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Heads will roll at GlaxoSmithKline, investors say. The question is, whose?

September 23, 2014
Life sciences
China corruption settlement, check. Now GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) CEO Andrew Witty needs to come to terms with investors. With quarterly sales off and new drugs lagging, shareholders are demanding change at the top–and this time, some are willing to go on the record.
 
Two weeks ago, investors were said to be agitating for a board shake-up. The photogenic reason? Glaxo’s tarnished image, what with bribery probes around the world. But GSK’s lousy second-quarter numbers probably play a bigger role. They said they’d like to banish Chairman Christopher Gent, already scheduled to step down at the end of next year, as a way to jump-start change.
 
Either that, or toss out Witty.
 
Now, with the China corruption probe wrapped up–and an agreed $500 million fine, less than some had feared–the focus is squarely on the numbers. Namely the lack of profit growth, the slump in Advair sales, and potential pressure on GSK’s dividend.
 
“A new chairman must be overdue,” one “top-50” shareholder told Reuters. “A new chairman could potentially kick-start this change process,” Goldman Sachs analysts told investors in a note Monday.
 
As Reuters notes, booting Gent early is seen as a compromise to save Witty’s job. Another idea? Focus on the U.S., one institutional investor suggests. After all, the U.S. leadership has let Glaxo’s all-important respiratory drug Advair shrink to competition from AstraZeneca’s ($AZN) Symbicort. And their launches of Advair follow-ups Breo and Anoro haven’t performed up to expectations.
 
“I think GSK is a buy when the CEO of that business goes,” John Bennett of Henderson Global Investors told the news service.
 
Goldman disagrees, at least somewhat; the firm’s analysts marked GSK up to “buy” from “neutral” Monday. They’re anticipating some kind of overhaul, though. Summing up the chatter from shareholders and market-watchers, Goldman put it like this: “We believe that status-quo at GSK is unlikely to continue for long.” Indeed.
 
By Tracy Staton
 

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