New chairman ramps up CEO search at struggling AZ

Help wanted: CEO for embattled biopharma AstraZeneca. Leif Johansson officially begins his new role as chairman of AZ ($AZN) today, and his top order of business is to find a new chief executive to replace the recently departed David Brennan and to guide a hoped-for turnaround at the London-based company, The Financial Times reported.

For any prospective CEO, call the setback-plagued company a fixer-upper. As pharma properties go, AstraZeneca has one of the least impressive track records for R&D productivity and has famously floundered on the M&A and partnership fronts, most notably with Brennan's $15 billion misfire to acquire the U.S. biotech MedImmune. And as The Financial Times notes, the precise strategy for rebuilding the company hasn't quite materialized.

Enter Johansson, who has a track record for unsentimental decision-making in previous roles as CEO of Volvo from 1997 to 2011 and chief executive at Electrolux. His pharma resumé includes about 13 years on the board of Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), which has been one of the success stories of the drug industry in part because of the "string-of-pearls" strategy of adding unique new products to the company's pipeline without an overtaxing mega-merger.

Regardless of whom Johansson and the AZ board tap as AZ's next CEO, bolt-on deals appear to be in the offing. Martin Mackay, the company's R&D chief, has talked up the need to do acquisitions in the single-digit billions of dollars while revving up sales of existing brands in emerging markets. On the buyout front, AZ is rumored to be in the hunt with a bunch of other pharma groups interested in purchasing the diabetes drugmaker Amylin Pharmaceuticals ($AMLN). Clearly, AZ faces lots of competition for bite-sized deals as most pharma chiefs have sworn off super-sized buyouts like the Pfizer/Wyeth and Roche/Genentech mergers. 

"The company has a strong executive team in place who, under [interim CEO and former CFO] Simon Lowth's leadership, will provide clear direction for the business while the board completes the search for a new CEO, which is my immediate priority," Leif Johansson said in a statement, as quoted by the FT.

It's been an open question about who is fit and bold enough to take the helm at AstraZeneca as CEO amid the turmoil, which includes sinking profits, a lack of promising late-stage contenders and generic competition to Seroquel. With Johansson officially on board, expect to see some swift action on the CEO search. 

- get more in the FT article
- here's Reuters' story

Special Report: AstraZeneca - The Biggest R&D Spenders In Biopharma