Activist fund Sarissa wants to oust Ariad CEO

Activist hedge fund Sarissa Capital, which won a seat on Ariad Pharmaceuticals' board last year, is seeking to replace the company's chief executive and may mount a proxy fight in the next few weeks, according to a person familiar with the hedge fund's plans.

Sarissa is the largest shareholder of Ariad, with 6.9 percent of the stock, or about 12.9 million shares, according to FactSet. The hedge fund is run by Alex Denner, formerly Carl Icahn's head of biotech investing, and Richard Mulligan, a Harvard geneticist who worked with Denner and Icahn on several investments.

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Sarissa has been agitating at Ariad since October 2013, when the drugmaker's stock plummeted over safety concerns with its cancer drug, Iclusig. Denner won a seat on the board in February 2014 and the right to add a second director to be agreed on with the company. Ariad and Sarissa haven't named that second board member.

A chemist works in the lab of Ariad Pharmaceuticals.
Barry Chin | The Boston Globe | Getty Images
A chemist works in the lab of Ariad Pharmaceuticals.

"It's pretty interesting there is some quote-unquote activism here, but it's been pretty quiet," RBC Capital Markets analyst Michael Yee said in a telephone interview. "Typically activists come in and start to make noise, write an open letter, demand changes, send tweets, whatever it is; none of that has actually happened."

That may be about to change. Sarissa is said to be seeking to replace Chief Executive Officer Harvey Berger, the company's founder; Berger is up for re-election this year, along with two other members of the eight-member board. The notification date for new director proposals is Feb. 25, according to Ariad's 2014 proxy filing. The hedge fund may not seek a proxy fight in the coming weeks if an agreement is reached with the company.

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Maria Cantor, a spokeswoman for Ariad, declined to comment.

The company is working to regain investor confidence in the prospects of Iclusig after it was pulled from the U.S. market at the end of 2013 over safety concerns. It returned two months later, with more restrictions on its use. Ariad shares have fallen about 17 percent in the last 12 months, compared with an increase of 25 percent for the Nasdaq Biotechnology Index.

"Commercially, we've had a really good year; we've really made progress in the U.S. as well as Europe," Berger said in an interview with CNBC at the J.P. Morgan Health Care Conference in January.

In response to a question about Denner and the potential for a proxy fight, he said: "I have no idea at this point, but certainly he's been a productive and cooperative member of the board. He's been involved in things and is part of a very involved board of directors."