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Most Memorable Abbott Moments Under CEO Miles White

In honor of Abbott CEO Miles White’s plans to step down in 2020, here is a look back at some of the company's biggest moments under his watch.

  • The End of an Era

    The medtech company that showed us what it's made of in 2017 and hasn't slowed down since will go through a major leadership change next year.

    As MD+DI reported Wednesday, Abbott CEO Miles White will pass the baton to Robert Ford on March 31, marking the end of a 21-year run as the company's head honcho. White will, however, continue to serve as executive chairman of Abbott's board.

    "One of the primary goals in my career has been to leave the company well-positioned for the people who count on us," White said. "Today, the company is the strongest it has been during my tenure, and I am confident that Robert will lead Abbott successfully into the future. He is highly respected, has helped us shape the company during the last several years, and understands the forces driving change in healthcare."

    In many ways, Abbott is a completely different company today than it was in 1998 when White took the reins. Here is a look back at some of the company's biggest moments under his watch.

  • The Reshaping of a Company

    Abbott's $25 billion acquisition of St. Jude Medical was easily the company's most transformative moment under White's watch. The blockbuster deal, which the company finalized in January 2017, placed Abbott in nearly every corner of the $30 billion cardiovascular market and gave the company the first or second market position across several high-growth cardiovascular device sectors. White pointed out at the time of the acquisition that the move also made Abbott a more attractive partner for healthcare organizations to work with.

    "Customers today want partners who offer breakthrough technologies along with a broad portfolio of solutions to help them better care for their patients," he said.

    On the flip side, Abbott also inherited some of St. Jude's quality and control challenges, including premature battery failure problems in St. Jude defibrillators that the acquired company mishandled. But even those moments of adversity gave White's leadership skills a chance to shine, as he assured investors that Abbott was "all over everything" in the related FDA warning letter that came in April 2017.

    Fortunately, Abbott had done its due diligence and was well aware of St. Jude's manufacturing issues before the acquisition even closed. The situation also gave the company a good excuse to take a closer look at manufacturing practices across all its sites.

    "Any time you get a warning letter, or even observations, 43 observations on [good manufacturing practices] at any facility, or any plant, it behooves us to go back and look not only at that plant but all of our plants across the board," White said.

  • Launching a Medtech Unicorn

    FDA’s approval of Abbott’s FreeStyle Libre glucose monitoring system in 2017 was considered a major win for American adults with diabetes because the device eliminated the need for routine finger sticks, which had been the standard of glucose testing for more than 40 years.

    Libre is a unicorn in the medical device world because of its mass-market potential and unprecedented growth. Earlier this year, White estimated that there are more than 80 million people around the world who would benefit from the device, including both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes patients. That translates into a massive market opportunity.

    "It's unlike anything seen before in device or diagnostics businesses," White said. "To be honest, traditional medical device companies aren't used to having to deal with that kind of scale."

    In order to keep up with demand and make the device as affordable and accessible as possible, Abbott has been investing heavily in manufacturing expansion, more than tripling its capacity for Libre.

    "There’s a massive population that needs help managing their diabetes and our intent is to make Libre broadly accessible to all of them," White said during an earnings call this year.

    Libre is currently on track to be a $2 billion product this year, and it's not unfathomable to think the device will ultimately be a $5 billion product or more.

    "Do I think we will get the $5 billion and do I think we will do in a reasonable time, $5 billion of sales or over? Yes, I do," White said.

    Abbott has R&D programs underway, he said, not only for the repeated enhancement improvement and expansion of Libre but also for its potential application beyond diabetes. Suffice it to say, when it comes to Libre, we ain't seen nothing yet.

  • Was Alere Worth the Fuss?

    It's been two full years since Abbott closed its $5.3 billion acquisition of Alere, a deal that Abbott fought hard to get out of. 

    Abbott fought last year to get out of it. When the acquisition finally did close, an MD+DI headline asked: Will All the Abbott-Alere Fuss Be Worth It?

    Even now, two years later, it seems too soon to answer that question.  But what we do know is that Alere gave Abbott a leading position in point-of-care (POC) testing, a fast-growing $7 billion segment of the $50 billion in vitro diagnostics market. The broad POC portfolio does help Abbott meet the growing demand for fast, accurate, and actionable information.

