Chief reformer Witty stays down to earth

Elizabeth Fournier
WHEN chief executive Andrew Witty took the helm at the world’s third largest pharmaceutical company in May 2008, GlaxoSmithKline was looking for change.

After eight years with Jean-Pierre Garnier at the top – during which the Frenchman improved the company’s fortunes while attracting controversy for refusing to provide discount HIV drugs to Africa – Witty stepped up from his post as president of the Europe pharmaceuticals division.

Brought up in Cheshire and educated at Nantwich Grammar then Nottingham University, Witty has been with GSK since joining as a management trainee in 1985. Having spent time in South Africa and Asia during his time with the company, he returned to the UK as president of GSK Europe in 2003, and rose to the top spot over the next five years.

Once installed Witty set about making changes at GSK. Garnier ran the firm from Philadelphia and was the target of anti “fat-cat” protestors for his pay packet – Witty moved his offices from the top to the ground floor of the Brentford HQ and is the lowest paid chief exec of a major drugs company.

He has also established himself as a key figure in the British business world, not least as a prominent backer of the Conservatives pre-election “eight-point contract” on economic policy, along with Sir Richard Branson and EasyJet’s Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. But yesterday he stressed his apolitical allegiance to the UK government both pre- and post-election – a position he’s been keen to stress in the past.

“It’s not about politics,” he has said previously. “It’s about what’s the right kind of direction to travel.”

So far for Witty, that direction has been mostly positive, with the company posting its first annual sales growth since 2007 last year, despite patents on some of its key US products expiring.

He has also put in a programme of cost cutting that aims to save £1.7bn by the end of this year, though the legal costs that have dented the last quarter’s revenue will have stretched the coffers somewhat, after GSK paid £2.2bn to settle litigation over diabetes pill Avandia.