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Lilly CEO to step down temporarily due to surgery

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John Lechleiter will temporarily relinquish the reins of Eli Lilly and Co. on May 13 while he undergoes and recovers from cardiovascular surgery, the Indianapolis-based drugmaker announced late Monday afternoon.

Derica Rice, Lilly’s chief financial officer, will become acting CEO in Lechleiter’s absence. And Ellen Marram, the lead independent director on Lilly’s board of directors, will be acting chairman of the board.

Lechleiter, 59, has been suffering from a dilated aorta, which is a swelling that can cause a rupture and bleeding in the main artery that carries blood from the heart. The company said the problem was discovered during unrelated testing and has not produced any visible symptoms.

Lechleiter will undergo a procedure in Indianapolis in which a portion of his aorta will be removed and replaced with a graft, said Lilly spokesman Ed Sagebiel. He declined to disclose where the surgery would take place.

He will be recuperating for months, but is expected to return to the company “later this summer,” Lilly’s press release said. Sagebiel said he could not be more specific, since Lechleiter’s return will hinge on his recovery.

“John wants to come back at full strength,” Sagebiel said. He added, “It is a serious condition. Left untreated it could be life-threatening.”

Lechleiter has been Lilly’s CEO for five years. He is leading the company thorugh one of its most difficult periods, during which the company saw its U.S. and European patents expire on its bestseller Zyprexa in 2011 and will see its current bestseller Cymbalta lose patent protection at the end of this year.

"I am grateful to be under the care of a world-class medical team located right here in Indianapolis," said Lechleiter. "The board of directors and I have the utmost confidence in Ellen, Derica, and our Lilly leadership team. The company will be in very good hands during my leave. I look forward to returning to work following my recovery."

Rice, 48, has been Lilly’s CFO since 2006 and executive vice president of global services since 2010. He is the highest-ranking African-American executive at Lilly.

An Alabama native, Rice began his Lilly career as an international treasury associate in finance. He moved on to sales and advanced into management. He served as director of finance for Lilly Canada and then general manager of Lilly's United Kingdom affiliate before becoming executive director of finance for Lilly's European operations.

Marram, 66, is also the former CEO of two consumer products companies: the Nabisco Biscuit Co. and Pepsico's Tropicana. She has served on the Lilly board since 2002 and is also a member of the board of directors of Ford Motor Co. and The New York Times Co.

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