City & Business: Sterling footwork

I never saw Jan Leschly when he was a tennis star, but I imagine he must have played like Boris Becker on a cocktail of speed and steroids: fast, aggressive and very, very energetic. No shuffling around on the baseline for Leschly, who now runs SmithKline Beecham. His game since taking over as chief executive in April has been all serve-and-volley. His peers at Glaxo, Wellcome and Zeneca look leaden-footed by comparison.

In May there was the pounds 1.5bn acquisition of Diversified Pharmaceutical Services, a US pharmaceutical benefit manager (a glorified drugs wholesaler). Then last week he announced the pounds 1.9bn acquisition of Sterling Winthrop, a large producer of non-prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.

OTC is suddenly rather fashionable. 'Self-medication' is the vogue term used by the drugs marketers. SB believes the world market is worth about pounds 20bn and is growing at 6 per cent - twice the now rather pedestrian rate of prescription pharmeuticals. OTC demand seems even more assured as governments try to get people to shoulder more of their healthcare costs.

The market is not just the old staples of pain relievers, antacids and cold / cough products. Governments are looking more sympathetically at allowing drugs to be sold over the counter which previously would have had to be prescribed. Prescription treatments for ulcers, cystitis, smoking cessation, baldness, even herpes have been or shortly will be available over the counter.

Where the drug is proved safe and efficacious, and when the treatment is self-diagnosable, the sky's the limit. It's an attractive prospect for drugs companies which see the expiry date of patents on core products looming. For example SB's prescription-only ulcer treatment Tagamet has become, in watered-down form, Tagamet 100 - available across any chemist's counter.

The argument seems quite compelling. And SB has put out pages and pages of guff about the wonderful opportunities in OTC. However, the more immediate task is to absorb Sterling into SB and achieve the necessary cost reductions. SB talks airily of achieving cost savings of pounds 500m within two to three years, though so far it seems alarmingly clueless as to how these will actually be achieved. Closing factories, reducing staff numbers, combining sales forces, trimming overheads, exploiting synergies - it's all rather humdrum stuff, requiring planning, application and patience. Leschly now has to prove his baseline skills.

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