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Altria chief departs tobacco group as he recovers from Covid-19

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Via Financial Times

US tobacco group Altria said it chairman and chief executive Howard Willard, who was recovering from Covid-19, had decided to step down earlier this week.

The 56-year-old Mr Willard had stepped aside three days ago, on April 14, after 28 years at the Virginia-based company behind Marlboro cigarettes, Altria said on Friday, after first disclosing his diagnosis to staff and the board on March 19.

The company tapped Billy Gifford, who most recently served as chief financial officer and vice-chairman and has a long background dating to the Philip Morris predecessor company, to succeed him. Mr Gifford took over Mr Willard’s chief executive duties after he took a temporary medical leave of absence to deal with his illness.

Altria also said it had separated the role of chairman and CEO, with board member Thomas Farrell, whose background in mainly in the energy sector, stepping up to become chairman.

The leadership and governance changes come after Altria wrote off the majority of its investment in Juul Labs, that slashed the value of the e-cigarette company to a fraction of the $12.8bn that Altria paid at the end of 2018. Following the deal, Juul came under regulatory scrutiny over its marketing and the health effects.

Juul’s troubles deepened earlier this month when the Federal Trade Commission sued to unwind Altria’s investment in the e-cigarette maker on the grounds that the tobacco group had bought the stake to unlawfully eliminate competition in the sector.

Altria shares, which are down 19 per cent year-to-date, rose 2 per cent in pre-market trading on Friday along with a broader rise in US stock futures.

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Mr Willard had overseen the company’s transition away from traditional combustible tobacco to the faster growing vaping market. 

“The board thanks Howard for his nearly 30 years of distinguished service to Altria and for helping to set the course for Altria’s 10-year vision to responsibly lead the transition of adult smokers to a non-combustible future,” said Mr. Farrell.

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