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Drugs giant GSK picks Symonds to steer £81bn break-up

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Britain’s second-biggest drug-maker is turning to a former chief financial officer of AstraZeneca, its London-listed rival, to steer it through an £81bn break-up.

Sky News has learnt that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is in advanced talks about appointing Jonathan Symonds as its next non-executive chairman.

City sources said this weekend that Mr Symonds’ recruitment was likely to be announced in the coming weeks.

If confirmed, it would spell the end of a seven-month search to replace Sir Philip Hampton, the former Royal Bank of Scotland chairman, who will step down later this year.

Sir Philip’s departure was disclosed by GSK just weeks after the company announced that it was breaking itself up into two separate companies: a pharmaceuticals and vaccines specialist, and a consumer healthcare joint venture with Pfizer that will house brands including Centrum, Panadol and Sensodyne.

In alighting on Mr Symonds as its new chairman, GSK has identified a businessman with significant pharmaceuticals and capital markets experience.

His appointment will elevate him ‎into one of the top jobs in British business at a time when the pharmaceuticals industry, like others, is preparing for the possible impact of a no-deal Brexit.

A former Goldman Sachs and KPMG partner, Mr Symonds has served as chief financial officer of both AstraZeneca and Novartis, the Swiss drug-maker.

He is currently the deputy chairman of HSBC Holdings, Europe’s biggest lender, and has also served on the boards of major listed companies such as Diageo and QinetiQ.

Mr Symonds has a number of other roles in the healthcare sector as chairman of Proteus Digital and Genomics England, and a board member of Rubius Therapeutics.

His appointment as Sir Philip’s successor is subject to the approval of the banking ‎regulator, given his existing role at HSBC and the impact of his new time commitments at GSK, according to one source.

One GSK shareholder‎ said the choice of Mr Symonds appeared to be a sensible one in the context of his CV.

Once completed, GSK’s deal with Pfizer will eventually lead to the demerger of the joint venture as a separately listed company with a new name, chairman and independent board members.

However, that demerger will not take place until at least three years after the joint venture is concluded.

Last week, it emerged that GSK and Pfizer would need to find a buyer for the ThermaCare pain relief brand to win approval from Brussels for their proposed deal.

There had been consistent pressure on GSK from the City to press ahead with a break-up of the company for a number of years.

Sir Andrew Witty‎, Emma Walmsley’s predecessor as chief executive, had steadfastly resisted that pressure, which for a period was led by Neil Woodford, the prominent fund manager whose eponymous company is now mired in crisis.

A GSK spokesman said on Sunday:

“GlaxoSmithKline plc announced in January 2019 that the board had started the process to find a successor to Sir Philip Hampton as non-executive chairman.

“An announcement of a new chairman will be made in due course.”

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