Longtime Abbott chief Miles White, designer of AbbVie spinoff, bows out of CEO job

Miles White (right) will step down as Abbott's CEO on Mar. 31, 2020 after 21 years at the top job, handing the reins to Robert Ford (left). (Abbott)

Abbott Laboratories chief Miles White will shed the CEO title next year after a 21-year run and several major transformations at the global healthcare company.

White will officially step down as Abbott CEO on March 31, 2020, but remain executive chairman. Taking the day-to-day reins will be Robert Ford, another Abbott veteran whom White elevated to president and chief operating officer a year ago, in a move widely seen as a succession plan.

As White puts it, he’s leaving at the perfect time. “Today, the company is the strongest it has been during my tenure, and I am confident that Robert will lead Abbott successfully into the future,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

White, who once ran Abbott’s diagnostics division, emerged as the winner in a three-way race for the company's top job when its then-chairman and CEO Duane Burnham and president and COO Thomas Hodgson both retired in 1998.

Under White, Abbott went through some dramatic changes. He spearheaded arguably the most successful acquisition in the pharma industry, buying BASF’s Knoll pharmaceutical business for $6.9 billion in 2001. That acquisition brought in Humira, which is now destined to be the world’s best-selling medicine ever with 2018 sales of about $20 billion and $136.5 billion in lifetime sales as of 2018.

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White divested his fair share of businesses, too. Under his leadership, Abbott spun out the company’s hospital products business in 2004 as Hospira—eventually purchased by Pfizer in 2015—and in a bigger deal, cut loose its branded biopharmaceutical operations with the AbbVie spinoff in 2013.

Other asset sales White led include the sale of Abbott's animal health business to Zoetis in 2015 and transferring its vision care business to Johnson & Johnson for $4.3 billion in 2017. 

Now, Abbott's pharma franchise is focused on emerging markets and its largest business is in medical devices. In Ford, Abbott has picked an insider with leadership experience in that very division. He was instrumental in the success of the Freestyle Libre glucose monitor, now Abbott’s top growth driver.

During his three years as head of Abbott’s medical devices business, Ford oversaw the $25 billion acquisition of St. Jude Medical, whose cardiovascular solutions complement Abbott’s own. He also saw through the eventful takeover of Alere, after the two parties had exchanged fire through lawsuits.

“Robert is the right person for Abbott's future. He is a proven Abbott leader with significant experience running Abbott's global businesses. We're confident he will continue Abbott's outstanding legacy of success,” William Osborn, lead director and chair of Abbott board’s nominations and governance committee, said in a statement.

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