Emma Walmsley, the boss of GlaxoSmithKline, jokes that she spent more time choosing her £10.4million chief scientist than she did picking her husband.
So the introduction of American pharmaceuticals king Hal Barron to the City this week was a big moment for both of them – and for GSK’s investors, with all hoping he will work some magic on the share price.
Unusually, he is paid more than the chief executive, although this is not something Walmsley seems to resent.
King pharma: Hal Barron is basing himself in California, more than 5,000 miles from GSK HQ in London
She even opened a small office in Barron’s hometown of San Francisco when he agreed to join the company so he could stay there with his wife and two children.
Immaculately dressed in one of her trademark navy blue dresses with matching stiletto heels, Walmsley had the air of a football manager showing off her new big-money signing as she sat alongside Barron in the five-star May Fair Hotel, London, last Wednesday.
For his part, Barron – sporting a California tan and dark suit, with a white T-shirt poking out from under his shirt – held the room in his thrall as he laid out his vision for injecting a Silicon Valley spirit of risk-taking into the 300-year-old British business that is behind household names such as Horlicks and Beechams.
‘Being based in California I think has some upsides…and some challenges,’ he said, explaining that he comes to the UK for one week every month.
Barron, 56, said he wants to bring to GSK some of the entrepreneurial spirit of his hometown, which is awash with biotech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
‘It’s a belief system that is about not fearing failure,’ he told The Mail on Sunday. ‘They have a model that says: ‘Look, I am going to take ten bets. I’m pretty sure nine are going to fail, and I am OK with that, because the tenth is going to give enough return that this is a great idea. So let’s invest in exciting stuff and kill it when it doesn’t work.’ ‘
Walmsley, 49, a former marketing boss at L’Oreal, started as chief executive of GSK 18 months ago, after working her way up through the company she joined in 2010.
It was seen as a coup for her when she brought in Barron. So confident is she in his abilities that he is on a contract paying him up to £10.4million in his first year – compared with her maximum package of £8.9million.
The mother-of-four identified Barron as the man to tackle GSK’s relative weakness in the early-stage development of drugs. He had already established himself as a ‘legend’ in the US biotech industry and is credited with developing ten successful drugs while working for Genentech, Roche and Calico over the last couple of decades.
Turnaround: Glaxo revealed plans to cut annual costs by £400million
In comparison, GSK’s 11,000 researchers have developed 16 drugs between them over the last ten years.
Barron and Walmsley’s proposed solution to GSK’s logjam, as set out to investors last week, is cultural change to gee up the research and development unit.
‘The reality is that we have had a decade of perhaps not the kind of competitive performance we need,’ Walmsley admitted, describing GSK as being ‘too slow’ and at times ‘rather bureaucratic’.
She added: ‘Hal and I spent hours talking about culture before he decided to join the company.
‘And I think that is one of the things we were most aligned on in terms of how much it matters.’
GSK last week told investors it plans to ‘promote a culture of increased accountability and smart risk-taking’, including ‘redefining success’ and ‘fostering a culture of truth-seeking versus progression-seeking’ – a phrase that is likely to bewilder Brits unaccustomed to California business-speak.
Glaxo’s boss Emma Walmsley
Whatever it means, critics will argue that Barron will have a tough job to change the mindset of a company with 100,000 employees – including 17,000 in the UK – from his US base.
‘Really successful cultural change will be independent of where I live,’ he said.
Barron was paraded to analysts and the media after GSK released its financial results for April to June this year.
The company also revealed plans to cut annual costs by £400million and announced a new partnership with gene-testing company 23andMe – which, like Barron, is based in Silicon Valley – to help it develop new medicines.
He described the four-year deal as a ‘really good idea’, and said he hoped others would follow GSK’s lead for the good of patients.
‘I will be thrilled if we in the industry had a better success rate in developing more drugs for patients,’ he said.