UPDATE 1-Investors may overlook Abbott executive's false degrees
* Analysts see Gonzalez surviving resume errors
* Precedent seen in case of former Bausch & Lomb CEO
* Abbott shares off slightly after disclosure
By Debra Sherman and Ransdell Pierson
CHICAGO/NEW YORK, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Abbott Laboratories veteran Richard Gonzalez may get a pass on his overstated educational credentials as investors focus instead on his 30-year-plus track record at the healthcare giant, analysts said on Friday.
Gonzalez, 58, is the latest in a long line of executives who have been ensnared in controversies over inaccurate resumes. But while such disclosures have hastened the exit of some, including Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson in May, analysts say Gonzalez's successes over a long career at Abbott should spare him.
"I really think it's a non-event, given his long history and successful leadership at the firm. They're making it sound like an administrative error by someone else, not him," said Jeff Jonas, a portfolio manager for Gabelli Health and Wellness Trust Mutual Funds, which holds Abbott shares.
Gonzalez was chosen to head the company's new pharmaceutical spinoff AbbVie as of Jan. 1. On Thursday, the company said he did not complete his college education or receive a masters' degree, as listed on his official biography in Abbott's regulatory filings for several years.
Abbott said the falsely reported degrees were due to "an administrative error," and did not give further details on how it escaped notice by Gonzalez, other executives or company auditors. The company said it corrected the references some time back.
"It's a very insular, well-run company, and he's proven himself over decades. It's not like the new Yahoo CEO with an angry, activist shareholder," said Jonas. "I think they just ride it out, let this die down in a month or two."
Abbott shares were off nearly 1 percent at $68.63 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
JUDGING AN EXECUTIVE'S TRACK RECORD
Gonzalez, a former chief operating officer at Abbott, heads the company's pharmaceuticals operations. Investors view him as a major contributor to Abbott's steady profit and sales growth, which regularly outpaces its rivals. He is best known for building the company's medical device business and has helped oversee development of rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira into an $8 billion-a-year product that is still growing at a breakneck pace.
"I've known Rick for 15-plus years. He's extremely capable and has proven himself over a long, distinguished career," said JP Morgan analyst Michael Weinstein. "If he were an unknown, an outsider the board had just brought in to run AbbVie, it would be one thing, but this is a long-time leader at Abbott. Rick should have, and I fully expect does have, the board's full support."
The healthcare industry has its own precedent for judging an executive by his more recent past, rather than an unearned degree from decades ago.
Ronald Zarella, when he was chairman and CEO of Bausch & Lomb, cited an MBA from New York University's Stern School of Business, which he attended between 1972 and 1976 but from which he never received the degree. The overstated claim was exposed in 2002, yet Zarella remained CEO of the contact lens maker until 2008.
Fred Burke, head of investments at Sandy Spring Bank, said he was surprised by Abbott's misstep.
"In many ways, they are very thorough," he said. "They will probably just let this pass" because of Gonzalez's strong record there. "Whatever (Gonzalez) is doing, he's doing it right."
Damien Conover, an analyst with Morningstar, said Gonzalez may face some backlash, but even then he doesn't expect it to impact the company's plans or the reputation of Abbott CEO Miles White.
"I don't think there is any difference in how people view the company or Abbott's stock," he said.
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