Howard Willard, chairman and CEO of tobacco giant Altria Group, has contracted coronavirus and is taking a temporary medical leave. He is the first chief executive of a major U.S. company publicly known to have been hit by the rapidly spreading virus.
Chief financial officer William Gifford is taking over the top job at the company during Willard’s absence. Gifford, a 20-year veteran of Altria, has served as vice chairman and finance chief since 2018.
The Marlboro cigarette maker announced on Thursday a two-week suspension of operations at its manufacturing center in Richmond, Va, where it’s subsidiary Philip Morris USA makes Marlboros, after a second employee tested positive for coronavirus. The company said that it will continue to pay employees at PM USA and Middleton, where it has also suspended operations, during the suspension period and will evaluate continuing pay beyond the timeframe as needed.
“We are committed to protecting the safety and well-being of our employees, contractors, their families and the communities where we operate,” Gifford said in a company statement. “We take the threat of COVID-19 seriously and have been actively implementing plans to minimize business disruptions and their potential impact to our employees, consumers and customers.”
Last week, BT Group, Britain’s largest telecommunications company, said that its chief executive, Philip Jansen, tested positive for coronavirus. The company said in a statement that Jansen’s symptoms were mild, and he would self-isolate while continuing to lead the company, working remotely.