Biggest test yet for a scientist who became a boardroom star

Masterminding the biggest merger ever, to produce the third biggest company in the world, would not only excite Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of drugs giant Glaxo Wellcome. It would assure his place in corporate history.

Sir Richard describes Glaxo's pounds 9.4bn hostile takeover of Wellcome in March 1995 as the most thrilling period of his life. The pounds 117bn merger of his group with SmithKline Beecham would put that in the shade.

Few would have written this script when he joined Glaxo as deputy chief executive of the research division in 1986. He was known merely as a scientist while the corporate path to the top appeared blocked by a host of charismatic figures.

But by March 1993 potential competitors such as Bernard Taylor and Ernie Mario had fallen by the wayside and Sir Richard was - to the surprise of City observers at the time - installed as deputy chairman and chief executive of Glaxo plc.

Knighted in 1994, he became chairman of the combined Glaxo Wellcome group in May last year. But he remains a down to earth family man, his Yorkshire accent linking him still to his birthplace, a village outside Huddersfield.

It is classic rags to riches tale. The youngest of three sons, his father was a carpenter and his mother worked a smallholding. He now has two children of his own and a home in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire.

He is now a member of the Royal Society, but was no runaway success at the local grammar school, leaving at 16 to work at the pathology laboratories of Huddersfield Royal Infirmary.

Practical work fired him up. After studying at night school he went on to win a first class degree in microbiology at London University before obtaining a doctorate in microbial biochemistry at Bristol.

His enthusiasm for matching scientific research with business came after his nine years at the Squibb Institute for Medical Research in the US. "I loved America, it's my kind of place. Lots of energy, drive and enthusiasm," he once said.

As deputy chairman and chief executive of Glaxo, Sir Richard proved he could mix the gravitas of a scientist with the acumen of a businessman. Glaxo needed it. The City was worried that management was becoming complacent after discovering sudden success with Zantac, the anti-ulcer pill that became the world's best selling drug.

Zantac had provided 43 per cent of Glaxo's turnover and put a second division company into the giants' league. But the US patent ran out in 1997 and few in the Glaxo hierarchy seemed aware of the pending problems.

Sir Richard grasped the nettle immediately. His comeback strategy was to launch the audacious bid for an undervalued Wellcome and set about cutting costs with a zeal that astonished some of his former associates.

Secondly, he pushed the Glaxo Welcome research arm hard for new products and by the first half of 1997 had seen sales of those drugs launched since 1990 rise by 50 per cent.

Despite an expected 1997 profits slowdown, the Glaxo share price rose as analysts remain convinced that Sir Richard's continuing optimism about the future is well founded. The proposed SmithKline deal has sent stocks racing

It all looked so effortless, with the potential deal triggered by Sir Richard picking up the phone to SmithKline's chief executive, Jan Leschly. The two have known each other since their days at Squibb Corporation but they have things in common outside business as well. Mr Leschly is a former Davis Cup tennis player but the Glaxo boss is also a keep-fit fan who is pretty nifty with a racquet.

James Culverwell, pharmaceutical analyst with Merrill Lynch, confirms that Sir Richard will greatly add to his reputation if the latest deal goes through: "The timing of both Wellcome and SmithKline mergers has been excellent."

Robin Gilbert of Panmure Gordon has little but praise for the Glaxo boss: "Scientists turned top industrialists are pretty rare. Sir Richard has been an outstanding success. He is a balanced individual who knows his own mind."

Not everyone sings his praises. One City figure said: "He is well regarded but he can be abrasive, impatient and opinionated."

The departure last year of Sean Lance, originally brought in as chairman- designate, was seen by some as an example that Sir Richard, like his predecessor Sir Paul Girolami, might not be the easiest person to work with.

Critics also point to the ulcer drug, Tritec, and the anaesthesia relief, Ultiva, as examples of the Glaxo chairman trumpeting products that failed to fly commercially.

Such comments are unlikely to worry Sir Richard. He once said: "I cannot run a company on the basis of what people think about me. I have to run it on the basis of what I believe is right for it in the long-term."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Retirement Coordinator - Financial Services

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...

Recruitment Genius: Annuities / Pensions Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be the first point of contact for all...

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss