The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have made it abundantly clear over the past several years that companies should assess their risk and then manage their own risks. In the anti-corruption space, simply putting in a Check-the-Box paper compliance program does not help to prevent, detect or remediate under laws such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or UK Bribery Act. In their joint FCPA Guidance, the DOJ and SEC make clear there are a variety of steps a company can take to manage anti-corruption risks.
One of the tired excuses for cutting back on FCPA enforcement is that it costs US companies business overseas because they cannot engage in bribery and corruption, while the commercial enterprises of countries which do not have robust anti-corruption laws essentially bribe at will. However, there are many business solutions available in the management of risk, which companies can profitably use to help ameliorate bribery and corruption risk.
I was interested to read recently about some of the responses that one of the world’s current poster children for bribery and corruption are considering. In an article in the Financial Times (FT), entitled “Witty comes out fighting for GSK”, Andrew Ward reviewed some of the business responses that GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) has contemplated over the past year since the revelations about allegations of bribery in China. Ward reported that in addition to the uncertainty of the ongoing corruption investigation by Chinese authorities, the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) for violations of the UK Bribery Act and the DOJ for violations of the FCPA; the company “issued a profits warning that exposed weakness in the company’s core respiratory medicines business.” These warning turned on “the decline in the company’s best selling drug. Revenues from Advair, an asthma treatment that accounts for a fifth of sales, fell 12 per cent in the second quarter, on top of the 15 per cent drop in the three months before that.” Moreover, the company’s stock is down some 14% in the past year.
I was intrigued by the response of GSK’s chief executive, Sir Andrew Witty. Witty did not bemoan the corruption investigations that his company is going through or somehow try to claim that the company simply could not compete because of the scrutiny it is under. On the business front Ward reported, “GSK’s innovation engine is working” as Witty noted that the company had “six new drugs approved across all therapeutic areas last year and a further 40 in advanced development”.
In addition to the specific response regarding the development of new pharmaceutical products, Witty is looking at other sales products and models that will lessen the company’s corruption risk while providing a strong business base. Ward reported that Witty is “strengthening GSK’s two other businesses: vaccines and healthcare.” This move “was reinforced by a $20bn asset swap with Novartis in April under which GSK traded its subscale oncology business for the Swiss group’s vaccines division, while the pair agreed to set up a joint-venture in consumer products.” This means that when this structuring is completed, “half of GSK’s revenues will come from outside [the sale of] pharmaceuticals.”
Witty has also worked to change internal GSK compensation incentives to help manage corruption risks. Late last year, the company announced that it would “sever the link between sales and pay for drug reps and from 2016, stop payments to doctors for promoting its products.” Ward noted that others in the industry have not followed GSK’s lead in changing the way it compensates its sales team but Witty said, “in the long-run, the company will benefit from being the first-mover towards a new marketing model.”
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Witty has attempted to become an industry-wide “standard-bearer for [pharmaceutical] industry ethics.” Ward reported that the ongoing scandal has helped Witty “drive home to employees the need for greater transparency.” Ward even quoted Witty for the following, “It gives me the ammunition to say we are in the public eye and our behaviour counts. It’s not just about generating prescriptions, it’s how you do it.”
In another article on the GSK corruption scandal by Ward, entitled “GSK chief floats break-up option”, Ward quoted said that Witty has “zero tolerance for any form of corruption” and that “he was pleased if wrongdoing had been brought to light so that it could be stamped out.” Witty went on to say that “Any company that doesn’t get whistleblower letters isn’t looking hard enough. If you are not getting any don’t dream. It can’t be perfect 100 per cent of the time.”
Another perspective on business solutions to the management of corruption risks came from Tom Mitchell, also writing in the FT in an article entitled “Expats in China should read GSK potboiler carefully”. Mitchell focused on a book by Joe Studwell called The China Dream, which detailed some of the business failures that had befallen western companies in China. Mitchell drew the lesson from Studwell’s book that “When foreign investors’ interests are aligned with those of their domestic partners – as they generally are today in the auto sector – those investors do very well indeed… However, when interests are not aligned – or when outside operators in sectors where they are not required to have joint ventures – foreigners are vulnerable to sudden reversals of fortune instigated by either a bitter partner or by unsympathetic officials.”
How closely does that sound like what happened to GSK? Mitchell noted that GSK “made money from selling goods in China at prices that were – Chinese police allege – were high by the standards of many markets. At the same time, GSK was not sharing revenue streams with a local partner that could help with damage limitation when local authorities appeared on its doorstep.”
The management of risk is essentially a business exercise. That is because risk is what can cause a company to lose money. Some risk is embodied in statutes such as the FCPA or UK Bribery Act. Sometimes risk is a change in the market circumstance. For that I and others have written about the negative side of GSK; the company may well come out the other side of the Chinese corruption scandal stronger because they seem to understand that there is a market based solution to corruption risks. GSK has changed the way it will compensate its sales force and will delete its compensation to doctors. This may take away incentives to cut corners or engage in bribery and corruption. But think about Witty’s steps to diversify the GSK product base. If you are in an industry that is corrupt and you cannot find a way to do business profitably, your company may have other business lines it can move forward to a more prominent role in your business. Lastly, as with most responses to legal issues by lawyers, business executives are only limited by their imaginations in their response to business issues.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014