Art Levinson, or so the scuttlebutt goes. Now chairman at Apple, Levinson moved upstairs at Genentech after Roche's 2009 takeover. Since then, Genentech and its pipeline have grown increasingly important to the company--to the point where Roche chose to shut its own R&D facility in New Jersey in favor of Genentech's California base.

Consider two bright new lights in Roche's drug line-up: Perjeta, the breast cancer drug approved in the U.S. last year and in the EU today. And Kadcyla, the long-anticipated "armed antibody" follow-up to Herceptin, known as T-DM1 until its FDA nod late last month. Both came out of Genentech's labs.

"If it is Art Levinson, then chances are that innovation will remain the core," Vontobel analyst Andrew Weiss told Reuters. "And our hypothesis that the Roche-Genentech deal was a reverse takeover, and about Genentech going global, would be complete."

As Reuters notes, Humer led the charge when taking over Genentech. So, he well knows the U.S. unit's importance to Roche. Would he advise the board--and Roche's family shareholders--to choose Levinson? We can only guess. "New leaders bring new ideas," Humer said in a speech to shareholders. "Roche is in excellent shape and well positioned to meet future challenges. This is a good time to hand over to a successor."

Humer's announcement follows the departure of longtime Novartis ($NVS) Chairman and CEO Daniel Vasella last week. Like Humer, Vasella had previously handed over the CEO's post to a subordinate he'd hired. Novartis tapped a former executive passed over for that CEO job, Joerg Reinhardt, to return as chairman.

- see the release from Roche
- read the Reuters news