Boost for Glaxo's Emma Walmsley as key ally is made a dame

·4-min read
Vivienne Cox
Vivienne Cox

Dame Emma Walmsley, the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, has been given a boost in her battle against activist investors after one of her closest boardroom allies was handed a top honour for bolstering the company's diversity credentials.

Vivienne Cox, a non-executive director at GSK, has been made a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Years Honours list after helping Dame Emma to promote more women and people from ethnic minorities into senior roles.

The award will be seen as an endorsement of Dame Emma's strategy as she fights to keep her job in the face of criticism from the New York hedge fund Elliott Management.

A statement accompanying the honours praised Dame Vivienne for "maximising the organisation’s environmental and societal impact" and added: “Her outreach to GSK’s employees and her discussion of the chief executive’s ambition to improve diversity and inclusion helped the publication of targets for female and ethnically diverse representation in senior roles.”

Elliott, founded by Wall Street investor Paul Singer, has built a multi-billion pound stake in GSK and publicly criticised it for poor performance and a lack of expertise.

In an open letter, it called for Dame Emma’s role to be reconsidered as the company prepares for the separation of its consumer division in summer 2022.

Elliott criticised the non-scientific background of Dame Emma, one of only eight female chief executives in the FTSE 100, and claimed the drugmaker has suffered from "years of under-management".

But its demands have been rejected by chairman Sir Jonathan Symonds and failed to gain significant support among major shareholders, who have backed the current strategy.

Emma Walmsley
Emma Walmsley

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, is also said to have discussed the matter with Dame Emma and told UK officials to support the company.

The decision to honour Dame Vivienne came amid a string of honours for business leaders who have championed so-called environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.

Of more than 100 new honours announced for top business figures, around one fifth were related to ESG, an analysis by The Telegraph found.

Investors are increasingly demanding that companies make a serious commitment to ESG, which covers everything from clean energy to welfare and employee diversity, but some critics have dismissed it as greenwashing.

Rupert Soames, head of the outsourcer Serco, has also warned that the focus on ethics risks making it harder for the Government to appoint businesses to work on controversial public sector contracts that are vital for national security.

Senior business leaders awarded New Year knighthoods included former BT chairman and City grandee Jan du Plessis, billionaire hedge fund boss David Harding, banker and former Lord Mayor of London William Russell, Games Workshop founder Ian Livingstone and Legal & General boss Nigel Wilson.

 Jan du Plessis
Jan du Plessis

Sir Ian was described as “one of the founding fathers of the UK games industry”.

He co-founded Games Workshop in 1975, launching Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer in Europe, and is currently chairman of video games maker Sumo Group, which is being bought by the Chinese tech company Tencent.

Games Workshop has been one of the London stock market’s great success stories of late, with the firm’s shares surging more than 1,200pc higher over the past five years.

The knighthood handed to Sir David, a major donor to the Remain campaign before the Brexit vote, meanwhile suggests Downing Street may be seeking to put lingering tensions from the 2016 referendum behind it.

Mr Harding, who founded hedge fund Winton Capital Management, gave £3.5m to the Stronger Together campaign and served as joint treasurer of Britain Stronger in Europe. He was knighted for “services to philanthropy”.

Sir Nigel was separately honoured for making L&G into “the UK’s first £1 trillion investment manager” and overseeing a doubling of profits.

Several figures from the retail industry were also recognised for their efforts during the coronavirus crisis.

Former Asda boss Roger Burnley and Co-op boss Steve Murrells were handed CBEs for their “services to the food supply chain”, while Asif Aziz, director of healthcare services at Boots, received an OBE for “services to pharmacy, especially testing for Covid-19”.

Angela Johnson, supply chain manager at Morrisons, was given an MBE for “services to the food supply chain”.