Ex-Novartis consumer vet takes Glaxo JV reins from CEO-bound Walmsley

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GlaxoSmithKline CEO-to-be Emma Walmsley will leave a chair vacant at the top of its key consumer health JV, and stepping in to take it is Brian McNamara, a Novartis exec who joined the venture with last year's asset swap.

McNamara, now GSK Consumer Healthcare’s Europe and Americas chief, is stepping in to fill Walmsley's spot, effective immediately, the company said Thursday. He’ll report to current head honcho Andrew Witty until Walmsley takes the reins next March.

McNamara joined GSK last year when GSK and Novartis tied up on the Glaxo-controlled consumer health JV, part of the multibillion-dollar asset swap between the two pharma giants. McNamara has plenty of previous consumer goods experience; he spent 11 years at Novartis in consumer roles, and before that, 16 years at Procter & Gamble.

Witty said that McNamara's experience makes him “the clear choice to build on the current momentum we are seeing in our business." Working with consumer brands for years will help him "fully maximize" GSK's product lines to "deliver the benefits" of the GSK-Novartis combo, the CEO explained.

Building on current momentum has been a theme for Glaxo as it edits its executive ranks. Witty’s much-maligned strategy--to pump high volume through the traditionally low-margin businesses of consumer health and vaccines, while exiting pharma spaces where pricing pressure can play spoiler to sales--is just starting to pay off, and the company’s insider CEO pick signaled to investors that Glaxo wants to see his vision through.

Some investors still want things their way, though, and as head of consumer, McNamara will be right in the middle of the controversy. Prominent shareholder Neil Woodford began lobbying for a large-scale company breakup--starting with a consumer health spinoff--late last year, and that idea gained plenty of traction before Witty shut it down in February.

"Time is everybody's friend" when it comes to getting the OTC business and its operating margin up to where it should be, at 20% or higher, Witty explained--a journey he anticipates taking three years.

"I think sometimes people think, 'oh, let's just put together these two massive companies … on Monday, and on Tuesday, let's do something completely different with them,'" he said at the time. And while he ceded that it would be "disingenuous" not to acknowledge that the unit's newfound scale could make divesting it an option down the road, "if I had to make that call today, I'd stick to what we have," he said.

Meanwhile, the consumer unit won't be the only division with a new leader when next year rolls around. Back in June, the British drugmaker announced that vaccines chief Moncef Slaoui would follow Witty out the door, capping a nearly 30-year run at the company.

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