Meet the Dubliner behind the $66 billion Bayer-Monsanto merger
Head of Bayer crop sciences sees merger as key to long-term food security strategy
Liam Condon, head of Bayer AG’s crop science division: “GM acceptance in Europe is exceptionally low and . . . it’s something we have to accept.”
After a lengthy corporate courtship, the all-cash bid accepted by Monsanto – the largest in German business history – will create a new giant in the agribusiness sector and, Bayer hopes, give it a crucial lead in the struggle to feed a growing population in a world with limited resources.
As president of Bayer’s agribusiness crop science division, Condon knows the deal he helped put together is far from done. It will face close scrutiny from around 30 regulators worldwide, from markets, agriculture lobby groups and farmers. A taste of what is to come was an instant, negative response from environmental groups, which regularly accuse Bayer and Monsanto of putting corporate concerns before environmental responsibility.
With the ink not yet dry, Condon will be a key figure in sealing the deal.
“This is an ultra marathon and, in reality, we are just over the starting line on this one, not at the finishing line,” says the 48-year-old executive. “This is the start of a long journey for us, but I’ve run ultra marathons, so I know how this feels.”
Rise through the ranks
Pacing has been a key to Condon’s decade-long rise through the ranks of Bayer, one of Germany’s most iconic companies, as it has sought to globalise its business.
He joined Bayer, the inventor of aspirin, in 2006, when it swallowed his employer at the time, the Berlin pharmaceutical company Schering. After that takeover, Condon was sure he would be surplus to requirements. Instead, the multilingual DCU marketing and languages graduate has risen steadily through the ranks in the intervening decade.
After spells working for Schering and Bayer in Japan and China (speaking Japanese and Mandarin), he was appointed head of Bayer HealthCare in Germany in 2010, a key pillar of the empire which sells everything from aspirin to diabetes medication. It was a well-timed promotion, coming just as Bayer appointed its first non-German chief executive since the company’s foundation in 1863.
And Condon has kept moving. This year he was appointed to the Bayer board and also heads Bayer Crop Science, the division that is poised to swallow Monsanto.
Bayer had been pursuing the US company since May, when it made an initial bid of $122 per share, valuing Monsanto at $62 billion. The US company rejected that bid but, after itself trying and failing last year to take over Swiss rival Syngenta, Monsanto managers said they were open to further talks.
Two further offers were made and rebuffed until Bayer upped its share offer, along with a $2 billion “break” clause for the US group in case the deal is halted by regulators.
It’s a lot of money but Bayer executives are confident the deal will go through.
Monsanto chief executive Hugh Grant told investors it was a “clean deal”. For Bayer chief executive Werner Baumann it is a “fantastic combination for modern agriculture”, creating a one-stop shop that marries Bayer’s power in the pesticide market with Monsanto’s pesticide- and insect-resistant seeds.
When executives face regulators around the world, they will argue that the merging businesses operate in different fields and in different geographical markets: Monsanto in the Americas, Bayer in Europe and Asia.
“Regulators are usually looking for overlap that would hinder competition and for anything that could lower innovation,” says Condon. “But we have done extensive analysis, as has Monsanto . . . and see a high complementarity of portfolios.”
Bayer is hopeful the deal can go through next year because, in Condon’s view, there isn’t any time to waste. At seven billion, the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, with about 60 million additional mouths to feed so far this year.
But the Earth isn’t growing any larger and its resources are growing more limited, particularly as climate change kicks in. With the United Nations predicting a global population of 10 billion by 2050, how to make more food with fewer resources is crucial for the survival of the planet, Condon says, and it is core to Bayer’s corporate mission.
“The challenge is that there is no sense of urgency for many people, particularly in Europe, but we have a sense of urgency because we take a long-term view,” he says of his chosen field, where products take years to develop and test before they are market ready.
“There is a gap between the point of innovation and availability and we cannot wait for the tipping point where society says we need more innovation.”
Condon says a key challenge beyond sealing the deal will be explaining to the general public why pushing innovation in crop science and the growing digital farming sector is so important to tackle looming challenges coming over the horizon before they crash land in our everyday lives, at which point they will be too great to master.
Bayer and Monsanto executives say they have received encouraging feedback from regulatory agencies, but the market reaction to the proposed merger was more equivocal.
In Germany and elsewhere, investors suggested Bayer is paying over the odds. Bayer managers counter those concerns by arguing that – with combined sales of $23 billion in 2015 – synergy savings from the merger could see a boost of $1.5 billion to its underlying profit within three years.
