What GlaxoSmithKline plc’s choice of CEO means for shareholders

On Tuesday, GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK) announced — with much fanfare — that it had selected Emma Walmsley to become the group’s new chief executive officer when its current boss Sir Andrew Witty steps down next year.

While we won’t find out how adept Walmsley is at managing the group as a whole for several years, on paper, she looks to be an excellent candidate. She’s an internal hire who currently runs Glaxo’s consumer healthcare division, so Walmsley knows at least part of the group well.

During her nine years running the consumer division, Glaxo’s CEO-elect has presided over strong sales growth and diversification to higher volume, low margin consumer staples like toothpaste. According to Euromonitor International, Glaxo’s Sensodyne toothpaste was the fastest-growing global toothpaste brand between 2008 and 2013. And last year Walmsley presided over Glaxo’s asset swap with Novartis where the firm traded its cancer drugs business for the Swiss company’s vaccines and consumer health assets. Consumer healthcare now makes up a third of Glaxo’s overall revenue base.

With this record behind her, it would appear that the powers that be at Glaxo have selected Walmsley for her skill in managing and growing a global consumer business. However, her appointment may also put an end to speculation (and demands from large investors) that Glaxo could break itself apart to unlock value.

Breakup off the table 

Is this bad news for shareholders? Possibly. Breaking a complex business like Glaxo up would undoubtedly create value for investors. Each one of the group’s component businesses would attract a separate valuation, reflecting its outlook and position in the market. When grouped together in a conglomerate like Glaxo, the value of the component businesses could be low-balled by the market. Indeed, recently the market has been more concerned about Glaxo’s falling sales of its Advair asthma treatment, which are completely unrelated to the consumer division, than anything else. 

On the other hand, Glaxo’s management argues that the group is stronger as one unit as the separate divisions complement each other. Certainly, this viewpoint has helped the group over the past few years. Income from the consumer healthcare division has helped prop-up overall group revenue as sales slid following patent expirations.

The right choice 

Keeping Glaxo whole, rather than breaking the firm up could be the right approach if management can unlock value via other methods. And if sales growth returns across all divisions it’s more than likely management will stop receiving calls to break the group apart.

City analysts are predicting steady revenue and earnings growth over the next few years. This year the company is expected to report revenue growth around 10% and City analysts have pencilled-in earnings per share growth of 27%. Next year forecasts suggest the company’s earnings will grow a further 7%.

Overall, it looks as if Walmsley’s appointment is good news for Glaxo’s shareholders. She’s a company insider with a record of growing sales — exactly what Glaxo needs.

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Rupert Hargreaves owns shares of GlaxoSmithKline. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended GlaxoSmithKline. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.