| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Pfizer Inc.'s (PFE.N) chairman and chief executive on Monday affirmed his commitment to steer the world's largest drugmaker through "murky" waters, but said he would leave early if he lost support of the company's board.
Hank McKinnell, speaking to the Reuters Health Summit in New York, acknowledged that management credibility was questioned after Pfizer withdrew its profit targets on October 20 for 2006 and 2007 in the face of slowing sales of key drugs and a reconfiguration of Pfizer's sales force.
McKinnell said he should not personally be held responsible for a series of factors that suddenly altered the company's previous "gangbuster" performance earlier in the year.
"The future suddenly got murkier," McKinnell said.
He cited continued sharp declines in sales of arthritis drug Celebrex, which he said was partly explained by a regulatory delay in approving a helpful change to the drug's label.
Moreover, McKinnell said he could not have anticipated that a large clinical trial would show that Celebrex raised the risk of heart attacks in patients who were given the medicine to prevent colon cancer.
"It came out of the blue," he said of the trial, but he noted that Celebrex has been proven safe in dozens of other trials.
McKinnell, who is slated to retire in 2008, said he is committed to leading Pfizer through a very difficult period. The company's stock has fallen by more than 50 percent since Pfizer's merger in 2000 with Warner-Lambert Corp.
"I personally think I should complete my next couple of years. The board has agreed with that. If they change their views -- then I certainly would leave early," McKinnell said.
"You know I've been working for 35 years ... retirement is looking pretty good," he said.
The stock tumbled to an eight-year low and industry analysts were shaken when Pfizer yanked the profit forecasts last month. One analyst in a conference call that day told McKinnell there was a "crisis of confidence" in the company. He rebuffed the assertion.
"My goal was to hand over the company to my successor in better shape than I received it. You can't say that today. We've got to get through this period of patent expirations," he said.
McKinnell, the 12th chairman of the 156 year-old drugmaker, said future profit will also be hurt as more of the company's drugs face competition from generics, noting the medicines at risk now have annual combined sales of $14 billion.
"It's hard to swallow that lump," he said.
But McKinnell said Celebrex should eventually rebound and that a new epilepsy drug, Lyrica, is doing very well. And a handful of new drugs could soon win U.S. approvals, he said.
Pfizer has said it expects revenue to fall slightly this year, a marked change from stellar sales growth in recent years -- before Celebrex hit the skids and generic rivals were introduced.
"I think we certainly have a good basis for a return to growth," he added.