GSK boss faces crunch meeting with investors

Emma Walmsley needs to convince shareholders she has the right plan.

The boss of GlaxoSmithKline faces one of the biggest challenges of her career as she tries to convince shareholders in the pharmaceutical giant that she is the right person – and has the right plan – for the future of one of the UK’s biggest and most important companies.

Emma Walmsley has a number of questions to answer at street level and at Wall Street level.

At street level: how come one of the world’s premier vaccine makers was not in the front line in the war on Covid?

At Wall Street level, why has GSK continued to underperform its competitors in revenue growth, profit and share price in the four years she has been in charge?

On the first question, she will freely admit that being eclipsed by AstraZeneca, Pfizer and others has not been an enjoyable experience for the last year.

But she will point out that the pandemic is far from over and GSK is expecting to announce the results of trials of the vaccine it has developed along with French company Sanofi in the autumn.

If the trial results are positive the company hopes to start production of a vaccine in the last three months of this year.

She will also point to the fact that GSK has played its part in the fight by using its production facilities in the North East to manufacture the vaccine developed by Novovax.

On the second, she will promise that the already announced split of the consumer healthcare division, which makes Sensodyne and Panadol, along with products from Pfizer – Advil and Viagra – into a separate company, GSK Healthcare, will allow the new GSK to focus on developing new drugs and vaccines which will grow future revenues and profits – and she will give some firm numbers around those commitments.

That effort will be helped, she will argue, by parking some of GSK’s overall debt into GSK Healthcare which has the steady cash flow to pay the interest.

That will free up the new less indebted GSK to invest in new drugs and vaccines.

Insiders point to the recent $600m (£430m) acquisition of cancer drug specialists Iteos as a good example.

It promises to be a tough crowd.

Activist investor Elliot Advisors has bought a multibillion pound stake in the company and has been trying to convince others that GSK would be better off – and worth more – if it were split up even further – separating its vaccine business from the rest of the pharma division.

Elliott has also been raising doubts about whether Ms Walmsley herself, who comes from a consumer healthcare background, is the right person to lead a drug and vaccine business.

As one investor told the BBC, she’s been there for more than four years now, so it’s very hard to play the “it will all get better from here” card.

GSK management has been meeting with leading shareholders in recent weeks and months and insists that “they are supportive of the plan we have put forward”.

Wednesday will be an important test of that support and a potentially pivotal day for one of the UK’s most important blue chip global companies – and its boss.