'Volume' is the magic word for Glaxo as it works to turn sales around

GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty

Payers have put the squeeze on GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) top seller Advair, helping sink its sales and send company revenues tumbling. So GSK doesn't want to play with fire by hawking more high-priced meds. Instead, the company's identified a different path to growth, it said Wednesday--and the name of the game is volume.

That mantra fits well with the businesses GSK has promised investors will lead it to success. After trading away its oncology assets to Novartis ($NVS)--leaving its pharma hopes resting on a struggling respiratory business--the company is leaning heavily on both vaccines and consumer health, lower-margin businesses it thinks have plenty of room to expand.

"We think we're really aligned with where the river is flowing. The river is flowing for more volume," CEO Andrew Witty told CNBC. "We're going to focus on that, get that volume out there at a fair price, get a good return on our R&D investment, but not be fixated on defending ever and ever higher prices in the developed world."

After all, that strategy hasn't done much for top dog Advair. Though Glaxo was recently able to win back some favor from PBMs by sinking the price on its aging giant, U.S. sales of the med have continued to freefall, plummeting 21% in Q1 to drag overall pharma revenues down by 7%. And that'll only get worse once stateside generics hit, a scenario the British drugmaker acknowledged it could face in the near future.

Instead, the pharma giant will focus on undercutting its rivals to up its volume and increase its access, Witty said, something it's been doing for several years now. That strategy will take it far as millions of new healthcare consumers begin buying OTC products and a population boom increases demand for vaccines, it figures--especially in fast-growing emerging markets.

All told, the company expects its consumer health sales to grow at a compound annual rate in the mid-single digits between 2016 and 2020, with vaccine sales expanding in the mid-to-high-single digits over that same span.

Meanwhile, though, the company will have to hope investors buy its philosophy. Witty's job, for one, could be on the hook if that Novartis asset swap doesn't pan out the way the company planned. "Andrew Witty desperately needs this to succeed in order to leave a legacy worth remembering," Edison Investment Research analyst Mick Cooper told CNBC.

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