The Medical Technology Blog

Synthes has bowed to intensive media speculation and confirmed that it is in talks with Johnson & Johnson over a possible takeover by the US healthcare giant.

Any deal to acquire Switzerland-based Synthes would represent one of the largest attempted by J&J since it lost out to Boston Scientific in the battle for control of Guidant. J&J is rumoured to be offering around US$20 billion to acquire Synthes, a major player in the spine and trauma markets. If J&J were to secure its target it would return the company’s DePuy business to the top spot in the worldwide orthopaedic market and ending Zimmer’s dominant position. A combined DePuy-Synthes unit could potentially be worth US$46 billion and boast strong positions in orthopaedic, spine, sports medicine and biologic products. Ironically, Zimmer itself went to the number one position by securing another Swiss company, Centerpulse, in 2003.

Since the beginning of the new year, it seems J&J has been looking for a big deal and was strongly linked with a US$11 billion approach for UK-based Smith & Nephew. The pharmaceutical/medical device giant can afford it as well, with around US$28 billion in cash lying in its balance sheet. Whilst it can clearly afford it, the company doesn’t tend to overpay with its purchases – a fact that appears to have been illustrated following the non-appearance of an offer for S&N – and will be hoping that rumours of a rival offer from Medtronic do not materialise.

So what makes Synthes such an attractive proposition to J&J? Although headquartered in Switzerland, the majority of Synthes’ 2010 sales (58 per cent) originate in North America and followed by Europe (23 per cent) and Asia-Pacific (12 per cent). The company increased its sales by 8 per cent to US$3.7 billion in 2010 and net earnings jumped 10 per cent to US$908 million. It has strong trauma and spine products, whilst DePuy’s expertise is particularly focused in hip and knee implant – which means the case for synergies and antitrust approval could also be strong.

Despite its size, J&J is under pressure to react to competition in its medical device fields, particularly within the cardiovascular market. The company’s once dominant position in drug-eluting stents has long been usurped by Boston Scientific, and competition from the likes of Abbott and Medtronic have bitten hard. Within orthopaedics, DePuy has been dogged by a series of recalls that are understood to have cost J&J nearly US$1 billion so far. The unit has also been hit with several lawsuits regarding its recalled ASR hip implant, with complaints rolling in on a weekly basis. Despite these woes, DePuy still upped its net sales during 2010 by 4 per cent to US$5.6 billion, highlighting the potential of orthopaedic products to achieve strong revenues and profit margins.

News that Synthes is even discussing a deal represents a rare opportunity to buy a company that has never really been touted as a bid target. The reason for this is that the company is majority-owned by its Chairman and guiding light, Hansjorg Wyss, and various Wyss-family controlled trusts so any bid will have to meet his approval to stand a chance of success. Switzerland also has complex minority shareholder rights – just ask Novartis after its protracted battle for Alcon – so although the talks are significant, a deal is not entirely certain.

J&J’s approach for Synthes could kickstart a further period of consolidation in the orthopaedic market or alternatively represent an albeit mighty dent. Below the big players, Wright Medical Group is in a bit of a bother having kicked out some its management team recently, whilst the question remains – will anybody make a move for S&N? The rather quiet cosy world of orthopaedics looks like waking from its slumber at last!

Thank you to Lawrence Miller for a great post, Lawrence is Epicom’s medical newsletters team leader, and also editor of the excellent publications Orthopaedic Business News and Medical Industry Week.

Thanks for reading, back in two weeks time, Paul.

Espicom Business Intelligence

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