Four decades later, as chief executive of Bayer, he presides over Germany’s biggest company by market capitalization (€90bn), as well as sitting on the board of General Electric, the company where he started out as a research scientist.
The 58-year-old is credited with transforming Bayer from a stodgy chemicals conglomerate into a more focused life sciences group. The latest step came this month with the initial public offering of its Covestro plastics division in the biggest German flotation for years. The IPO turned out to be the financial equivalent of a weak second serve as turbulent market conditions forced Bayer to cut the issue price. But there have been plenty of aces since Mr. Dekkers took over in 2010; the share price has more than doubled in response to steady growth and a series of successful drug launches.
So why, in an era when many chief executives work long into their sixties, is he preparing to quit? An initial five-year contract has been extended by Bayer’s board only until the end of 2016 at the request of Mr. Dekkers. He says this was because his children – he has three daughters – will be moving from school in Germany to college in the US. “I need flexibility to spend more time in the US and not have to be at a meeting here on Monday morning that I cannot miss.”
Willowy in stature with a shock of sandy hair, he does not look ready for retirement. But he insists there are no plans for another CEO job; instead he will put family first after a succession of taxing C-suite roles. Likening the pressures of executive life to that of an elite athlete, he says the fainting of his BMW counterpart, Harald Krüger, during a press call at the Frankfurt motor show last month, demonstrated the need for business leaders to protect their health.
“I’m very aware of the strain and stresses on my body, both physically and mentally, and put a lot of measures in place to manage that,” he says. “I know from my tennis days what it is to manage your energy. On the day of a match you need to peak at, say, 2pm not 5pm.”
< The tabular content relating to this article is not available to view. Apologies in advance for the inconvenience caused.>
Mr. Dekkers witnessed the genesis of the modern, super-CEO at close quarters in the 1980s when he made the transition from laboratory science to management with GE, during the early days of then CEO Jack Welch’s hard-charging leadership. Relatively junior at the time, he had little direct contact with the man who became famous for firing the worst-performing 10 per cent of managers each year. But he recalls: “The company had 350,000 employees and everybody felt they were close to Jack because we would all be very aware of his presence.”
Having survived the annual purges for a decade, Mr. Dekkers eventually moved to Honeywell and later built Thermo Fisher Scientific into the world’s largest manufacturer of laboratory equipment during eight years as chief executive.
Despite this pedigree, his move across the Atlantic in 2010 was a surprise. Bayer had always been run by Germans promoted from within the company. “When I arrived, people thought I was American so when I started talking German with a Dutch accent people were a bit relieved,” he says, hinting at local mistrust of shareholder-driven US business culture.
The recent scandal over Volkswagen’s rigging of emissions data has called into doubt the virtues of German corporate governance. Bayer, too, has faced environmental questions over the impact of its insecticides on declining honey bee populations, as well as the myriad ethical controversies that swirl around big pharma.
Yet Mr. Dekkers insists the German model of consensual labor relations and strong industrial policy remains a force for good. “I prefer this culture, particularly if you are running a company with a very long time frame,” he says. “In the [US] culture, pressure comes too quickly if something doesn’t go well. People start knocking on your door saying, ‘Why don’t you sell this’ or ‘I want to be on your board as an activist’.”
But he admits to missing the greater dynamism of US business life and complains of European sniffiness about entrepreneurship. “I lived in Boston and every professor was involved in three start-ups,” he says. “If a professor gets rich through a start-up in Boston everybody admires him or her; here, people are suspicious.”
At Bayer, he found a 150-year-old company with promising new drugs such as Xarelto blood thinner – known generically as rivaroxaban – but weighed down by slower-growing legacy assets. The Covestro IPO marked the completion of an overhaul that has left four remaining businesses: pharmaceuticals, consumer healthcare, animal health and crop science.
There is still wide diversity in products ranging from pesticides and flea collars to cancer medicines and the company’s oldest brand: aspirin. But they do all involve an intervention of one kind or another in the biochemical processes of living species, whether they be plants, animals or humans. This, says Mr. Dekkers, positions the group to focus on high-value scientific innovation to meet rising global demand for healthcare and food.
“This is an unprecedented time,” he says, referring to the wave of medical breakthroughs created by advances in genomic science. “It’s like opening your eyes in the morning and seeing things you never saw before.”
He recalls working for Thermo Electron, the predecessor to Thermo Fisher, 15 years ago when it developed a machine that took a full year to sequence the structure of a protein. Today, the same process can be carried out in 20 seconds.
This is greatly accelerating the pace of research, but the data deluge also poses challenges for business leaders in all sectors, he says. “The faster the world moves [the more important is] your ability to absorb things. You get all this information and somehow you have to synthesis it and set the direction.”
Shifting the strategy of a company steeped in German industrial heritage has not always been easy. Bayer remains deeply rooted in its home town of Leverkusen in the manufacturing belt of North Rhine-Westphalia. Its ownership of the local Bundesliga football team, Bayer Leverkusen, symbolizes these ties.
Mr. Dekkers says he has tried to preserve the best of German culture while encouraging a more entrepreneurial spirit. He likens the process of bringing change to big companies to stretching a rubber band. “You can stretch it, but when does it snap? [If] you force people along at a faster pace than they are capable of . . . you end up out there on your own and no one knows what you are talking about.”
As Mr. Dekkers looks forward to spending more time with his family and his tennis racket from the end of next year, he is perhaps also showing that healthy limits can be placed on how long chief executives should expose themselves to the torrid pace of running a multinational company.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015
By Andrew Ward, Source: FT.com
(c) 2015 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not cut and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.