October 24, 2017 / 5:45 AM / a year ago

UPDATE 2-Novartis aims to beef up Alcon before possible 2019 spin off

* Novartis CEO favours 2019 spin off for Alcon

* Cosentyx sales rise mitigates Gleevec bite

* Entresto sales miss expectations (Adds comment from CEO, analysts, shares)

By John Miller

ZURICH, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Swiss drugmaker Novartis is moving closer to spinning off the ailing Alcon eyecare business it bought from Nestle for $50 billion in 2010, but said on Tuesday a final decision would depend on the unit's continued sales growth.

A 7 percent rise in Alcon sales in the third quarter pushed Novartis's overall revenue up 2 percent to $12.4 billion, the company said, beating the $12.2 billion average in a Reuters poll of analysts.

Now, Chief Executive Joe Jimenez wants to see Alcon's sales recovery continue before pulling the trigger on a spin off for a unit he has suggested could be worth $25-$35 billion. The unit would be sold without prescription eye drugs, which Novartis moved to its main medicines unit last year and plans to keep.

"What we would be considering right now is a separate listing," Jimenez, who on Feb. 1 will hand over the CEO job to Vas Narasimhan, told reporters on a call.

"A standalone company with a separate listing, and those shares would go to our current shareholders," he said, adding that that could happen in the first half of 2019.

Jimenez said Novartis was still reviewing potential locations for a possible Alcon listing and that proposed U.S. tax reforms -- U.S. President Donald Trump's plan promises up to $6 trillion in cuts -- would play a role in a final decision.

In 2016, Novartis swapped out top Alcon management and began investing to reverse persistent sales declines that it has blamed on lacklustre customer service and stagnating innovation.

Investments at Alcon, including on marketing and new hires in customer support continued to bite, with the unit posting a $50 million operating loss.

Novartis shares fell 1.3 percent by 0815 GMT, which analysts said may reflect investors unhappy that an Alcon spin off will not come as early as next year.

"The timing of an expected spin/IPO may disappoint some investors that were hoping for this in 2018," Deutsche Bank analysts wrote in a note.


Novartis reported third-quarter core net income rose to $3.02 billion, compared to the average analyst estimate of $2.93 billion in a Reuters poll.

The Swiss group also confirmed its full-year outlook, with core operating income seen broadly in line or slightly declining compared with 2016 before a promised return to growth in 2018.

Novartis has been suffering through a patent expiry on its former top seller, blood cancer drug Gleevec, whose third-quarter sales plunged by nearly half to $445 million as competition from generic copies intensifies.

Meanwhile, newer psoriasis drug Cosentyx generated $556 million, up 83 percent from a year ago and beating market estimates.

Analysts said the trend looks promising.

"We continue to see the company on track to successfully exit the 2017 transition year before returning to growth in 2018," said Bruno Bulic, a Baader Helvea analyst with "buy" rating.

While sales of heart failure drug Entresto more than doubled to $128 million, they again missed market expectations amid a slowdown in July and August.

Jimenez acknowledged revenue must accelerate for Entresto to hit its 2017 target of around $500 million, though he still expects Entresto to eventually become a $5 billion-per-year medicine.

"It's not going to be a rocket ship that has that Cosentyx-like trajectory, but it will be a steady grower and contributor to the next growth phase of the company," he said. (Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Michael Shields and Jon Boyle)

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