Former CEO, chairman Steere leaving Pfizer board
* Was CEO from 1991 to 2000; chairman from 1992 to 2001
* Oversaw Warner-Lambert takeover, gaining Lipitor
By Bill Berkrot
NEW YORK, March 24 (Reuters) - William Steere, who as chief executive engineered Pfizer Inc's (PFE.N) $114 billion acquisition of Warner-Lambert in 2000, is stepping down as a member of the board of the world's largest drugmaker after more than a half century with the company.
It was with Steere at the helm that Pfizer became the pharmaceutical industry's biggest player, and the company continued to grow during a tenure on the board that included two more mega-mergers -- a $60 billion purchase of Pharmacia in 2003 and a $67 billion acquisition of Wyeth in 2009.
Steere, when asked at a press conference why he was making a hostile takeover bid for Warner-Lambert, smiled at reporters and replied with a single word, "Lipitor."
At the time, the companies co-marketed the cholesterol drug, which eventually grew to annual sales of more than $13 billion.
Steere, who began his Pfizer career as a sales representative in 1959, rose to the top of a company that came to be known as a marketing machine.
He became a member of the board in 1987, a year after he was named president of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. He served as CEO from 1991 to 2000, and was chairman from 1992 to 2001. Steere will officially step down from the board as of the company's April 28 board meeting, according to a regulatory filing.
The announcement of Steere's departure comes three months after Chief Executive Jeffrey Kindler, who oversaw the Wyeth deal, abruptly left after nearly five years on the job, and signals a further changing of the guard at the company.
Kindler was replaced by Ian Read, who is conducting a thorough review of company operations. Many analysts believe it will result in shedding some business units in an effort to make Pfizer smaller and leaner -- a decidedly different strategy than that of Steere and Read's predecessors, Kindler and Hank McKinnell.
Read last month announced a slashing of the company's massive research budget, including layoffs of more than 2,000 researchers.
The company has been widely criticized for a failure to produce major products from its own labs over the past decade despite having the world's largest research budget, and instead gained its most important products through acquisitions and licensing deals.
That strategy paid off for Steere. In addition to gaining Lipitor, the Warner-Lambert deal gave Pfizer massive cost savings that helped prop up earnings for years.
Even amid declining sales due in part to competition from cheaper generic versions of rival drugs, Pfizer reported 2010 Lipitor sales of $10.73 billion.
Lipitor is due to lose U.S. patent protection late this year, heightening the need to find new medicines to replace lost revenue and to shed costs. (Reporting by Bill Berkrot and Ransdell Pierson; editing by Andre Grenon)