Peter Gray, CEO of Icon since 2002, will step down as of Oct. 1. The announcement, which came last week, surprised many in the industry. Icon’s board has appointed Ciaran Murray, who has been Icon’s CFO for the last six years, to succeed Gray as CEO.
On a Sept. 8 conference call with investors, Gray, who will stay on as vice chairman, hinted at a family issue as one of the motivators for his retirement from the CEO position at age 57, after 14 years with what has become, under his leadership, one of the industry’s top CROs.
“There were some personal developments—which I would not want to go into—in the last few months that really, I suppose, catalyzed my thinking and maybe accelerated my decision making around family and things that needed to be supported in my family,” he said. “I prefer not to elaborate on that.”
At the same time though, this is how leadership change seems to take place at Icon, said Neal McCarthy, managing director of investment banking firm Fairmount Partners, which focuses on the CRO space. When Icon co-founder John Climax stepped down as the company’s CEO in 2002, it was in similar fashion: seemingly suddenly, though with a successor—Gray, then CFO—already carefully chosen and groomed, and with Climax staying on as board chairman to help with the company’s strategic planning.
And as is the case here, Icon leadership tends to stays on at Icon after stepping down from top roles, added McCarthy. He pointed to, for example, Bill Taafee, who, after stepping down from 12 years as president of Icon’s U.S. operations in 2005, stayed on as president of corporate development. And company co-founder Ronan Lambe was board chairman for 12 years and is now an external director.
Said McCarthy of the Gray/Murray changeover, “This is Icon doing what they’ve always done, and that is keeping the best of management involved with the business and bringing up new blood from the inside.”
Murray, who will now join the Icon board, started in 2005 as CFO. He also has been responsible for Icon’s medical imaging division.
Brendan Brennan, currently senior vice president of corporate finance, will become acting CFO, and Diarmaid Cunningham, general counsel, will take on the additional role of company secretary.
The timing of Gray’s retirement, though a little surprising, ultimately made sense, said McCarthy. A CEO leaving during or just after the economic downturn would have sent a bad signal to the markets, but instead choosing to leave just after the inking of two strategic deals (Pfizer and BMS) sends the message that all is healthy and good with the company and it’s just time for someone new to step in.
Gray, said McCarthy, has been “the classic road warrior.” “He’s worked 100-hour weeks for 10 years, and the last three or four years have been a big challenge for all the CEOs in the industry. I think they feel like they’ve gotten through the hard part, and Peter is saying, ‘Okay, now is my opportunity to go.’”
“I never made it a secret that I didn’t see myself slogging at this past 60 years of age and probably before that,” said Gray on last week’s investor call, adding, “The message is: nothing strange here. I’ve been 14 years with the company. I’ve soldiered for 10 as combined COO and CEO, nine as CEO, and this is the right time for me to make a decision to scale back a little bit and give a little more time to family.”
“The good thing about that,” he continued, “is we’ve been working on succession planning in a very structured way in the organization for a long time—that’s one of the key things that we focus a lot of time on—and hence we’re able to do this in a pretty seamless way.”
Gray said he and Murray have worked together for six years, with Murray becoming intimately involved in the company’s strategic planning and strategic development over the last two years.
“Hopefully I can support Ciaran,” said Gray, “and not get in his way, and not get in his hair.”