UK drugmaker GSK under fresh pressure to sell consumer arm

Hedge fund Bluebell also demands replacement of GlaxoSmithKline chairman Sir Jonathan Symonds

Last modified on Tue 12 Oct 2021 10.29 EDT

The British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline has come under fresh pressure to sell off its consumer arm and carry out a change of leadership, with a hedge fund demanding the appointment of a new chairman.

Bluebell Capital Partners, an activist London-based hedge fund that has taken a small stake in GSK, has written to the company to demand that Sir Jonathan Symonds be replaced as chairman.

Bluebell recently joined the New York hedge fund Elliott Management, an activist investor that acquired a substantial stake in GSK in May, in demanding that the drugmaker’s chief executive, Emma Walmsley, reapply for her job, before a planned separation of the consumer arm from the pharmaceuticals and vaccines business next summer. The company continues to insist she will lead the latter division after the split.

Symonds held a virtual meeting with GSK’s top 50 investors last week at which the Elliott managing partner Gordon Singer reportedly questioned Walmsley’s leadership and asked why the drugmaker’s share price had fallen below pre-Covid levels.

Bluebell began making similar demands last month. It has taken a stake worth €10m (£8.49m), or 0.01% of GSK.

GSK shares rose as much as 4.8% at one point on Tuesday after a report that private equity firms were circling its consumer arm.

The drugmaker has come under pressure from the two hedge funds to explore a sale of the consumer business, with a value analysts have estimated at about £45bn. However, GSK is pushing ahead with a demerger and insists that this is what most investors want.

Bloomberg reported that private equity firms Advent International, Blackstone, Carlyle Group, CVC Capital Partners, KKR and Permira were among those running the rule over the consumer business. It is understood, however, that GSK is not in discussions to sell off the unit.

GSK said it was “far advanced” with its plan for a demerger, adding: “As we have said, the GSK board will fulfil its fiduciary duties to evaluate any alternative options for Consumer Healthcare which may arise that maximise value for all shareholders.”

Bluebell’s managing partners Marco Taricco and Giuseppe Bivona, who launched the hedge fund in 2019, upped the pressure on GSK’s board when they wrote to the company again on Monday to demand the replacement of its chairman.

Bluebell claimed that among the leading shareholders “there remains a broad scepticism of the current leadership, well beyond what has been voiced publicly by selected shareholders”.

Bluebell wrote: “The separation of Consumer Healthcare should represent a new beginning for New GSK … this includes the appointment not only of a new chief executive but also of a new chairman.”

A GSK spokesperson said: “We completely reject the content and claims made in this letter, which are not representative of the discussion at the meeting or the majority of our shareholders’ views. We are disappointed that Bluebell have deliberately sought to misrepresent the meeting and to distort what was said in order to advance their own narrow agenda.”

They added: “We remain absolutely focused on tackling the root causes of previous historical underperformance and delivering improved and sustained value for all shareholders … The board is confident that we have the right strategy and the right team to deliver a step-change in growth and performance.”

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