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Here are the 17 highest-paid drug industry CEOs, including 2 execs who brought in $100 million-plus paydays in 2020

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Summary List Placement

The biotech industry is booming, and its success translated in 2020 into large paychecks for CEOs.

The industry saw in the past year historic highs in terms of cash raised, companies going public, and actual impact on the world.

The pandemic provided an opportunity for the drug industry to prove its worth and develop vaccines and treatments in record time. And that has also led to impressive paydays for drug industry CEOs, particularly some who have been at the frontlines of the COVID-19 response.

Insider analyzed compensation at 176 pharma and biotech companies. We included companies with market value of at least $1 billion that are listed on at least one of two leading biotech stock indices, the XBI and the IBB. We also added 13 large, multinational pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, Sanofi, and Takeda that aren’t included on those listings to get a snapshot of the entire drug industry.

Here are the 17 highest-paid CEOs in the industry for 2020, including two leaders whose paydays exceeded $100 million. The highest-earners list also reflects the drug industry’s overall lack of diversity among top leaders: 16 of the 17 highest-paid CEOs in 2020 were men. 

Seven of those CEOs have also played a leading role in responding to COVID-19, either helping develop vaccines or drugs to fight the pandemic.

Gilead Sciences CEO Daniel O’Day: $18,998,095

Daniel O’Day took over as CEO of Gilead in 2019, after spending 30 years at drug giant Roche.  He was brought in to boost Gilead’s dealmaking, particularly in cancer treatments — one of the hottest markets in the drug industry.

Gilead has made a name for itself with its cancer CAR-T product Yescarta and HIV treatment Biktarvy. But COVID-19 presented a new opportunity for the company. Gilead launched one of the first COVID-19 treatments, remdesivir — sold under the brand name Veklury abroad — in May 2020. It quickly became a blockbuster drug and is expected to bring in up to $3 billion in sales in 2021. 

Exact Sciences CEO Kevin Conroy: $20,121,254

Kevin Conroy joined Exact Sciences in 2009, after his previous diagnostics company was acquired by Hologic. Conroy’s base salary was temporarily reduced in early 2020 when the pandemic hit, but has since been reinstated at its full amount, according to a SEC filing.

Exact Sciences has been building a portfolio of cancer diagnostics. It introduced a successful at-home colon cancer testing product, Cologuard, thanks to a 2019 acquisition.

Now, Exact is preparing to enter the cancer blood testing market by acquiring Thrive Earlier Detection Corp. That acquisition will see the company go head-to-head with genomics giant Illumina.

Amgen CEO Bob Bradway: $20,131,408

Bob Bradway has worked his way up through the ranks at Amgen. He started out as a vice president of operations strategy in 2006 and became CEO in May 2012. Prior to that, he worked as a healthcare industry investment banker at Morgan Stanley.

Bradway and other Amgen executives earn most of their take-home pay from stock options and performance-based rewards. Their goals for 2020 were to grow revenue and refresh the company’s drug pipeline. 

Amgen has been investing in cancer products, most recently through a partnership with BeiGene and the acquisition of  Five Prime Therapeutics for $1.9 billion. But the COVID-19 pandemic impaired the company’s ability to grow new product revenue to offset disappointing sales of some of its established products, according to SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges.

Bristol Myers Squibb CEO Giovanni Caforio: $20,150,902

Giovanni Caforio has been working at Bristol Myers Squibb since 2000, starting in its European operations before leading its oncology business unit and moving into the C-suite. The company has been growing its cancer drug portfolio under Caforio’s leadership, and also acquired cardiac drug maker MyoKardia last year for $13.1 billion

Like many chief executives, the majority of Caforio’s pay came from bonuses and stock awards, some of which were linked to metrics around the company’s 2019 acquisition of Celgene

Precigen CEO Helen Sabzevari: $20,409,916

Helen Sabzevari was promoted to CEO at the start of 2020. That promotion came with a one-time equity award grant of $17.5 million, which boosted her annual compensation and led her to being one of the highest earning chief executives last year.

Maryland-based Precigen is one of the more advanced gene therapy companies hoping to bypass viral vectors. It is currently running an early stage clinical trial of a treatment for heart failure. The company recently divested several of its non-healthcare businesses and assets and  de emphasized other non-healthcare programs.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla: $21,033,570

Albert Bourla started his career as a veterinarian, and joined Pfizer’s animal health unit in 1993. He moved his way up before taking over as chief executive in January 2019.

He started his tenure by launching a revamp of the drug company, selling off legacy drugs like Chantix, Lipitor and Viagra, in order to focus on more innovative medicines. He became chairman of Pfizer’s board of directors in January 2020. 

Pfizer had a monumental year under Bourla, launching the first COVID-19 vaccine authorized for emergency use in the US. That was a key driver in his compensation last year, a company spokesperson said. More than 90% of his compensation came from performance-based rewards.

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot: $21,437,960

Drug giant AstraZeneca joined the race for a COVID-19 vaccine when the pandemic started, teaming up with the University of Oxford. The pair have launched a vaccine abroad, but it has not yet received emergency authorization in the US.

Outside of its COVID-19 vaccine work, AstraZeneca is in the process of closing the $39 billion acquisition of Alexion Pharmaceuticals.

Pascal Soriot’s compensation has been rising over the last several years, but it has been a sore point in the past — Soriot said in 2017 that he was the lowest-paid CEO in the industry. Shareholders further contested his compensation plan as too high last year

 

Horizon Therapeutics CEO Tim Walbert: $21,632,803

Tim Walbert has overseen substantial growth during his 13 years as Horizon’s CEO. The company, which is based in Dublin with US headquarters in Deerfield, Illinois, now has 11 drugs on the market for rare, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. That’s likely to grow, thanks to Horizon’s $3.05 billion acquisition of rare disease company Viela Bio.

