Is AstraZeneca lining up candidates to succeed CEO Soriot?

soriot
AstraZeneca has reportedly hired headhunters to look for CEO Pascal Soriot's successor. (AstraZeneca)

Pascal Soriot’s reign at AstraZeneca is once again rumored to be coming to an end—though not imminently—and the company has reportedly begun looking for his successor.

Under pressure from shareholders, AstraZeneca has hired headhunters to initiate an internal search for Soriot’s successor, The Times reported, without specifying where the information came from. Investors are also calling for a succession plan for CFO Marc Dunoyer, 66, who came over to AZ from British rival GlaxoSmithKline in 2013.

Frontrunners for the CEO spot may include Mene Pangalos, head of AZ’s IMED Biotech Unit and business development chief, and Ruud Dobber, the company’s North American chief, the local newspaper said.

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Rebuffing the claims, an AZ spokesperson told FiercePharma “[t]here’s absolutely nothing to” the report.

RELATED: AstraZeneca's Imfinzi fails key Mystic trial in lung cancer. What now?

The rumor came hard on the heels of a key clinical trial flop by PD-L1 drug Imfinzi. The drug, both on its own and in combination with CTLA4 candidate tremelimumab, didn’t prolong the lives of patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer in a phase 3 study. The miss rained on AZ's parade shortly after the pharma giant reported that it had finally returned to growth after years of continuous sales decline. 

Still, the reason for AZ’s rumored move doesn’t seem to be linked to the company’s performance, but rather to concerns about Soriot’s own career plan. Despite that Soriot recently said he has “no plans to move on,” shareholders have warned AZ to be prepared, according to The Times. 

This isn’t the first time into Soriot’s six-year tenure that the rumor mill has churned out buzz about a possible departure. Last July, Soriot was said to have signed on as the chief executive at Teva, a job that was ultimately taken by former Lundbeck helmsman Kåre Schultz.

This time, at least, Soriot is not expected to leave immediately. Rather than formally searching for a replacement, the headhunters’ job is limited to narrowing down the field to a few candidates, according to The Times. 

RELATED: AstraZeneca gets back to growth, but can it hit $40B by 2023? CEO says yes—again

Many blockbusters have come out of Pangalos' IMED, which is responsible for AZ’s small-molecule R&D. These include lung cancer star Tagrisso, whose sales beat analysts’ expectations in the third quarter to reach $506 million. Its strong growth, along with that of other newer drugs including PARP inhibitor Lynparza and asthma drug Fasenra, helped AZ reach its growth turning point. 

Soriot is also well-known for his success in fending off Pfizer’s hostile takeover bid in 2014; that's when he made his famous $45 billion yearly sales forecast for AZ by 2023. Since then, a stronger dollar has pushed that goal down to around $40 billion to $41 billion, but on the company’s third-quarter call earlier this month, Soriot again stood by the promise.

“The plan as we have developed to date still takes us to that kind of level, and I see no reason at this point to change this,” he said. 

Meanwhile, across the pond, two other Big Pharma players have recently made news with their own CEO plans. In order to keep CEO Ken Frazier in the driver's seat, Merck & Co.’s board went as far as removing a mandatory retirement policy that required the company’s top executive to step down at the age of 65. And amid a restructuring, Pfizer CEO Ian Read last month announced plans to hand the reins to current chief operating officer, Albert Bourla, and step aside as executive chairman.

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