Pfizer is taking the unprecedented step of inviting its largest institutional shareholders to a face-to-face meeting to discuss its governance policies and practices, including executive compensation.

The New York-based drugs giant says it is the first company to initiate a regular meeting between board and backers on governance and is inviting representatives who own around 35% of Pfizer's shares to the first sit-down in the autumn.

The firm added that it has been “in the forefront of corporate governance for over two decades,” having taken the lead in eliminating its ‘poison pill’ (a device used to discourage unfriendly takeovers) and ensuring that all directors are elected at each annual meeting. Pfizer also adopted a majority voting policy, expanded disclosures on executive compensation well ahead of new regulations set out by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and was among the first to use SEC ‘plain English’ rules to make disclosures more understandable to investors.

Dana Mead, chairman of Pfizer’s Compensation Committee said that the announcement “builds on our broad-based outreach to shareholders and formalises what we have informally practiced for many years”, while chief executive Jeff Kindler claimed that “open and candid dialogue with our shareholders – and, in fact, all of our stakeholders – is very valuable and will help us become a better company”. He concluded by saying that the meetings reflect the idea that “we must listen to shareholder viewpoints on governance so that we can continue to improve our practices.”

The move comes at a time when Pfizer is a little bit under the cosh. It is cutting 10,000 jobs, or 10% of its work force, and investors are worried that blockbusters that are facing patent expiries, notably Lipitor (atorvastatin), are not been replaced. The company has suffered some major late-stage drug setbacks of late, most notably with its experimental cholesterol-lowerer torcetrapib, which was pulled from development over safety fears.

Phase III trials of Sutent start for colorectal cancer

Pfizer also announced the beginning of a Phase III clinical trial with Sutent (sunitinib) in combination with a standard chemotherapy regimen, in patients with metastatic colorectal cancer. The company expects to enrol more than 700 patients for the trial which will test the safety and efficacy of Sutent, which is already the gold standard of treatment for advanced kidney cancer, combined with the standard irinotecan-based chemotherapy FOLFIRI, compared with the latter and placebo.

The news came as Pfizer presented data from an ongoing open-label Phase I trial of 16 previously untreated metastatic colorectal cancer patients at the World Congress on Gastrointestinal Cancer in Barcelona which showed that sunitinib is active and generally well-tolerated in combination with FOLFIRI.