Ex-Pfizer chief takes helm as Optimer puts out for-sale sign

Former Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell has a new gig. He'll be running Optimer Pharmaceuticals ($OPTR), at least until the company finishes exploring "a full range of strategic alternatives"--a.k.a. shopping itself for sale.

What brought Optimer to this crossroads? Where to begin. Last year, former chairman Michael Chang was forced out after he accepted a stock grant from an affiliated company, and two other executives lost their jobs for failing to follow conflicts-of-interest rules once they found out.

McKinnell stepped in to replace the disgraced Chang as chairman. And now, he's replacing CEO Pedro Lichtinger, another casualty of the same scandal. Optimer's board asked Lichtinger and his general counsel and chief compliance officer, Kurt Hartmann, to resign after a "review of prior compliance, record keeping and conflict-of-interest issues," the company said in a statement.

All of this--and the U.S. government investigations that ensued--could complicate a sale. At the least, it could force the price downward, RW Baird analyst Brian Skorney wrote in an investor note. "The question is, what sort of value can we get from an acquirer at this point given there has to be some kind of legal liability attached to it," Skorney told Bloomberg.

Optimer's sole marketed product is the antibiotic Dificid, used to treat patients with C. difficile-related diarrhea, a nasty intestinal malady often acquired in the hospital. Approved in May 2011, the drug is expected to eventually top $400 million in sales, but it's been a slow launch, with sales of only $74.4 million in 2012. Its current market value, Bloomberg notes, is around $578 million.

McKinnell could be a big help in finding a buyer, Skorney said, because of his network of pharma contacts. Bloomberg noted Pfizer ($PFE)--where McKinnell served as CEO from 2001-2006--as one potential suitor, as well as Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ). Leerink Swann analyst Marko Kozul suggests Cubist Pharmaceuticals ($CBST), Optimer's U.S. marketing partner; it's developing its own C. difficile drug that may not hit the market till 2017. And there's Astellas Pharma, which is Optimer's European marketing partner.

McKinnell is somewhat notorious in the pharma industry for his $200 million golden parachute. Pfizer handed over $122 million in retirement money and $78 million in deferred compensation when he left, touching off protests at the company's annual meeting--protests only surpassed, perhaps, by last week's brouhaha over Novartis' ($NVS) proposed-and-cancelled $78 million non-compete with departing chairman Daniel Vasella.

- see the release from Optimer
- check out the Bloomberg article

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