(Reuters) – Novo Nordisk’s chief operating officer, a 26-year company veteran who had been expected to become CEO, quit unexpectedly after the board said the current chief should stay until 2019.

Chief Executive Lars Rebien Sorensen had been expected to step down from the world’s largest insulin maker well before the end of his contract in 2019. When Kaare Schultz was named chief operating officer (COO) and was dubbed by Danish media as the ‘crown prince’, investors saw a clear succession plan.

But Sorensen told reporters on Thursday the COO role “disappeared” after senior staff in commercial positions were promoted to the executive team ahead of key drug launches, particularly in the United States where pharmaceutical firms are battling fiercely for market share.

“It’s been no secret that Mr Schultz had been looking forward to assuming my position. The board decided it wanted to have greater visibility on our corporate launches in key markets,” Sorensen said. “As a consequence, the COO job disappeared.”

The departure was a surprise for investors who are used to smooth planning at the Nordic region’s largest company.

Sorensen himself is unlikely to stay beyond the 2019 end of his contract, Chairman of the Board Goran Ando told Reuters, adding that his successor will be internal.

“We are at a stage where we have a completely unprecedented number of launches of new medicines … It was about time to look at the organisation and pull the international business leaders closer,” he said of the rationale behind the changes.

Novo’s biggest launch will be that of Tresiba in the United States — a long-awaited blockbuster treatment that was delayed when regulators asked for more tests before approving it.

STABILITY AFTER SURPRISE

News of the management changes came alongside first quarter results that beat expectations and an upgrade to Novo Nordisk’s 2015 forecasts.

The shares were up 1.9 percent by 1212 GMT while the main Copenhagen stock exchange was slightly weaker. The shares had initially fallen over 2 percent.

“Novo Nordisk has a deep bench of executive talent and the continuation of Mr Sorensen as CEO adds to the stability of management while giving investors more time to see the wider number of potential replacements in action,” analysts at Deutsche Bank said.

Earnings before interest and tax came in at 13.9 billion Danish crowns ($2.1 billion) for the quarter, up from 8.0 billion crowns a year ago and above analysts’ forecasts of 12.93 billion crowns, thanks to proceeds from the spin-off of NNIT .

The company said it now expected sales to rise 7-9 percent, replacing a previous forecast of 6-9 percent, and for operating profit to increase by 17 percent, compared to an earlier 10 percent forecast. Both forecasts are in local currencies and so exclude the impact of the strong dollar which boosts earnings of companies that have U.S. sales but report in weaker currencies.

 

By Sabina Zawadzki

Industries | Thu Apr 30, 2015 8:28am EDT

($1 = 6.7262 Danish crowns) (Additional reporting by Ole Mikkelsen in Copenhagen and Ben Hirschler in London; editing by David Clarke and Elaine Hardcastle)