8:32am

Mon December 6, 2010
Shots - Health News Blog

Pfizer CEO Calls It Quits

Jeff Kindler, a lawyer tapped as a fresh face to lead drugmaker Pfizer out of its doldrums, is out, after just a little over four years as chairman and chief executive.

Kindler, 55, says he's retiring, after an exhausting run. Managing the world's largest drug company, as measured by sales, is nobody's idea of an easy job. And it's even tougher when you're playing beat the clock to find a replacement for Lipitor, the company's huge-selling cholesterol fighter that goes generic next year.

In a statement, he said, "the combination of meeting the requirements of our many stakeholders around the world and the 24/7 nature of my responsibilities, has made this period extremely demanding on me personally." No doubt about it.

But the fundamental problem for Kindler and Hank McKinnell, the longtime Pfizer exec he replaced as CEO in 2006, was the same: puny growth.

Pfizer practically minted money in the '90s and early part of the past decade on sales of some of the biggest drugs the industry had ever seen. Blood pressure pill Norvasc, antibiotic Zithromax, and antidepressant Zoloft were some of the company's biggest hits. Now, those medicines have lost patent protection and prescriptions for generic versions can be had for just a few dollars.

Yes, there's still Lipitor, but its star is finally starting to dim. Though still the top selling prescription drug in the world last year, it's being hurt by rival medicines that are now sold as cheap generics. By late next year a copycat version of Lipitor itself will be available.

To be sure, Pfizer remains very profitable, but the company hasn't been able to find enough new drugs -- in its own labs or those of other companies -- to keep growing the way it used to.

One of Kindler's first challenges, in fact, was the spectacular failure of torcetrapib, Pfizer's most important experimental drug, four years ago. The medicine, which boosted good cholesterol, was supposed to help people at risk for serious heart trouble live longer. But in a big clinical test those taking the medicine were more likely to die.

So Kindler turned to deals to make up for internal shortfalls, just as his predecessor McKinnell had. Pfizer paid $68 billion for rival drugmaker Wyeth early this last year.

Even with some small improvements lately, Pfizer isn't the growth company it used to be. And Ian Read, the 57-year-old sales exec who's taking Kindler's place, inherits the same problem.

Being CEO is a lot more exhausting when you have to spend a lot of your time fending off dissatisfied shareholders and restless directors. And that's bound to have been a big factor for Kindler. On his watch Pfizer's share price fell by more than one-third to $16.72 on Friday from about $26 at the beginning of August 2006. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.