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Panic 'Glad to Be Back' on Job of Running ICN : Homecoming: Ousted premier of Yugoslavia is ready for business but will keep watching the affairs of his native land.

March 24, 1993|JAMES M. GOMEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — Ousted Yugoslav premier Milan Panic, the colorful founder of ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc., said Tuesday that he is back in the driver's seat at the Costa Mesa company but will continue to look over his shoulder at events unfolding in his troubled homeland.

"I'm glad to be back," said Panic, who actually returned March 4 as ICN's chairman and chief executive officer. "I am here to go back to my business."

Panic's homecoming was nine months after he took a leave of absence from ICN to serve as prime minister of the Yugoslav federation made up of Serbia and Montenegro. He was ousted as prime minister in a vote of no confidence in December. Shortly afterward, he failed in an attempt to unseat rival Slobodan Milosevic as president of Serbia.

Speaking in characteristic upbeat terms, Panic said he is more businessman than politician.

"I can run a company much more easily than I can a country," Panic said during an hourlong press conference Tuesday morning at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

Echoing an idea he first proposed in an interview with The Times in January, Panic said the best way to achieve peace in the Balkan region is to focus on economic integration, rather than political solutions. He suggested that an economic summit be called soon so that those war-torn and former communist countries can begin forming their own economic bloc, similar to the European Community.

"The time for killing for ideas is over," Panic said in rhetorical comments that included few specifics. "Economics is far more important than politics."

But with ICN's annual shareholder meeting coming up in May, Panic said, his main concern now is to resume control of the $1.5-billion conglomerate he said he has all but ignored in the past year.

Despite troubles in many Eastern European countries, Panic expressed confidence that his strategy of building a pharmaceuticals empire in Eastern Europe is still financially sound.

The company has struggled to overcome the effects of international economic sanctions on its Yugoslav joint venture, ICN Galenika, a drug manufacturer based in Belgrade. And the recent power struggle in Russia may also prove troublesome: ICN's chief subsidiary, SPI Pharmaceuticals Inc., is negotiating a takeover of St. Petersburg-based Leningrad Industrial Chemical and Pharmaceutical Assn., also called Oktyabr. The agreement is expected within a month, ICN officials say.

Panic responded to a question about the Russian venture by saying that he is not overly concerned and that officials of both Oktyabr and ICN know of the risks associated with establishing an enterprise in a politically unstable region. "It is something we are all aware of," he said.

Panic may also face conflict at home. Stockholders are rumored to be increasingly weary of his tight control over the company's board of directors. Panic is chairman and chief executive of holding company ICN, SPI and two other subsidiaries: ICN Biomedicals Inc. and Viretek Inc.

One ICN shareholder said Tuesday that he is not happy to see Panic return to his Costa Mesa office and suggested that there may be a power struggle.

Besides, "he's grossly overpaid," said Seth M. Glickenhaus, a senior partner at investment firm Glickenhaus & Co. in New York.

Panic, who received $6 million in salary and other executive compensation last year, said that he would welcome a challenge and that his experience in Yugoslavia has tempered him sufficiently to do battle in the corporate arena.

"I call them war profiteers," Panic said of those who might challenge him at ICN. "But I am an old fighter."

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