RUTH SUNDERLAND: Another female boss in Elliott’s sights

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Under pressure: Elliott Management has not seen fit to reveal its agenda at GSK, so chief executive Dame Emma Walmsley and shareholders are in the dark


RUTH SUNDERLAND: It’s not a great look for Elliott to park its tanks on lawn of yet another of Britain’s most prominent female bosses

  • In recent years, three of the companies Elliott has targeted in the UK have been run by women 
  • Walmsley does not trade on her gender and plenty of male bosses have found themselves in the sights of activists, including Barclays CEO Jes Staley 
  • It’s possible companies run by women are subliminally perceived as more vulnerable – of course that is not true

Activist US investor Elliott Management may have over-reached itself by taking on GSK. 

Thus far, the hedge fund has not seen fit to reveal its agenda at the pharma giant, so chief executive Dame Emma Walmsley and shareholders, including pension savers, are in the dark. 

This information vacuum is destabilising and has created damaging – and unfair – speculation about Walmsley’s future. 

Under pressure: Elliott Management has not seen fit to reveal its agenda at GSK, so chief executive Dame Emma Walmsley and shareholders are in the dark

Detractors point out that between her appointment in 2017 and news of Elliott’s move, shares fell by 14 per cent, compared with a strong rise at rival Astrazeneca. There is also disappointment that the company has not produced a Covid-19 jab. 

But the legacy Walmsley inherited was difficult. She was faced with rebuilding the drugs pipeline and in particular the oncology side. For all the carping, she has made significant progress, hiring rock star drug guru Hal Barron and buying US cancer specialist Tesaro for $5billion last year. 

There are also positive noises on the Covid front. The big strategic picture is her plan to split the business next year into pharmaceuticals and consumer health, creating two new FTSE 100 companies. On June 23, she will give more detail on this and present her five-year growth outlook. 

Her vision may not pan out, but she deserves the chance to see it through. 

As for Elliott, its reputation for hyper-aggression may not be merited. But it is secretive. Its top man in the UK, American Gordon Singer, will not even authorise publication of the most innocuous photographs of himself. It is not acceptable for a firm or individual to hide behind a cloak of anonymity whilst seeking to influence the direction of Britain’s most important listed companies. 

GSK’s future is a matter of great public interest for the British people as shareholders, taxpayers and consumers of healthcare. These considerations far outweigh any private enrichment Elliott is seeking and the firm must be open and accountable. 

Another observation is that in recent years, three of the companies Elliott has targeted in the UK have been run by women. That is fascinating, because there are only a tiny handful of female chief executives at Britain’s leading businesses.

There was a bloodless outcome to Elliott’s involvement at Whitbread, led by Alison Brittain, with the sale of the Costa Coffee chain to Coca-Cola for a lucrative price. 

Not so at Alliance Trust, where the firm launched an attack on chief executive Katherine Garrett-Cox, who had to step down. Alliance chairman Karin Forseke, who described the firm as ‘potentially destructive’ was another female casualty. 

It’s not clear whether Elliott will seek another scalp by trying to oust Walmsley or try to stop her leading the spun-off pharma business as she intends. In fairness, it is improbable that there is a policy of attacking female-led companies and Elliott has pushed companies such as Samsung and Alexion towards greater boardroom diversity. 

Walmsley does not trade on her gender and plenty of male bosses have found themselves in the sights of activists, including Barclays CEO Jes Staley. Even so, it is not a great look for Elliott to plant its tanks on the lawn of yet another of Britain’s most prominent female bosses. 

It’s possible companies run by women are subliminally perceived as more vulnerable. 

Of course that is not true. Just look at Dame Clara Furse, who at the London Stock Exchange was under constant siege from bidders, whom she dismissed with aplomb. 

What a great addition she would be to the GSK board to send Elliott packing.

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