- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Johnson & Johnson’s longtime CEO, Bill Weldon, is retiring in April, following an embarrassing string of product recalls over more than two years that has cost the health care giant hundreds of millions of dollars and consumer trust.

The maker of Band-Aids and biotech drugs said Tuesday that Weldon will remain chairman of the board for the time being, while ceding the chief executive post to Alex Gorsky, head of the medical device and diagnostics business. The official transfer will be on April 26, the day of the company’s next annual shareholders meeting.

Since January 2011, Gorsky has been vice chairman of J&J’s executive committee, the senior leadership team. Besides the medical devices and diagnostics unit, which J&J claims is the largest business of its kind in the world, Gorskey oversees 140 manufacturing facilities around the world. He’s also in charge of both government affairs and policy, and the company’s venture capital subsidiary, called the Johnson and Johnson Development Corp.

Weldon, 63, has spent his entire career at J&J and became chief executive in 2002. The departure is being described as normal succession planning. But Weldon has repeatedly said he had no plans to leave unless asked to do so by the board of directors, which has long been loyal to him.

His tenure has been tarnished by more than two dozen recalls of nonprescription Tylenol, Motrin, Benadryl and other drugs began in 2009. The recalls involve problems from contamination with bacteria and a nauseating smell on containers to liquid medicines that may contain tiny metal shavings and products that may have the wrong amount of active ingredient.

J&J’s McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit has had about 25 product recalls since September 2009. Federal regulators have had three of its factories under increased scrutiny for nearly two years, and one of those, in Fort Washington, Pa., has been shut and is being rebuilt from the ground up. Meanwhile, the prescription drug division has had at least two drugs, for seizures and HIV, recalled over that time.

Medical devices and consumer products also have been recalled. Gorsky’s medical device unit, the company’s biggest by revenue, has had faulty hip implants that were painful to patients recalled, along with contact lenses that sting the eyes.

While there haven’t been reports of patients harmed by the recalled products, the sheer volume of them is probably unrivaled in the industry. Weldon has repeatedly said he had the problems under control, only to have another recall pop up, with the latest just last week.

Congress has been probing J&J’s handling of the recalls, including a “stealth recall” in 2008 in which the company secretly paid a third party to quietly buy up packages of faulty medication from stores.

New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson also faces lawsuits over the recalls, including a recent one in which a family alleges its young son died shortly after ingesting a super dose of Tylenol.

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