They say it’s lonely at the top. The pressures and scrutiny faced by modern-day CEOs trying to steer companies through a pandemic whilst maintaining profitability is a whole new challenge and Dame Emma Walmsley, of pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, has felt the weight of this burden more keenly than many of her peers recently.
In January, GSK fell significantly behind in the vaccine race, while consumer division profits suffered from a reduced cold and flu season due to lockdown. The company’s shares dropped dramatically and its first quarter results attest to a difficult year.
However, sales figures and financial forecasts may not be vexing Walmsley as much as the presence on the shareholder register of activist investor Elliott Management, which has loomed perilously over Walmsley’s tenure as CEO since it acquired a multi-billion pound stake in the business earlier this year.
Run by billionaire investor Paul Singer, Elliott Management is renowned for its tenacity in deploying influence, and embodies the growing influence of large, activist investors determined to have their view considered in boardrooms, increase shareholder value, scrutinize ESG performance and catalayse extreme change.
Walmsley recently set to work on a transformation programme for the business, splitting off the consumer health care section and creating a ‘New GSK’ with a refreshed and refocused drug pipeline. Elliott continues to question this strategy, undermining Warmsley’s leadership and triggering headlines such as, “activist investor Elliott plots CEO Warmsley’s removal”.
Having previously remained silent on the matter, Walmsley came out fighting last week, capping a week of investor roadshow meetings with a rare interview in The Sunday Times, in which she described herself as being “genetically blessed with stamina and resilience” and a “change agent”, making it clear that she intends to remain in her role for the foreseeable future.
Walmsley is one of only five female FTSE 100 chief executives and a recognised figurehead in a traditionally male-dominated STEM sector. A successful defence of her position against Elliott’s attacks will not only secure her job but secure a coveted position for women in leadership roles and the evidence from this past week suggests Walmsley possesses the perseverance and grit to give Elliott Management a good run for their money.