SkyePharma board to replace Gowrie-Smith

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Non-executive directors at SkyePharma, the drug development group, will indicate their willingness to replace Ian Gowrie-Smith as chairman when they meet dissident shareholders to discuss management change next week.

The nominations committee has drawn up a shortlist of three external candidates for the vacant chief executive post and, when that appointment has been made, will launch a formal search for a chairman.

One source said: "We need a management team with speciality pharma experience, particularly in respiratory medicine, and with contacts in the City and experience of building shareholder value. When we know the new chief executive, we will know the profile of the chairman we need to get a matching skill set."

Friends have argued the auction of the company, launched in November after an unsolicited merger approach by Innovata, provided an opportunity to provide Mr Gowrie-Smith with an "exit with dignity and grace". However, the company admitted this week it was unlikely to receive a full takeover bid by Monday, the first deadline set by its advisers. That dramatically shortens the odds on SkyePharma remaining independent, but with a new management charged with selling off one or two of the company's three divisions.

The search will bring down the curtain on a decade in which Mr Gowrie-Smith has built SkyePharma into a significant player in speciality pharmaceuticals development, with products including painkillers and a controlled-release version of the anti-depressant Seroxat to its credit. However, the share price has failed to ignite and the final straw appeared to be the company's failure to find a development partner for a new asthma drug - a failure that forced it into a humiliating £35m rights issue in the autumn. Michael Ashton, the chief executive, has since announced his retirement. Mr Gowrie-Smith has refused to be drawn on his intentions.

A group of dissident investors accounting for 16 per cent of SkyePharma shares will meet non-executives next week to raise management change and discuss the progress of the strategy review. The group comprises JO Hambro, Insight and Morley.

SkyePharma has asked the Takeover Panel to investigate JO Hambro for what it alleges are leaks about details of the strategy review, including Innovata's identity as the original bidder. Innovata has since pulled out of talks. JO Hambro did not return calls.