People, Workforce

Pfizer CEO Read hands off drug development responsibilities to his hand picked successor

Under Ian Read, Pfizer $PFE became the Big Pharma willing to buy anything, including another Big Pharma, and pay just about any price to keep the company growing. Every word he speaks about M&A is parsed for some indication of when and what he’ll bring the check book out for next.

So you can imagine that hand picking a potential successor is getting some careful scrutiny today.

Albert Bourla

Pfizer has promoted Pfizer’s Innovative Health chief Albert Bourla to the new role of chief operating officer, where he’s been given a special mandate to oversee the day-to-day activity around product development, sales and strategy. As the Wall Street Journal notes, that puts him in a position of considerable influence in shaping Pfizer’s late-stage pipeline as the company lines up its best shots at major new commercial products.

What difference does this promotion make? Pfizer spent $14 billion to buy Medivation, a jaw-dropping sum that immediately raised questions about the company’s bargaining ability. He even went after AstraZeneca at one point, and the top team insists that big buyouts lead to big value — a point that is always quickly contested.

Pfizer traditionally pays big premiums for what it wants. It wanted a checkpoint, and it paid Merck KGaA a record $850 million upfront to buy in. Bourla — a trained veterinarian — will now be sitting at the crossroads of any major new deals to come along, after Read hits the restart button for the company’s deals team.

Bourla’s new role beginning January 1, said the CEO in a statement, means Read can “spend more time focusing on the company’s long-term strategic direction, ensuring continued R&D productivity and engaging with government policy and industry leaders on key issues facing the future of the healthcare industry.”

The move triggered a reshuffle in the top ranks at Pfizer. John Young, who heads Pfizer Essential Health, takes Bourla’s old job, while Angela Hwang succeeds Young.

To be clear, Read hasn’t set the date for any retirement party, and there’s no absolute guarantee that Bourla will be stepping up. Today, though, Bourla’s stars are aligned and pointing to big things.


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