J&J CEO Gorsky to step aside, handing reins of world's largest pharma to COVID-19 navigator Duato

Alex Gorsky
Challenges ahead of Joaquin Duato after he succeeds Alex Gorsky as Johnson & Johnson's CEO include navigating the lawsuits around talc and opioids as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Johnson & Johnson)(J&J)

Johnson & Johnson is switching captain to lead the world’s largest pharma company by 2020 revenue.

Alex Gorsky, who’s been J&J’s CEO since 2012, will hand the helm to company veteran and currently vice chairman of the executive committee, Joaquin Duato, effective Jan. 3, 2022, the company unveiled Thursday.

Gorsky will transition to the role of executive chairman, J&J said. If everything plays out as Gorsky and his predecessor Bill Weldon did back in 2012, Gorsky will likely shed his responsibilities completely, including the chairman of the board title, in about a year.

In a statement, Gorsky said the decision to step aside comes in part from “family health reasons.” Plus, “[t]his is the right time for the company as our organization is delivering strong performance across all three segments and is positioned for continued success,” he said.

Gorsky has been with J&J for about three decades now, starting in 1988 as a sales rep with Janssen Pharmaceutica. His journey with the New Jersey conglomerate included an excursion to Novartis from 2004 to 2008.

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During his tenure, J&J’s R&D investments swelled more than 60% to $12.15 billion in 2020, ranking third among its peers. One of the focus areas Gorsky has steered J&J toward is oncology, where the company collected $12.37 billion in 2020 sales. Top sellers in the department include AbbVie-partnered first-in-class BTK inhibitor Imbruvica and multiple myeloma treatment Darzalex, both of which got their first approvals under Gorsky’s leadership.

Gorsky was also credited for pulling off the largest acquisition in J&J’s history—its $30 billion takeover of Actelion in 2017. The deal gave J&J a portfolio of pulmonary arterial hypertension therapies, which collectively hauled in $3.15 billion sales last year.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Gorsky’s J&J. The company is still navigating the high-profile talc lawsuits, which allege the baby powder caused ovarian cancer. The company has also found itself embroiled in accusations that it played a part in the deadly opioid crisis. Last month, J&J and three largest drug distributors agreed to a $26 billion settlement to resolve thousands of opioid lawsuits with state attorneys.

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J&J’s latest feats under Gorsky include the successful development of a single-shot COVID-19 vaccine. But that program has its own controversies.

U.S. authorities have warned of the shot’s increased risks of rare blood clots and the immune disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome. The side effects have stunted the vaccine’s sales growth momentum.

Millions of doses of the J&J vaccine were previously thrown out after the discovery of a major production misconduct at contract manufacturer Emergent BioSolutions. After the U.S. manufacturing fiasco, many shots of the vaccine that were bottled at a South African facility and originally meant for the region were instead sent to Europe, according to The New York Times. The move just sparked wide public criticism.

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Now, Duato will be the one to help write J&J’s next chapter. Duato has been leading J&J’s internal COVID-19 response group and overseeing supply chain and technology initiatives to minimize business disruption during the pandemic.

At his current position as vice chairman of the executive committee, Duato is responsible for J&J’s pharmaceuticals and consumer health performance and helped with the company’s “enterprise strategic planning process, encompassing all three of the company's business segments,” including medical devices, Gorsky said in a statement.

Duato himself is also a longtime J&J employee, having spent over 30 years with the firm, including the past three years at his current position. Before that, he was head of J&J’s pharmaceuticals franchise from 2011. Some of J&J’s major pharma achievements, including Darzalex’s and Imbruvica’s approvals along with the Actelion buy, were done under his stewardship.