UPDATE 2-Actelion gets backing of major shareholder Maag
* Maag is one of biggest shareholders with 4.2 pct stake
* Says Actelion has strategy for sustained value creation
* Maag is first shareholder to come out in support of co
(Adds comments from Actelion, source close to Elliott)
By Katie Reid
ZURICH, March 7 (Reuters) - Swiss biotech group Actelion Ltd (ATLN.VX) won the support of one of its biggest shareholders on Monday in a war of words with activist fund Elliott Advisers, which has called on Actelion to consider putting itself up for sale.
"Actelion has the right strategy in place to ensure sustained value creation," Rudolf Maag, who holds 4.2 percent of Actelion's outstanding shares, said in a statement.
"The company enjoys a strong, risk-balanced pipeline and invests the shareholder's money in the right projects ... I am convinced that pursuing a stand-alone strategy where the benefits of these investments can be fully realized will maximise shareholder value over the medium to long term."
Maag is the first shareholder to come out in support of Actelion since largest shareholder Elliott made public letters to the board in which it urged Actelion to consider putting itself up for sale after a spate of product setbacks.
Elliott has called for Actelion's founder and Chief Executive Jean-Paul Clozel, as well as the company's Chairman Robert Cawthorn, to resign from the board.
A spokesman for Actelion said the company welcomed the support of Maag and said it had also received positive feedback from investors at its recent roadshows.
A spokesman for Elliott declined to comment.
Pressure from Elliott is mounting ahead of Actelion's annual shareholders' meeting (AGM) on May 5 and the hedge fund said on Monday it had launched the website www.ATLNshareholdersforchoice.com to help investors vote at the meeting. [ID:nLDE726085]
Elliott, which owns nearly 6 percent of the $7 billion company, is also using Georgeson, a firm of proxy solicitors, in a bid to gain more support among shareholders.
A source close to Elliott told Reuters the hedge fund was tapping pharma executives as candidates for Actelion's board after sources said last week it had hired a headhunter to gather possible names. [ID:nLDE7231OC]
"The headhunter has been able to bring forward very high-profile people with the right mix of skills, very senior people from other boards in the industry, and chairmen from comparable companies," the source said, adding Elliott is likely to make the names of its nominees public later this week.
Led by Clozel, Actelion is determined to stay independent, but some analysts believe it could be the next pharma takeover target after Sanofi-Aventis SA's (SASY.PA) $20 billion-plus acquisition of Genzyme Corp GENZ.O.
Clozel, a former scientist at Roche Holding AG (ROG.VX), has built Actelion into a major force on the back of Tracleer, a $1.8 billion-a-year drug for a rare but deadly lung disorder.
But some investors are worried Actelion has not done enough to secure future revenue drivers, given the failure of other experimental medicines.
Actelion's next big hope is macitentan, a follow-on drug to Tracleer that could reach the market in 2013 and which some market forecasts suggest may also be a blockbuster, or a $1 billion-plus product.
"I am concerned about the distraction some shareholders are causing at the company, at a critical time of the company's development, where everybody needs to stay very focused on the key task at hand, ie bringing the significant potential in the product pipeline to fruition in the coming years," Maag said.
Actelion shares closed down 1.2 percent at 50.10 francs. (Editing by David Holmes)
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