Alliance UniChem in surprise CEO move

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The Independent Online

Stefano Pessina, the chief executive and largest shareholder of Alliance UniChem, is to move up to become deputy chairman after the drug wholesaler hired a new chief executive from the drinks group Diageo.

The surprise appointment of Ian Meakins, currently head of major markets and global supply at Diageo, displaced Geoff Cooper, the long-standing AU executive who had been seen as heir apparent and who will leave the company.

The company was quick to snuff out talk that Mr Pessina's elevation represented a loosening of his commitment to the company or presaged other moves on his part. Earlier this year, he talked with the private equity firm KKR about using his 30 per cent holding to launch a management buyout, but the negotiations stalled.

Mr Pessina - whose father set up Alliance in Italy in 1976 - said he would maintain an executive role, advising on strategy and controlling the acquisition spree that has turned AU into Europe's second largest drug wholesaler and, more recently, a significant player in retail pharmacies, too. "I am one of the founders of this company, I like this company and I have no plans to retire," he said. "But I am 63 and I cannot be chief executive for ever."

Kenneth Clarke, a former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, stays as senior non-executive director but loses the title of deputy chairman.

Mr Cooper had been finance director of UniChem and of AU after the acquisition of Alliance in 1997 before becoming deputy chief executive in 2001.

Mark Clark, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, said: "It has come as a surprise to most close followers of the company, as it had been widely assumed that Mr Cooper would take up the full chief executive position. Mr Cooper was well-respected by analysts and investors and had been arguably the company's main contact with the investment community over the past decade."

The management shake-up was announced alongside record interim results. Profits rose 22 per cent to £107.8m thanks to a strong wholesale drug market in the UK.