A STRIKING point to emerge during the US election campaign was that

Governor Clinton proposed targeting the drugs companies to reduce

healthcare costs.

The immediate worry was that the British pharmaceutical groups

Wellcome and Glaxo would be hard hit; yet on closer examination their

price increases have been the lowest of the significant market-players

despite having the highest revenue growth in 1991 at 27% and 24%


The secret has been volume growth and Wellcome chief executive John

Robb is determined for more. His target before retirement in 5[1/2]

years time is to raise Wellcome in the world pharmaceuticals league from

20th to 15th place.

That will come not so much through its anti-Aids drug but through

products such as the Zovirax herpes and shingles anti-viral which is one

of the world's largest golden geese with annual sales of around #600m

and the extensive portfolio of other anti-viral products, including

cancer cures, which will take up the running later this decade.

Edinburgh-born Robb grabbed the headlines when he was fired as chief

executive of Beecham in 1988 after a 22-year career with the company,

mostly on the marketing side. The root cause for the decision was that

Beecham had decided upon splitting the role of chairman and chief

executive and called in Bob Bauman, ''the million-dollar man'', in 1986

-- a very high salary then.

But there was no meeting of minds between the two as to who should do

what, and as it was cheaper to let Robb go, he thought ''it seemed right

to pitch my tent elsewhere''.

After six months of discussions he joined Wellcome in March 1989 at

the invitation of then-chairman Sir Alfred Sheppard.

At first, the new deputy chief executive was treated with some

suspicion as it was pretty obvious he was the heir apparent. Despite

having been appointed to the Beecham board in 1980, it was generally

thought his skills were in marketing and that he knew nothing about


Again, Wellcome was, and is, the only producer of front-line defence

against Aids with its Retrovir drug, and it was in the centre of a storm

of controversy over pricing, particularly in the US. Robb took exception

to the criticism.

His first major decision at Wellcome was to cancel a major research

programme even although that was in the pre-sales Phase 3 stage. He

considered the product was eight times more expensive than the treatment

Genentec had already put on the market and that it would never be better

than in third place. That Genentec has flat sales over the last four

years of just $200m for its product would seem to validate his action.

The board now bears little relation to that when he arrived, with the

former RTZ and now British Steel chairman, Dalmuir-born Sir Alistair

Frame, having succeeded ''Shep'', although several of the changes have

been through retirement.

Aspirants to the boardroom have no chance unless they have worked

overseas, as Britain is now a relatively insignificant part of the


Robb has never had any doubts about his own abilities despite his

genial demeanour and reluctance to say too much about himself. At the

end of a tour of duty with any of the Beecham companies, he would ask

himself whether they were in better shape than when he started. ''People

would argue that I was pretty tough -- and so on. But I could always

look in the mirror and say 'Yes'.''

He could never be content as a middle-manager and this has come

through very strongly on the personal side. ''I have always taken the

view that I had to have a successful career to have a successful

family.'' And ''the future of the company is in my hands. I wish I could

do it all -- but it is too complex.''

John Robb left Daniel Stewart's College at 16 and his first job was

with Heinz. The initial years included two years' National Service with

the Middlesex Regiment, split between peaceful Austria, ''which was

pleasant'', and terrorism-torn Cyprus.

Altogether, Heinz employed him for seven years, then he joined the

Associated Fisheries' subsidiary Eskimo Frozen Foods. There he met his

wife-to-be, Janet, who worked for the Inland Revenue in Grimsby. They

have a daughter and two boys, all in their twenties. Gardening, a

quarter-share in a horse-breeding syndicate and golf (handicap 12)

occupy the weekend.

And like so many Scots, it was the lure of London which set him on the

road to success. After a few months with an advertising agency, he

joined Beecham as marketing manager for McLean's Toothpaste. And on the

international side, he had ''a very interesting boss called Ernest

Saunders. He and I got on quite well -- a very capable chap.''

Although Robb moved to the Far East in 1971, he regards that as a

crucial year for the British pharmaceutical industry as Beecham bid,

unsuccessfully, for Glaxo. Sir Ronald Edwards of Beecham had what Robb

says was the right concept of bringing it together with a research-based

group to form a large company able to take on the Americans and the


The growth in the eighties by Glaxo came through focus on research and

development, through building up cash, successful marketing and deciding

that when it did not have enough market share on its own it would form

co-partnerships. ''That is what we are concentrating on here. If someone

has done something efficiently, I will not try to find a new


The long-term objective is ''to put volume through the Wellcome

factories -- not pound notes''.

That should please Clinton.