Rolf Stahel, Norwood Immunology chairman: Shire's fallen hero is back with a vengeance

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The Independent Online

Few people will be more pleased about Rolf Stahel's return to the stock market this week than the drug industry veteran's wife, Ewa. Since his enforced departure from Shire Pharmaceuticals 15 months ago, she has been keen on his securing a new day job. "I married you for better or for worse", she has reminded him. "But not for lunch."

Few people will be more pleased about Rolf Stahel's return to the stock market this week than the drug industry veteran's wife, Ewa. Since his enforced departure from Shire Pharmaceuticals 15 months ago, she has been keen on his securing a new day job. "I married you for better or for worse", she has reminded him. "But not for lunch."

The flotation this week of Norwood Immunology has finally got Mr Stahel out of the house. It is one of two biotech companies that he has joined as non-executive chairman, with a brief to pass on his experience of building Shire Pharmaceuticals from humble beginnings into a FTSE 100 stalwart worth almost £6bn at its peak in 2001.

Norwood, which promises a treatment to "reboot" the body's immune system and help fight cancer, raised £6m and began trading on AIM on Wednesday. The other company, Newron, is a private Italian company, developing medicines for epilepsy and Parkinson's. "What these young companies are looking for, and what I am happy to give, is advice on how to make much bigger companies," Mr Stahel says.

This "going plural" was not Plan A when he walked away from Shire last February, having been told the previous October its North American-dominated board wanted him out as soon as a successor could be found.

Plan A was, perhaps fittingly for a man who, at 19, was Switzerland's junior champion at the 1,500m, to cover a lot of distance in a short space of time. He hoped to find a well-established pharmaceuticals company to join as chief executive, making swift moves to improve the product offering and bulking up through acquisition, and retiring in five years on the proceeds of shares that had hopefully improved dramatically in value. Talks with several companies are said to have floundered, in part over how to structure Mr Stahel's incentive schemes.

"I was attacked with an enormous amount of e-mails asking me to join boards as a non-executive, but I rejected those for nearly a year. Eventually sanity crept in. I had to make a decision, having built a company through great pain and effort over nine years, on whether at the age of 60 I could do that again. In the end I said, 'Look at your age. Do you want the same stress levels again?'"

Shire was built through a string of acquisitions, including one canny deal which brought in a drug called Adderall, an amphetamine for treating hyperactive children which has fought off copycat competitors and is still the market leader in the US. Mr Stahel had previously spent 27 years at Wellcome, the UK drugs giant now part of GlaxoSmithKline, in a globetrotting career that saw him rise to become group marketing director.

In looking for his latest berth, Mr Stahel limited the pool of potential companies by refusing to relocate across the Atlantic. "My wife had told me, 'Do what you want but don't make me move again'. I had made her move 10 times in 30 years.

"There are two markets in the world where you can build a company with relative ease. One is the US, which has 54 per cent share of the world pharmaceuticals market by sales, and where the whole system is close to perfect. The money for venture capital is there, the merchant banking and the analyst support is there. And there is enormous talent in all the fields across the industry so you have a beautiful choice of people. But the second best market is the UK."

This reluctance to move sheds much light on the still murky details of the boardroom coup at Shire. It unseated a chief executive who was respected in the City and loved by his staff, whose leaving present was a 10-minute video set to Tina Turner's Simply The Best, with tributes from employees past and present. If investors and staff were bewildered, Mr Stahel says, "join the club".

But we then discuss the recent departure from the board of Wilson Totten, Shire's long-standing research and development director, who cited family reasons for his decision not to relocate to the US as requested. Matt Emmens, the American chief executive who replaced Mr Stahel, said initially he would spend most of his time at Shire's Basingstoke headquarters, but has in fact not moved over.

Mr Stahel says: "You can tell simply from looking at its website that the company has moved to the US and, in my view, it is a shame. I always argued that we had such a good management team in the US that me going over there and looking over their shoulder was not going to help. Why the hell would I want to interfere? Anyway, it has to be balanced against the disruption that such a change would cause, with people worrying about losing their jobs."

Despite the falling out, Mr Stahel pocketed a £4.3m ex gratia payment into his pension. The issue prompted almost half of Shire's shareholders to reject that company's remuneration report and put Mr Stahel at number one in The Independent's "Fatse 100" of executive pay.

The controversial remuneration report included other disputed elements of the continuing management's pay, Mr Stahel says, while his pension top-up was fair, not extravagant. "I started at Shire on an annual salary of £120,000 and a 10 per cent contribution to a non-final salary pension. Nobody ever looked at that. I didn't because I didn't have time, and nor did the remuneration committee. It was only when we had discussions about my leaving that I asked, 'How the hell am I going to live?' Going from an income of £1.3m to £90,000 is landing with a bump. The company said I had created it from basically nothing, the existing pension was totally out of order, and asked what they should have done all along."

There is still plenty of time for Norwood shares to become a second major pension. Mr Stahel has 5 million share options exercisable at the flotation price, and gets a further 1 million options, also exercisable at the float price, if the shares rise 150 per cent. That looks possible after the float price was scaled back to get the deal away. Mr Stahel says that initial share price is irrelevant and he is playing, if not a long-term game, at least a medium-term one. His horizon is fixed firmly five years hence. "At 65, I will stop and re-check. But I could keep my non-executive posts if my health is in good order and I still feel I have got the energy and if people still want me."

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