January 11, 2016 / 1:11 PM / in 2 years

No quick fix seen for Novartis's troubled Alcon unit

ZURICH (Reuters) - Introduced a decade ago, glaucoma drug Travatan Z has been a powerful driver behind the success of Novartis’s Alcon eye care business, its second biggest division behind the main pharmaceuticals business.

But the drug’s patent expiration last month, the latest in a wave of expiries that have left Alcon vulnerable to generics, brings into sharp focus the unit’s problems, for which analysts say there is no obvious quick fix.

Having taken its first stake in Alcon eight years ago after it was floated by former-owner Nestle, Novartis now acknowledges the ophthalmic division has become its problem child, with too many old products and too little innovation.

Sales have been in decline since 2014 at Alcon, which the Swiss drugmaker completed buying five years ago for nearly $51 billion, slipping 12 percent in the third quarter last year to just $2.35 billion.

Novartis’s total sales in the quarter fell 6 percent to $12.27 billion.

The list of travails is long including laggardly surgical equipment sales, especially in emerging markets like Asia, slumping revenue from intraocular lens (IOL) implants for cataract sufferers and an underperforming over-the-counter contact lens solutions business which could be on the auction block, analysts said.

A management reshuffle has failed to staunch a chronic quarter-on-quarter revenue slide.

Now Novartis Chief Executive Officer Joe Jimenez has promised an innovation-heavy “growth acceleration program” for Alcon which is due to be unveiled on Jan. 27 alongside 2015 results.

Analysts said Jimenez’s crisis response is necessary, but tardy: New product development takes years, meaning Alcon may bump along for the foreseeable future.

“I doubt it will be a quick fix,” said Alistair Campbell, a London-based Berenberg analyst.

“They know they have lagged behind on innovation in both the intraocular lens and drug segments but fixing both will not happen overnight.”

Revenues started to fall in the fourth quarter of 2014 and since last summer Alcon Global Head Jeff George has replaced two thirds of his top managers.

“We’ve seen a significant slowdown in emerging markets, particularly in Asia, which has led to a corresponding drop in our surgical equipment sales,” George said last year.

“We’ve also seen increasing competitive pricing pressure in our IOL business. The third factor ... is the increasing generic pressure that we’ve had in our U.S. pharma business.”

In addition to Travatan Z, Patanese, one of Alcon’s allergy drugs, has gone off patent, while Patanol and Pataday also face imminent generic competition, he said.

But a costly turnaround program is hardly timely, given Novartis’s overall revenue could come under pressure with the patent expiry on its blood cancer drug Glivec just as it is stepping up marketing for its new heart-attack drug Entresto.

Disposal of the contact lens solutions businesses, which analysts say ranks second behind Johnson & Johnson, could also be in the offing.

“There are risks of a ramp-up in research and development and marketing spending,” said Deutsche Bank analyst Tim Race. “However, they might just say we are selling parts of the business and not ramp costs up as much as they might otherwise have to.”

Jimenez has left that option open, saying he is amenable to “peeling off underperforming parts of Alcon.” For now, he is committed to Alcon, though his patience is not infinite.

“You have an on-trend business with an aging population,” Jimenez told analysts in October. “If it doesn’t improve, then we’ve got a different conversation.”

(This story fixes the spelling of ophthalmic in paragraph 3)

Editing by Greg Mahlich

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