Novartis has posted a strong set of financials for the fourth quarter but the results have been somewhat overshadowed by the news that Daniel Vasella is stepping down next week as chief executive, to be replaced by the firm’s pharma chief Joe Jimenez.

Dr Vasella, who is staying on as chairman, said that after 14 years as chief executive, “it is the right time to complete the carefully-planned CEO succession process, which started over a year ago”. Mr Jimenez will take over from February 1, and Dr Vasella said his successor’s “international experience in pharmaceuticals and consumer businesses together with an excellent track record destine Joe Jimenez to lead Novartis into a next phase of expansion and growth”. Mr Jimenez will be replaced as head of pharmaceuticals by David Epstein, Novartis’ oncology chief.

The news came as Novartis unveiled net profits for the fourth quarter of $2.32 billion, an increase of 54%, as sales rose 28% to $12.93 billion, from $10.08 billion in the 2008 period. Pharmaceutical turnover jumped 21% (in dollars) to $7.77 billion.

Novartis’ biggest-seller was the blood pressure lowerer Diovan (valsartan), as sales increased 14% to $1.61 billion, while revenue from Glivec/Gleevec (imatinib), for chronic myeloid leukaemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumours, were up 22% to $1.09 billion. Femara (letrozole), for women with hormone-sensitive breast cancer, climbed 22% to $341 million and Zometa (zoledronic acid) for cancer complications brought in $392 million, up 14%. Turnover of the acromegaly therapy Sandostatin (ocreotide) rose 17% to $316 million.

As for Novartis’ newer products, the cardiovascular drug Exforge (amlodipine plus valsartan) brought in $196 million, up 66%, while Exjade (deferasirox), the first once-daily oral therapy for treating patients with iron overload, was up 26% to $183 million. Lucentis (ranibizumab) for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration shot up 64% to $374 million, while Reclast/Aclasta (zoledronic acid) for osteoporosis climbed 73% to $147 million.

The figures were also boosted by the contribution of the vaccines and diagnostics unit, where revenues soared 182% to $1.39 billion. Some $1 billion of that came from deliveries of the company’s influenza A (H1N1) vaccine.

Dr Vasella said that over the past 12 months, “we sustained our lead in approvals for new products”, more than 30 in the USA, Europe and Japan, while “our productivity efforts improved profitability and allowed for continued investments in drug discovery”. The firm gave no inclination that it plans to up its controversial buy-out of eye care specialist Alcon, merely saying it is “in the interest of all stakeholders”, though minority shareholders are unhappy, “and will provide the needed clarity on Alcon’s future”.