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Outgoing AbbVie CEO leaves a divisive Humira legacy and lasting impact on pharma

After more than a decade running AbbVie, CEO Richard Gonzalez will step down from his role this summer, ending a tenure marked by the unparalleled ascent of the company’s inflammatory disease drug Humira, as well as a string of controversies around patents and pricing.

Under Gonzalez’s leadership, AbbVie became one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world after spinning off from medical device maker Abbott Laboratories in 2013. Gonzalez, who worked at Abbott for three decades, is AbbVie’s first and only CEO, and will be succeeded by Robert Michael, the company’s current chief operating officer.

AbbVie’s growth during that time was largely due to Humira, which the company fiercely defended via sales tactics and a dense “patent thicket.” Humira was often the prime example of the dense web of patents that companies use to extend market exclusivity.

Most recently, Gonzalez worked to prepare AbbVie for the biosimilar competition to Humira that arrived in the U.S. last year. New immunology disease successors to Humira like Skyrizi and Rinvoq are now blockbusters in their own right, while a series of acquisitions has stocked AbbVie’s pipeline.

Gonazlez’s departure puts the focus on AbbVie’s next chapter, while leaving behind a legacy of successful, but controversial business practices.

AbbVie’s thriving decade

Gonzalez’s tenure at AbbVie was one of the most successful growth stories in the industry, with more than 700% return to shareholders, $250 billion in market valuation creation and $60 billion invested in R&D, according to the company’s lead independent director Glenn Tilton.

Humira was acquired by Abbott in 2001 and first approved by the FDA in 2003. It brought in global sales of $10.7 billion in AbbVie’s first year as an independent company in 2013. A decade later, annual sales reached $21.2 billion before declining last year due to biosimilar competition.

Over the course of its time on market, Humira has brought in more than $200 billion for AbbVie, money that’s funded drug research, acquisitions and stock buybacks. Along the way, AbbVie built up other therapeutic areas, such as in oncology with the drugs Imbruvica and Venclexta and in neuroscience with Vraylar. A $63 billion purchase of Allergan in 2019 gave it the aesthetic and neurologic blockbuster Botox.

Gonzalez also led AbbVie to spend $21 billion on cancer drugmaker Pharmacyclics in 2015 and, more recently, $10 billion on acquiring oncology drugmaker ImmunoGen and $8.7 billion on the neuroscience-focused Cerevel Therapeutics.

No shortage of controversy

Gonzalez’s leadership also drew controversy, and his efforts to defend the company shaped perceptions of the broader industry.

AbbVie’s legal practices to protect Humira behind a wall of patents sparked criticism from politicians, lawmakers and even a few investors. Some in the industry have blamed AbbVie for the pricing backlash that led to measures in the Inflation Reduction Act allowing Medicare to negotiate drug costs. Alnylam Pharmaceuticals founder John Maraganore called AbbVie’s practice with Humira “so egregious that I think it angered a lot of policymakers,” in a recent Wall Street Journal report.

Gonzalez stood shoulder to shoulder with pharma peers like Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks, former Merck & Co. CEO Kenneth Frazier to defend the industry’s approach to pricing in front of lawmakers.

Gonzalez found himself testifying to Congress on several occasions to defend the company’s practices and those of the industry. Lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have blamed high drug costs on factors like executive compensation, pointing specifically to Gonzalez as an example. In 2022, Gonzalez made more than $26 million in pay.

AbbVie’s success under Gonzalez showed pharmas how to build a huge business behind a single product. Whether the company’s pricing and patent tactics end up hurting the pharma industry at large remains in question as the industry fights further regulation.