Leadership rivals line up to replace JP at GSK

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While the City is focused on the high-profile succession battle at oil giant BP, another blue-chip company is quietly reviewing its leadership options as its chief prepares to give up the reins.

Jean-Pierre Garnier, the chief executive of the UK's largest drugs maker GlaxoSmithKline, turns 60 next October and is to step down in May 2008, several months before Lord Browne parts company with BP. Although the announcement of a successor at GSK was scheduled for March next year, JP, as he is universally known, has delayed his retirement beyond the company policy of his 60th birthday. This is so he can steer the company through an important 18 months as it prepares for the launch of key new treatments, including Tykerb for lung cancer and Cervarix, a vaccine for cervical cancer.

To ensure a smooth transition, the new chief executive must take over in the months before the Frenchman's departure and we can expect more news on the likely candidates next year.

GSK is, of course, tightlipped on potential talent although JP, who has been at the helm of the company since January 2001 after it was formed through the merger of SmithKline Beecham and Glaxo Wellcome, has previously indicated it would be an internal appointment.

"We do have a wealth of internal talent at GSK, but the appointment of a CEO and board member is, of course, a price sensitive process," GSK said yesterday. "This means that if we have anything to say on the subject, it will be announced in the normal way through the regulatory services."

Analysts point to four potential executives, all with impeccable credentials.

David Stout, who has been president of pharmaceutical operations since January 2003, is described by one analyst as the "heir apparent".

"Looking round the City now, everyone is pointing to him as the natural successor," he said. The 52-year-old American joined SmithKline Beecham in October 1996 and was previously president of Schering Laboratories. With a strong background in science, sales and pharmaceutical marketing, he appears to be a natural choice.

One year older at 53, Russell Greig, is another potential contender. He has been in charge of GSK's pharmaceuticals international division since March 2003. Mr Greig has been a part of the company since 1980 when he joined the discovery unit of R&D in the US and worked his way up through various R&D positions. He has played a key role in extending the company's network of new technologies, particularly in genomics.

Chris Viehbacher, 46, who holds dual German and Canadian citizenship, has been in charge of US pharmaceuticals since January 2003. One analyst tipped him as a hot contender and described him as a "dark horse candidate". Mr Viehbacher joined the company in 1988 when it was Wellcome GmbH, Germany.

The youngest candidate is Andrew Witty, the British head of European operations. The 42-year-old joined Glaxo UK in 1985 and among a number of key roles, for two years was head of the Asia Pacific division when he also served as economic adviser to the Governor of Guangzhou, China. Mr Witty would be a popular choice, although concerns have been raised over his relative youth.

Although analysts point out that the board would not be doing their job if they did not examine outside candidates, it seems unlikely they will deviate from the internal talent. "AstraZeneca was the most obvious choice for an outsider but they choose David Brennen, who wasn't seen as a particularly exciting choice," one said.

JP has proved himself a strong leader and has led the company to its position as No1 in Europe, battling through a hostile City reaction to remuneration and a public relations crisis over Aids drugs patents in the early days. By breaking up the company's research organisation into several smaller units, he has been credited with restoring the company's pipeline. His boots will not be easy to fill.