Then there is the matter of timing. Bayer and Monsanto’s rivals in the $100 billion global seed and pesticide market are also teaming up to cut costs, prompting a former federal trade commission official to warn that Bayer and Monsanto had “chosen to do a deal in a year of merging dangerously”.
Farmer groups are concerned about what consolidation of two such massive companies will mean, given that in the United States alone they control almost 70 per cent of the cotton seed market, according to data from the Konkurrenz Group.
And in Monsanto Bayer is acquiring a company that, particularly in Europe and in Bayer’s German homeland, is what could euphemistically be described as a burdened brand thanks to products that include DDT and Agent Orange.
Founded in 1901, Monsanto, based in St Louis, Missouri, is a ubiquitous presence in US life where, three decades ago, it conducted the first field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops.
After a series of mergers, acquisitions and spin-offs, today’s Monsanto shares the name but only part of the history. It is an agrochemical-biotech giant that produces a quarter of the world’s seeds as well as Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide. In July, EU member states voted to restrict Roundup’s use by the bloc’s farmers for 18 months amid concerns that glyphosates cause cancer.
With Friends of the Earth dubbing the merger a “marriage made in hell”, how does Condon feel about effectively being the groom?
The Dubliner dismisses criticism of Monsanto in Europe as having “no correlation to the size of the business” here. “We are absolutely committed going forward to continuing with our foundational values as a company, with strong focus on sustainability, innovation and social responsibility,” he says.
Of course, Bayer’s chemicals business is no stranger to controversy, with long-running concerns that one of its own pesticides is harmful to certain bee populations – claims Bayer rejects. But, in consumer minds at least, if Bayer is aspirin and headache relief, is Monsanto simply a headache?
Condon says no decisions have been taken so far about the future of the Monsanto brand but says its product brands are “probably more important to grow customers”.
“When Monsanto was taking an approach to acquire Syngenta, they considered changing the name of the company, showing they are not married to the idea of holding the Monsanto company name at any cost,” he says. Syngenta eventually went to the state-owned China National Chemical Corp, but Monsanto might be ready to bury their name once inside the Bayer group. Regardless of the name game, Bayer has no plans to bury Monsanto’s products.
However, Condon admits he sees no way of tackling Europe’s huge resistance to GM seeds.
“GM acceptance in Europe is exceptionally low and, while we will argue for the technology, it’s something we have to accept,” he says. “We see no point in forcing anything; it would be stupid to do that.”
It’s clear that the Bayer manager sees Europe’s resistance to GM crops as Europe’s loss. He points to China’s recent five-year development plan, which has decided to encourage GM production – a massive opportunity for Bayer and Monsanto.
“They know it would be almost impossible to have food security in China without GMO, that is different to Europe,” he says. “China will be the more interesting market going forward.”
For the Irish manager, the Chinese appetite and openness to the promise of GM – and Bayer-Monsanto’s GM products – more than makes up for European scepticism.
“We won’t waste our time”, he says, trying to convince Europeans otherwise.
But the Irishman insists Bayer hasn’t given up on Europe altogether. With its bid for Monsanto, he sees tremendous possibilities for his German employer, but also for farmers to improve yields, optimise input costs and environmental sustainability footprint.
“Just increasing yields for the farmer is not enough; there has to be an advantage on return of investment,” he says. “Our value proposition otherwise won’t be compelling enough.”
Fine words for a marketing graduate but, jettisoning the management speak, what will this deal mean for a farmer in Co Cavan?
“Farmers will only pick a system or product where they can see clear advantages for themselves. It’s never about marketing or shiny packaging,” says Mr Condon. “Farmers need to see evidence and we will have to show that, otherwise they won’t choose us.”
After a punishing corporate circuit in the last few months, Bayer’s Irish marathon man has begun the race of his life. Bayer’s takeover of Monsanto will transform his division of the sprawling German company. Does he hope to remain head of the new entity if the deal goes through?
“We haven’t announced any personnel because, until now, the whole focus was getting deal done,” he says diplomatically . “In next weeks and months we will start to put together new management team.”
But does he want to lead that team, finishing the race he has begun?
“If I start a marathon,” he says, “I always want to finish.”
Name: Liam Condon
Position: Board member of Bayern AG and head of its crop science division, operating in 120 countries with a workforce of 21,000
Family: Married with two sons
Outside interests: marathons of all descriptions
Something you’d expect him to say: “The agriculture industry is at the heart of one of the greatest challenges of our time: how to feed an additional three billion people in the world by 2050 in an environmentally sustainable way.”
Something that might surprise: After moving to Japan in 1996, he first lived in a rural community with a host family where the mother was a beautician for the local geishas.