Novartis shakes up C-Suite as sales slide 3%

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Onetime contender for the top spot at Novartis Jorg Reinhardt is returning to the Swiss drug maker in April as the non-executive chairman of the board, pending an April 2013 board vote. Reinhardt, currently chairman of the board for Bayer Healthcare, replaces Daniel Vasella, who has been associated with Novartis since its Sandoz days -- he was appointed CEO of Sandoz in 1988, and the company merged with Novartis in 1996.

Reinhardt, similarly, goes back to Sandoz, which he joined in 1982. There, he hop-scotched among various management positions, including head of development for Sandoz, head of preclinical development and project management for Novartis, head of vaccines and diagnostics for Novartis and finally Chief Operating Officer in 2008.

Novartis said in a statement that Vasella's departure is his choice – he opted not to seek re-election. The executive reshuffle puts CEO Joseph Jimenez back into a working relationship with Reinhardt, who was an also-ran for the job when now-departing Vasella disposed of his CEO duties and focused on his board position full time in 2010.

The Novartis Reinhardt is rejoining is different, albeit with a larger top line, than the one he left. When the then-COO left to join Bayer in 2010, Novartis had just closed out 2009 with record results, including a 7% increase in sales, to $44.3 billion, a rise that included growth across pharmaceuticals, vaccines and diagnostics, along with the Sandoz unit and consumer health.

By contrast, the company reported Wednesday that fourth quarter sales were flat, at $14.8 billion. The pharmaceuticals division provided a bit of a buffer against generic erosion, eking out $8.3 billion in sales and increasing sales volume by 8%, while vaccines and diagnostics sales ebbed 6% during the quarter, compared to the same period last year. The company ended the year on a down note, with sales falling to $56.7 billion, a 3% drop compared to 2011. Pharmaceutical sales slipped 1%, to $32.2 billion for the year, and Sandoz sales were $8.7 billion, an 8% drop compared to 2011. The company noted in its report that despite a downcast Sandoz performance, the drop could have been steeper if rising biosimilars sales hadn't provided a cushion. Performance continued to be dogged by the consumer division, which remains hampered by the closure of its Lincoln, NE, plant. Novartis compensated for some of the lost consumer volume through third-party contractors who put OTC products including Excedrin, Lamisil and Triaminic on the shelves during the fourth quarter. Novartis expects the Nebraska plant to resume some production in the first half of this year.

The company also trimmed costs, pulling back on pharmaceutical sales and marketing support by almost 1% in the fourth quarter compared to the same period in 2011, and by a similar amount year over year.

Jefferies analyst Jeffrey Holford hailed the management announcement as a welcome change in his Wednesday research note, and said the move probably signals the company will undertake a “significant restructuring of some of the Group's undervalued assets, such as Roche.”

A post-call assessment recounted by Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson indicates that the executive shift may be about more of the same.

Anderson wrote in his report that the company answered all strategy queries with a response that indicated “Novartis is happy with the current strategy and structure,” even though the market has been anticipating change. Anderson noted that Novartis also said it was happy with its Roche position and sees it as a maturing investment.

Novartis forecast the future as follows: 2013 sales will be in line with 2012's and the company will end up absorbing generic competition, which could hover around $3.5 billion. Novartis expects 2013 to be a foundational year, with payoff appearing in 2014 and 2015 in the form of sales growth in the mid-single digits.

Among the challenges Reinhardt may tangle with, according to Anderson: the risk that Gilenya is a non-starter in light of completion like Biogen Idec's experimental MS contender, BG-12, and an unfavorable risk/benefit profile.
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