Profile: Baptism of fire.

Julian Heslop is about to step into some very big shoes. That’s not to say his predecessor has big feet. Rather, that he has an immense reputation for being one of the best finance directors in the UK. Heslop is taking over from John Coombe at GlaxoSmithKline.

Whichever way you look at it, Heslop has quite a task ahead of him at the drug company. It’s a big business, there’s that big name predecessor and there’s a lot of work to do to turn things around because GSK results have not been too buoyant.

And all this for a man who seems to have come from nowhere. Type his name into a news search engine and you will be lucky to come up with a mention of Heslop’s name that goes back further than last week.

But what are his challenges when he takes over on 1 April next year? First, he’s now in charge of accounts that cover turnover set to top the £20bn mark this year. That’s not a given though: results for all three quarters in 2004 show turnover is down on the previous year when it was £21.4bn.

Things could come good in the last quarter but the board has been putting out clear signals that they are finding the going tough. Third-quarter results showed turnover down nearly £400m on the same period the previous year.

GSK does, however, have an ace in the hole. Lots of new products are expected in the very near future. To capitalise on these, Heslop will need to make sure the benefits are not eaten up by costs. Very tight purse strings will be the order of the day.

Secondly, while GSK, Coombe and chief executive Jean-Pierre Garnier are rarely out of the news, Heslop appears not to have occupied the spotlight himself too often in the past.

When he takes over, the new man will be in the thick of communicating the company’s aims and ambitions for the next couple of years and will need to get used to dealing with demanding analysts and the press. There’s nothing like being at the helm of a FTSE100 company to intensify the media glare.

Heslop, however, is not without some pedigree. He joined Glaxo Welcome in 1998 and soon after the merger with SmithKline Beecham assumed the post of senior vice president, operations controller and chairman of the capital review committee.

Prior to joining the pharmaceutical giant, he was group controller of Grand Metropolitan where most of his experience was with brewing, property and food. He’s a member of the ICAEW and has been an auditor.

But the auditor’s lot is not the experience of a top FD. Life’s going to be a whole lot more challenging for Heslop.

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