Warburg Weighs IPO For Bausch & Lomb

After four years in private hands, Bausch & Lomb may soon head back to the public market as Chief Executive Brent Saunders is setting sights on an IPO for the U.S. eye-care giant “in the next couple of years.”

Saunders, CEO of a year and a half, is also focusing on at least two other targets: growth in emerging markets and boosting the company’s pharmaceutical business. “The hidden gem of our business is our pharmaceutical business. … We’re very interested in adding more products,” he told sister news service Reuters in an interview.

Previously traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the Rochester, N.Y.-based company was acquired for $4.5 billion by private equity firm Warburg Pincus in late 2007 after falling out of Wall Street’s favor because of product recalls, big charges and restatements of earnings. Saunders said the business has regained stable footing, growing across all divisions—contact lenses and lens care products, eye medicines and ophthalmic surgical devices and instruments—and all regions.

“We clearly have an aspiration to come back to the public market over the next couple of years,” Saunders said, adding that no timetable has been set because of jittery markets.

Saunders, who has beyond-perfect vision of 20/10, is a former consumer health care chief at Schering-Plough Corp. who took the helm at B&L in March 2010 as the company headed into its 158th business year. At the time, he largely dodged the IPO question and told Reuters he planned to build B&L’s three main businesses through “tuck-in” acquisitions and overseas expansion.

“We need to put more into our system and we’re very active on the trail of looking for opportunities to in-license, partner, acquire and grow our business,” he said in the new interview this month. “We evaluate virtually every opportunity out there.”

Since Saunders became CEO, B&L has acquired rights and licenses to several medicines, such as anti-viral gel Zirgan and anti-inflammatory drug Yellox. It has also partnered with Germany’s Technolas Perfect Vision GmbH to sell a laser that combines capacity to perform cataract and refractive eye surgeries. In October, the company launched a new contact lens for people with astigmatism.

Next year, B&L plans to begin to sell a new lens using a material with “unique properties not seen on the market today,” Saunders said. The eye-care company also continues research and work on an experimental anti-inflammation drug Mapracorat. In an effort to streamline the business, Saunders said over the past year and a half he took out several hundred managers to slim down in favor of more front-line jobs, whether focused on sales, science or manufacturing.

“We are doing quite a bit of hiring in markets like China, India, Brazil, Russia, Eastern Europe,” he said, adding that the company tends to hire several hundred people a year, either to fill opening positions or create new jobs. “We have a much freer hiring in the developing growth markets and we’re a little bit more cautious in the developed world.”

The company’s biggest competitors are Johnson & Johnson, Novartis AG’s eye-care group Alcon, and Abbott Laboratories, through its acquisition of Advanced Medical Optics.

“We have highly respected competitor companies, but I think our strength is our dedication, our sole focus on eye health,” Saunders said. “We wake up and go to sleep thinking about one therapeutic area.”

(Alina Selyukh is a Reuters journalist in Washington.)