Updated with new information below.
Activist investor Alex Denner is about to get another ally on Ariad Pharmaceuticals' (ARNA) board of directors, which could mean CEO Harvey Berger is one step closer to the exit.
In an 8-K filing last night, Ariad said Robert Whelan Jr., a director since 2010, is leaving the board on Oct. 1. Whelan's replacement, when he (or she) is named, must be acceptable to Denner under the terms of a settlement agreement reached last February between Ariad and Denner's Sarissa Capital hedge fund. [That agreement placed Denner on Ariad's board as well.]
Denner bought a sizable stake in the troubled Ariad last year and quietly agitated for change. Whelan is a Berger loyalist, so his departure means Denner will soon have another ally on the company's board. Last month, Ariad's board rebuffed an effort by Denner to increase his ownership stake in the company. Denner doesn't talk about his plans for Ariad publicly, but I'm told by people close to him that he's been frustrated by the board's intransigence and blind loyalty to Berger. It will be very interesting to see who takes Whelan's board seat and what happens next.
Berger may still have a majority of the Ariad board behind him but with another director in his camp, Denner may start to apply more pressure to accelerate significant changes at the company. One of those changes might be a new CEO.
Update: Late Friday, an Ariad spokesperson emailed to say that the replacement for Whelan's board seat was not subject to specific approval by Alex Denner. "Of course, the board takes into account the views of all directors in making decisions regarding selection of board members," she added.
However, a new, additional director will be named to Ariad's board, and Denner has approval power of this seat.