As Humira biosims take hold, longtime AbbVie CEO Richard Gonzalez talks succession plans

As longtime AbbVie CEO Rick Gonzalez drives the company through its much-dreaded year of Humira biosimilar erosion, his eventual exit is coming into view.

In his 10 years at the helm, the CEO has stayed relatively mum about when his tenure would end. But, internally, Gonzalez has had “many, many” discussions with the board about his succession, he said during the company’s first-quarter earnings conference call.

One thing is for sure, Gonzalez said: He plans to stick around through this year's Humira biosimilar market clash.

“We need to completely get through the transition for Humira biosimilars here in the U.S.” before the “successful and smooth” transition, he told analysts Thursday.

So far, Gonzalez is “pretty pleased” with the Humira transition and “even more pleased” with how the company’s growth engine is operating.

The CEO projects AbbVie's revenue growth will land in the mid-single-digit percentage range this year, despite headwinds to its Johnson & Johnson-partnered cancer drug Imbruvica and its aesthetics portfolio.

In the first quarter, Imbruvica sales decreased by 25.2% to $878 million. Sales for AbbVie's aesthetics products fell 5.4% to $1.3 billion.

In total, AbbVie pulled in revenues of $12.2 billion in the first quarter, down 9.7% from the same period last year. The immunology duo of Skyrizi and Rinvoq, which are expected to make up for sliding Humira sales, delivered significant sales increases of 44.7% and 47.5%, respectively. However, both totals fell short of Wall Street estimates, Third Bridge analyst Lee Brown wrote in a note to clients.

As for Humira, so far the biosimilar impact is “tracking as expected,” the CEO said. This quarter, the immunology star's sales came in at $3.54 billion, down 25.2% compared with 2022's first quarter. Amgen’s Amjevita is Humira’s only biosimilar competition in the U.S. so far, but a slew of copycats is set to enter the market in July.  

Once the company is comfortable that the business is operating as desired and makes it through the Humira biosimilar cliff, AbbVie can look further into a successor, Gonzalez said.

Still, the CEO doesn’t exactly seem anxious to leave his post. He noted that he’s told the board he’s “willing to stay in any capacity that they would desire, however length of time they would.”

Meanwhile, M&A remains in play as AbbVie focuses on areas where there's “still a significant opportunity to restate standard of care,” Gonzalez said.

Back in February, the CEO told investors to expect the company to act on M&A deals if something of interest came about. That comment came just days after Gonzalez told The Wall Street Journal AbbVie would remove a self-imposed $2 billion cap on dealmaking.