    Still, when White talks about Abbott's diagnostics business during earnings calls, he tends to focus on other parts of the portfolio, like the Alere family of diagnostic systems. See "Moment #9" for more on that technology.

  • A Tale of Two Divisions

    Another transformative moment in Abbott's history that came during White's tenure was the company's Abbvie spinoff in 2013. The research-focused biopharmaceutical company took with it all of Abbott's big-name drugs, including Humira, a product worth about $8 billion at the time.

    Investors were concerned at first that the spinoff was Abbott's way of not having to deal with the looming patent expiration of Humira. The blockbuster anti-inflammatory drug represented about half of the drug division's sales prior to the split, but the U.S. patent expired in 2016 and international patents expired in 2018.

    Abbott's investors eventually came around, however, once they saw that Abbott was committed to fortifying the drug pipeline leading up to the spinoff with new treatments for arthritis and hepatitis C.

  • Shifting Focus

    One of the earliest examples of White leading Abbott through a bold strategic move came in 2004 when the company spun off its hospital products business. That spinoff created Hospira, which was later acquired by Pfizer. The Hospira spinoff enabled Abbott to focus on higher-growth segments, including medical devices and diagnostics.

  • The Disappearing Device That Disappeared for Good

    Strong leaders have to know when to pull the plug on a product that isn't passing muster, which is exactly what Abbott did with its bioresorbable vascular scaffold. Absorb was designed to fully dissolve in the patient's body, but despite its pioneering role as the first bioresorbable coronary stent system, the device did not enjoy broad market adoption and its clinical data was mixed. Abbott discontinued Absorb worldwide in 2017, little more than a year after FDA approved the device.

    “Absorb has become very much a niche product; that’s for sure. I would have wished for it to be a lot bigger than that,” White said during an earnings call following the decision.

  • Knowing When to Hold 'Em

    Clearly White has never been one to shy away from M&A opportunities, but the CEO also knew better than to tip its hand too soon.

    Take 2015 for example. The company was sitting on a pile of cash and investors were increasingly curious about the company's plans for deploying that cash.

    “We have a clear focus on expanding and broadening the whole device business,” White said during an earnings call that year. “It's actually going really well. We're just not in a position to tell you much about it yet, and it ranges from equity investments to outright ownership or assembly of businesses there.”

    And as we now know, it wasn't too long after that call that Abbott made its move to acquire Alere and St. Jude Medical.

  • Abbott Has Friends in Not-So-Low Places

    Startup Bigfoot Biomedical and Abbott made headlines back in July 2017 when the two paired up to simplify diabetes care. Through the partnership, Bigfoot agreed to integrate Abbott's Freestyle Libre glucose monitoring technology into its system.

    Bigfoot has been working for nearly two decades to combine a dosing algorithm, software, and different companies' component hardware into a closed-loop system to provide insulin to Type 1 diabetics without the need for fingerstick glucose tests. Libre represented a big step (pardon the pun) in that direction.

  • A Multi-Year Growth Platform

    One significant accomplishment that was perhaps overshadowed a bit by Abbott's other news over the past couple of years is its European launch of the Alinity systems for the core laboratory. The company touts the portfolio's ability to offer more efficiency, flexibility, and confidence to health systems, and to better inform treatment decisions. The systems are supported by Abbott's AlinIQ, a combination services and informatics solution designed to assist labs in achieving greater operational productivity with their existing resources.

    "Healthcare systems around the world are under pressure, and they’re looking to us for solutions," Brian Blaser, Abbott's executive vice president of diagnostics products, told MD+DI. "In developing Alinity, our new family of diagnostics systems, we spent countless hours with our customers to design instruments that help them take lab testing and patient care to the next level.”

    In the most recent quarter, Abbott reported double-digit growth in the core laboratory diagnostics segment, driven by the rollout of Alinity in Europe and other international markets. In the U.S. the company has "made good progress" achieving regulatory approvals of immunoassay and clinical chemistry tests for Alinity and is beginning to ramp up its launch efforts in those areas, White said during the third-quarter earnings call.

    "With highly differentiated instruments and a matrix rollout across multiple geographies and diagnostic testing areas over time, Alinity is well-positioned to be a multi-year growth platform for our diagnostics business," he said.

    White isn't the only medtech legend stepping down in 2020. Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak announced his retirement plans in August. In case you missed it, here is MD+DI's compilation of the most memorable Medtronic moments under Ishrak's watch


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