GlaxoSmithKline’s North American head Chris Viehbacher, who was in the running to replace Jean-Pierre Garnier as chief executive last year, is leaving the company.

Mr Viehbacher, who held the posts of executive director and president, North American pharmaceuticals, has decided to stand down from the board immediately and will leave the company on December 1. No details of his future plans were disclosed and GSK just said he was leaving “to pursue another opportunity”.

Andrew Witty, the man who replaced Dr Garnier in May after a three-way race that included Mr Viehbacher and David Stout, then-president of pharmaceutical operations, said of his former rival for the top slot that “he is one of the most talented and respected executives in this industry and we wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Despite losing out to Mr Witty for the CEO job, GSK were keen for Mr Viehbacher to stay and had agreed a retention package worth some £2.5 million, with payments to be made in 2009 and 2011. This sum will not now be paid, the firm has confirmed.

GSK downgraded
The news of Mr Viehbacher’s departure came as analysts at Goldman Sachs downgraded their rating on GSK to ‘sell’ from ‘neutral’, noting the stock’s outperformance against the rest of the European healthcare sector over the past three months. GSK’s shares ended the day down 1.6% to just below £12.50 each.