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Commentary: GSK, Pfizer and GE shift away from diversification in latest round of health-care deals

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Former Medtronic CEO on health care changes

GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and General Electric all made key announcements Wednesday signaling that health-care companies are shifting to focus their businesses on their greatest strengths and abandoning the diversification strategies that have characterized health care for the past two decades.

First, a quick summary of their moves:

  • GSK and Pfizer announced that they are merging their consumer businesses into a $13 billion company, with GSK owning 68 percent and Pifzer 32 percent of the joint venture.
  • GSK further said that it will split into two companies — pharmaceuticals on one hand and consumer and vaccines on the other – within three years of the closing of the Pfizer joint venture.
  • General Electric confirmed its plans to separate its health care company, based in Milwaukee, WI, into a free-standing corporation.

In the Pfizer venture, GSK CEO Emma Wamsley is replicating the deal she and predecessor Andrew Witte put together four years ago with Novartis.

Earlier this year, she purchased from Novartis the remaining 38 percent of the business GSK did not own, giving it full control. I anticipate that within a couple of years, GSK will acquire the remaining 32 percent of the Pfizer venture, which will be run by GSK's current consumer head, Brian McNamara. For its pharmaceutical business, GSK can focus on drug discovery. The same goes for Pfizer's pharmaceutical businesses.

With their new focus, I anticipate that both pharmaceutical companies will be active on the acquisition front in seeking new compounds, existing drugs, and smaller biopharmaceutical companies. The question remains as to whether they can compete in their own drug discovery labs with well-established biopharmaceutical research centers like Merck, Novartis and Roche.

Under the new leadership of CEO Larry Culp, GE is also moving rapidly to focus its business as well. GE Health Care has long been a strength of the company, the unit where former CEOs Jeff Immelt and John Flannery proved their mettle that got them promoted to the top job.

For the leadership of GE Health Care under CEO Kieran Murphy, this separation is a welcome move that will enable it to invest more in research and development and on its own bolt-on acquisitions that can broaden its base in the rapidly advancing field of medical imaging.

Culp then can focus on reshaping the rest of GE's combination of jet engines, power plants, energy and industrial —deciding whether to spin off some of those businesses as well as improve GE's battered balance sheet by paying down more of its debt. GE shareholders immediately signaled their approval of Culp's moves, increasing its stock price 5 percent in spite of broadly-based declines on Thursday in response to the Fed's interest rate increase. GSK, whose stock had risen 7 percent in response to its announcements, wound up the day on the plus side of the ledger as well.

The question remains, will these announcements trigger further focus on the rest of the health care sector? Under the leadership of new CEO Vas Narasimhan, Novartis has already moved aggressively to focus on its biopharmaceutical business by spinning off Alcon, its eye care business, and the remainder of its GSK venture and acquiring three major new biopharma technologies — gene therapy, cell therapy and radioligand therapy.

The other majors are also continuing to examine their portfolios as well. Fewer divestitures are expected among the medical technology companies like Medtronic, Stryker and Boston Scientific that are already highly focused on their portfolios, but more consolidation may be anticipated within that industry.

The shift to greater focus in their strategies will enable these health care giants to concentrate on the rapidly advancing technological opportunities and to excel in their respective fields with increased market shares, more efficient use of assets, and increased returns to shareholders. Their investors have already signaled that this is precisely what they want.

Bill George is a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, former chairman & CEO of Medtronic and the author of "Discover Your True North." George served on the board of Novartis until 2009, but he doesn't currently hold any shares in the company or any of the other companies mentioned in this column. Follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

Correction: General Electric had previously announced plans to separate its health-care unit and reiterated those plans Wednesday.

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Key Points
  • GE Healthcare is big enough to make the Fortune 500 list as a standalone company with more than 52,000 employees and $19 billion in annual revenue last year.
  • Murphy could pursue a number of merger and acquisition deals to head off competitors.
  • Both John Flannery and Jeff Immelt had his job before they were tapped to run all of GE.