GSK replaces Witty with consumer chief Emma Walmsley, Big Pharma's first woman CEO

Emma Walmsley will take the reins at GSK March 31, succeeding current chief Andrew Witty.

GlaxoSmithKline has named its next CEO, and it’s breaking new ground in the process. Emma Walmsley, who heads up GSK’s consumer health business, will become the first woman to take the helm at a Big Pharma company.

Walmsley will move into her new job in March, when current chief Andrew Witty retires, but will join the GSK board as of Jan. 1, the company said Tuesday.

Coming from GSK’s consumer division, Walmsley joins a wave of pharma chiefs with backgrounds in commercial functions, and, in a few cases, consumer goods. Before joining Glaxo, Walmsley headed up L’Oreal’s Chinese consumer business, just as, before her, CEO Joe Jimenez came to Novartis from Heinz.

She also joins a wave of new CEOs in biopharma, period, with 11 major CEO changes made or announced since the beginning of last year.

Walmsley has a tough job ahead: She’ll be tasked with leading GSK at a time when the company still faces some skepticism about the new high-volume, lower-price business model Witty unveiled last year. The strategy appears to be paying off--with Q2 sales up 4%, GSK beat expectations for the second quarter in a row, and it’s achieving outsize results from the ex-Novartis vaccines it scooped up last year.

“[T]he rebuilding of GSK is well underway,” Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson wrote at the time, noting that the low-margin vaccines and consumer units were playing a big role in the turnaround, just as Witty had envisioned.

The company’s respiratory franchise, which had been faltering on competition for its long-dominant Advair product, finally kicked into gear as well. Breo, with £146 million in Q2 sales, started to offset Advair declines for the first time.

Witty has lain the groundwork, but Walmsley will have to keep that growth coming; GSK has some vocal shareholders, including the U.K.’s uber-investor Neil Woodford, who hasn’t been shy about pushing the company for results. Woodford has gone so far as to suggest a wholesale breakup of the company to hive off the low-margin businesses that are now pitching in to GSK’s growth--starting with Walmsley's consumer unit.

During last quarter’s earnings call, Witty said he wouldn’t presume to offer instructions to his successor. But whatever path the company takes in his absence, Walmsley will be well set up for the future, he said.

"The new CEO has the platform to be able to build growth and focus on how to drive those elements of growth in the vaccine, consumer and pharmaceutical businesses without having to always be taking two steps back before they take one step forward," he said.

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