Top shareholder in talks with candidates to replace Vivus CEO

June 25 Tue Jun 25, 2013 2:15pm EDT

June 25 (Reuters) - First Manhattan Company (FMC) stepped up the pressure in its proxy fight with obesity drug maker Vivus Inc, saying it was in advanced discussions with potential chief executive candidates to replace the current CEO should it prevail in gaining control of the Vivus board.

In a filing with U.S. securities regulators, FMC said it had gone as far as hiring executive recruiters with biopharma experience to identify top CEO candidates.

"We are encouraged by the quality of those candidates and their level of interest," First Manhattan, Vivus' largest shareholder with nearly 10 percent of outstanding shares, said on Tuesday in a news release and the filing.

"We believe a new board independent of an entrenched CEO will attract the best talent to Vivus to lead the company forward," the FMC statement said.

FMC has put forth a slate of six candidates that it hopes will win seats on the Vivus board at the shareholder meeting next month, and said it was taking steps to make a leadership change immediately should it prevail.

"We are in advanced discussions with several senior executives to step in as CEO on Day One," FMC said.

FMC has been highly critical of Vivus management, saying it had thoroughly mismanaged the launch of the potential blockbuster obesity pill Qsymia. It has said Vivus made a critical error by not replacing its longtime CEO, Leland Wilson, with a top executive with extensive commercial experience in launching new medicines prior to the Qsymia approval.

Qsymia has had minuscule sales since its launch and the Vivus share price is half of what it was around the heady times of the September U.S. approval of one of the first new diet drugs in decades.

The Vivus shareholder meeting is scheduled for July 15.

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