TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Johnson & Johnson's incoming CEO said Wednesday that he plans to present himself as a "realistic optimist" when he addresses shareholders for the first time at the heath care giant's annual meeting on Thursday.
Alex Gorsky said he's optimistic about J&J's ability to produce innovative medicines and other products patients need. But Gorsky, a J&J vice chairman who will succeed Bill Weldon later this month, also faces challenges leading the maker of everything from "No More Tears" baby shampoo to Tylenol as it struggles to deal with mounting problems.
J&J has been plagued by nearly 30 product recalls since September for Tylenol and a host of other nonprescription drugs due to quality concerns. It's operating under increased government oversight and was forced to spend $100 million to gut and rebuild a huge factory in suburban Philadelphia because of quality concerns. The South Brunswick, N.J.-based company also faces a growing number of lawsuits over faulty hip implants.
And J&J recently was hit with a fine of more than $1.1 billion from an Arkansas judge for downplaying and concealing the risks of its former blockbuster schizophrenia drug Risperdal, such as major weight gain and developing diabetes. That ruling, which will be appealed, could affect dozens of pending lawsuits over the drug, many by states seeking reimbursement for what their Medicaid programs paid for it.
During an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Gorsky, who has been responsible for J&J's medical devices business since 2009 during some of the times when the unit had quality concerns, declined to discuss those issues. But he said that it's a priority to address any concerns.
"We've let our patients down — mothers and fathers that depend on us," said Gorksky, who has worked for J&J since he became a sales representative in 1988 except for a four-year stretch when he ran the North American pharmaceuticals business of rival Novartis AG. "I take personal accountability ... to make sure we get things right going forward."
Gorsky said one of his short-term priorities is to get "reliable" consumer products back on store shelves. He said he also wants to win back the confidence — and business — of consumers who have been buying rivals' products and cheaper store brands for a couple years as repeated recalls and a shutdown of the suburban Philadelphia plant has halted or limited production of things such as Tylenol, Motrin and Rolaids.
J&J has repeatedly pushed back projections of when all the products will be back on the market as it shifts production to other factories. The company now is aiming for some time next year. Meanwhile, the suburban Philadelphia factory won't be up and running again until 2014.
Along with product recalls, J&J has been criticized over harsh, potentially cancer-causing ingredients in its shampoo and other personal care products for both babies and adults. The company has agreed to start phasing the ingredients in question out of some products.
"All of our employees — me included — are absolutely committed to ensuring that J&J has a strong reputation, a strong trust mark, with consumers," Gorsky said.
A former Army captain with an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Gorsky said his other big priority is to wrap up J&J's biggest acquisition ever — a $21.1 billion takeover of Swiss orthopedics device maker Synthes by the end of June.
He said the deal will enable J&J to expand its presence in the "largest segment of orthopedics," or trauma care. That has not been a particularly strong category for the J&J.
The "major objective," Gorsky said, is to grow Synthes, especially in emerging markets such as Russia, China and India where patients may get bones and joints fixed after accidents but rarely can afford elective surgeries such as hip replacements.
Gorsky said his final priority is to fill two top posts — his current one and that of Sheri McCoy, J&J's other vice chairman who resigned this year to become CEO at cosmetics company Avon Products Inc. Those positions should be filled in the near future.
Gorsky declined to say if the company was looking inside or outside of the company to fill those roles, but he said: "I'm fortunate ... to have a pretty broad-based and deep bench of leaders."
Linda A. Johnson can be followed at http://twitter.com/LindaJ_onPharma.