More than 60% of his 2020 compensation was tied to performance goals. Another 30% will be vested over time, according to a company spokesperson. 

Merck CEO Ken Frazier: $22,088,429

After a decade at the helm, Ken Frazier is retiring in mid-2021. His final yearly pay package at Merck places him just inside the industry’s top-ten highest-paid CEOs at $22 million.

Frazier is the only Black CEO among the drug industry giants and has routinely used his position to speak out against racial injustice, including resigning from President Donald Trump’s manufacturing council after Trump’s “both sides” remarks about Charlottesville, Virginia, white nationalist rally.

Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks: $23,708,629

After spending two decades climbing the sales ranks of Lilly, Ricks became CEO in 2017. He enjoyed a small pay bump from the year before, going from $21.2 million to $23.7 million in overall compensation.

Lilly helped develop one of the first therapeutics to fight COVID-19, working with the Canadian biotech AbCellera to develop an antibody drug.

Ricks’ pay increase was driven by Lilly’s stock outperforming a group of peer companies, a spokesperson said, adding the compensation is determined by a handful of metrics, including pipeline progress, shareholder return, and financial performance.

 

AbbVie CEO Richard Gonzalez: $24,007,591

Richard Gonzalez steered AbbVie through a busy year, completing the $63 billion acquisition of Botox-maker Allergan in May 2020. Gonzalez has been running AbbVie since it was spun off from Abbott Laboratories in 2013.

The Allergan acquisition will help AbbVie diversify away from Humira, the anti-inflammatory drug that has become the drug industry’s all-time best-selling medicine. Even as Humira faces biosimilar competition in Europe, it still brought in nearly $20 billion in revenue in 2020.

In addition to Allergan’s revenue, Gonzalez has pitched investors on Skyrizi and Rinvoq as next-generation immunology blockbusters that can fill in for Humira, which will face US biosimilar competition starting in 2023.

Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky: $29,575,974

Running the world’s largest healthcare company, Alex Gorsky saw one of the industry’s largest paydays in 2020. Gorsky has been at J&J since 1988, climbing the corporate ladder from sales representative to CEO. His compensation package of nearly $30 million was 365 times larger than J&J’s typical employee, who made $81,000 last year.

J&J has also been a leader in the COVID-19 response, developing a single-dose vaccine. The company has pledged to sell doses during the pandemic on a not-for-profit basis.

A company spokesperson cited J&J’s “strong performance against its original strategy goals in 2020 and against goals arising from the COVID-19 pandemic,” including the vaccine program.

TG Therapeutics CEO Michael Weiss: $32,497,239

Michael Weiss joined TG Therapeutics in 2011, now serving as CEO, chairman, and president. A lawyer by training, he has previous experience in biotech as the CEO of Keryx Biopharmaceuticals.

The company is focused on medicines for B-cell diseases, which include some cancers as well as autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis and arthritis. The biotech saw its shares jump more than 500% throughout 2020, leading up to its first drug winning an accelerated approval in the US in February 2021.

That fueled Weiss’ compensation, 95% of which came from stock grants.

“At TG, we believe equity compensation aligns the interests of our employees and executives with our shareholders and the overall success of the organization,” a company spokesperson said. 

The company declined to provide a headshot of Weiss. 

Novavax CEO Stanley Erck: $48,086,018

Novavax’s turnaround in 2020 could go down as one of the most unlikely business rebounds in history. The Maryland biotech was on the brink of bankruptcy entering the year, failing to develop an approved vaccine in its history of more than three decades.

By jumping into the pandemic response, Novavax found itself leading one of the top COVID-19 vaccine efforts. Now, its CEO and workers are reaping the rewards. CEO Stanley Erck saw his pay package jump from $2.4 million in 2019 to $48 million last year. The typical employee at Novavax also benefited, with median compensation quadrupling in a year, from $98,413 to $400,755.

Royalty Pharma CEO Pablo Legorreta: $55,674,558

One of the highest-paid CEOs in the biopharma space is also one of the quietest. Royalty Pharma specializes in buying up royalties in dozens of experimental and commercialized drugs. Pablo Legorreta, a former investment banker, has led the company since its 1996 founding, all the way through its IPO in June 2020. Forbes estimates Legorreta’s net worth at $2.9 billion.

“It is our practice to not comment on any employment and compensation related inquiries,” a Royalty Pharma spokesperson said.

Guardant Health CEO Helmy Eltoukhy: $113,870,986

Helmy Eltoukhy in 2013 left the genetic sequencing giant Illumina to cofound Guardant Health. More than 99% of his 2020 pay package is made up of equity awards that depend on Guardant’s stock reaching certain levels of $120, $150, and $200 per share in the future.

AmirAli Talasaz, Guardant’s cofounder and chief operating officer, was awarded an equally sizable package of equity this year. Guardant is developing blood tests for cancer, including ones that could help determine the best treatment plan for patients.

Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer: $135,350,121

The highest-paid CEO in the drug industry for 2020 was Regeneron’s longtime leader, Leonard Schleifer, with a whopping pay package of $135 million. Schleifer cofounded Regeneron in 1988 alongside George Yancopoulos, and the two still run the New York biotech today as CEO and chief scientific officer. The biotech’s explosive growth has made both men billionaires in the process.

A Regeneron spokesperson said this is an unusual year, where Schleifer’s pay transitioned from annual equity awards to a front-loaded lump sum. The stock grants are “100% performance-based and only earned if ambitious performance levels are achieved,” the spokesperson added.

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