Novartis willing to sell Roche stake without demanding premium - CEO

ZURICH (Reuters) - Swiss drugmaker Novartis NOVN.S is ready to sell its near $14 billion stake in rival Roche ROG.S without demanding a premium, Chief Executive Joe Jimenez said on Wednesday.

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Novartis has been discussing options with banks for selling its Roche shares worth about 13.70 billion Swiss francs ($13.81 billion), potentially providing cash for new deals, sources familiar with the situation told Reuters last month.

It built up its one-third stake in Roche voting stock between 2001 and 2003 under former Chairman Daniel Vasella for a possible merger that never happened.

In the past, Jiminez has said he would want a premium price for the Roche stake, reflecting the difficulty of recreating such a large position in the open market. But on Wednesday, he said that is no longer a dealbreaker.

“We would now think through that, and would potentially make a decision to exit without a premium, if the opportunity were right,” Jimenez told investors at an event in Basel.

Pushing ahead with a sale now could make sense for Jimenez, who has been under pressure to improve growth after difficulties with the company’s eyecare unit Alcon and new heart drug Entresto.

But after winning a favorable industry recommendation for Entresto last week, it said on Wednesday it remains confident annual sales will peak at around $5 billion, despite first-quarter sales of $17 million.

It stuck to its 2016 forecast for Entresto of $200 million in revenue.

Last week it split its main drugs division into two units, one for cancer, the other focusing on the rest of Novartis’ drug portfolio. Seven top executives have left this year, including drugs chief David Epstein last week.

The company is also fighting a lawsuit by U.S. prosecutors who allege its sale force ran a decade-long doctor kickback scheme involving sham events that led to overcharging the federal government. Novartis has disputed the allegations. (

Jimenez said Novartis had moved away from its aggressive “results-oriented” sales approach.

“We had to shift the culture of the company in terms of a compliance standpoint,” he told investors, adding he is eliminating “high-risk” speaker programs for older products that had the potential to blur the line between education and inappropriate drug promotion.

Chief Financial Officer Harry Kirsch said the company’s priorities for cash were organic growth, boosting dividends, “bolt-on” acquisitions and share buybacks.

Novartis stock rose 1 percent to 78.65 francs by 0850 GMT, trimming their decline this year to 9 percent. Roche's illiquid voting stock rose 1.2 percent and its non-voting stock was up 1 percent, in line with a 1.1 percent gain in the European sector index .SXDP.

Reporting by John Miller and Joshua Franklin; Editing by Michael Shields and Susan Thomas