Published 21 December 2020 by Audra Walton
We all like Lunch with the FT— candid interviews with some of the world’s most topical people in a truly winning format: conversation over a meal. In fact, at CMi2i we love Lunch with the FT so much that we have developed our own version of it: Breakfast with CMi2i.
Our first breakfast is with Oliver Maier, the
Head of IR at Bayer and the President of the German Investor Relations Association. Oliver Maier has seen economic highs and lows, corporate challenges, litigation nightmares and now a worldwide pandemic through his unique and experienced lens. Here he tells us what to expect in 2021 but more importantly, what needs to happen in the years beyond.
Oliver - home office in Germany
CMi2i interviewer - London office, Garlick Street
Oliver – black coffee and bircher muesli
CMi2i – flat white and porridge from Pret
Tell us a bit about your career.
I started in investment banking as a sell-side analyst. Then the CEO of Fresenius Medical Care asked if I would come run IR & Corporate Comms after I covered their IPO. It was a fantastic position as I had lots of responsibility and could really drive change.
I have found that there are two types of companies: 1) those that have just recently had their IPO and haven’t had time to build structures, and 2) older companies that are very structured where there are lots of processes already in place. Fresenius was the first type. Everyone had to drive things forward and be accountable for their part. Bayer, where I am now, is the second type of company, which has a different set of challenges.
I wondered what he meant by that, and perhaps from my facial expression, he continues.
Bayer had a 160-year history when I joined, and it is a challenge for anyone coming into that to understand the complex matrix of existing policies and methods. Trying to change the complex to something simpler can hit lots of hurdles. You can offend people by trying to change their way of doing something, but ultimately you need to say it how it is. I like to see the positive side of change and that is a big part of my approach to work. See the positive side of things, and then deliver a way to get there.
And you are also the President of the German IR society?
Yes, four years ago I accepted the role as President of the German IR society after having been part of the management for years. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough to do (laughs), but I feel it is important to support the next generation. Luckily, my CEO was happy for me to accept the role as he too thinks it is important.
Investor Relations teams often have to deal with a great deal of corporate politics. What would you say is the best way to navigate this?
Always say what you believe is right, without thinking about politics. For me, I have found that it is best to try to remain as independent as possible and say what you need to say. It is easy to be a whisperer in the background, playing it safe, and remaining out of the line of fire. But if you are willing and able to say the things you need to say without fear of being criticised, then I think you will find management is appreciative.
Also, ask questions. Take the focus off the politics and back to what is important. A lot of big companies have lost agility, they are slow to move, slow to change… and things like politics only exasperate that. If the answer to your question is “Because we have always done it that way,” challenge it. IR teams, like all teams, must constantly reflect on what they are doing.
Based on what you have heard from other investor relations professionals, and your view of the market, what do you think the biggest challenges for IROs are in 2021?
Governance and COVID-19 are the first things that come to mind. And the severity of those issues is going to depend on what sector you are in. For instance, some businesses are doing well at the moment, despite the crisis. The consumer health business of Bayer for example has actually seen a benefit from providing much needed nutritionals, while the pharma and crop side has been negatively affected by currency and some transitory diminished demand. The pandemic and ensuing economic turmoil have forced people think outside the box. It has challenged IR teams to think about unpredictable events like this. It has put the spotlight on societal performance, and communicating that performance in a way that focuses on the quality of what you are doing, not just the numbers. We talk a lot about transparency when it comes to governance, but what has happened is, we have increased the quantity of information, not the quality—which doesn’t actually make things more transparent at all.
For example, look at ESG – this is in many ways just doing a box ticking exercise, whereas it should be embedded into corporate culture. What can you do to support the environment, customers and stakeholders? What can you do to improve that support? Bayer did a tremendous job dealing with the pandemic from this perspective, and that was a reflection of our culture as much as it was the nature of our business. But there is a challenge in terms of seeing that acknowledged by the markets—we not only need to do a better job at ESG, but we need the markets to recognize and reward the companies that do.
The second challenge that comes to mind is financing. The pandemic will make ratings agents more sensitive. It probably goes without saying, but one of the most critical challenges IR teams will face in the next year will be helping to ensure companies are able to maintain the historical levels of liquidity they require.
CMi2i recently did research on activist investors that showed, on average, companies had an additional two activist funds investing that had not made their investment public. How worried do you think companies should be about shareholder activists in the current climate?
Everyone should be ready for activists. Do you have an activist defence team? Do you have a playbook? These are definitely questions you should ask, particularly if you do not have good performance. This tends to attract short-term money, which can come in the form of activists. You really need to run the IR and M&A teams as if an activist could come any day. Also, listen to your owners. You may not always agree with everything the say, but really hearing their perspective and keeping an open dialogue is very important.
From your experience in 2008/2009 and this year, what are your top tips for handling a crisis when management is under pressure and investors are looking for information?
The true test of good IR is whether you communicate even better in tough times than in normal times. It is easy to communicate in normal times, particularly if you are good at managing expectations. But in tough times, that is when the truly skilled IRO stands out. Whether it is litigation, or a profit warning, you need to be able to frame things in a way that is honest but gives context. It is the context that is critical, but you are likely going to have to stick your head out.
Any last thoughts? I think we are both out of coffee!
I said this earlier, but I will say it again. Things need to be made simpler in the world of IR, investment and corporate governance. ESG is the best example of how not to do this. There are 60 different standards for ESG. We have made it so complicated to understand the equity story—every time there is a new standard, we find ourselves needing to address and meet it. It takes us away from focusing on the things that really matter. We need KPIs that are externally manged and universal. Maybe KPIs for each different sector—focusing on the 2 or 3 important things, not 60 changing metrics.
Also, companies need to have the discipline and guts to focus on long-term value creation. You may miss out on some short-term money, but what you build will be lasting for all stakeholders.
Contact Oliver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Audra Walton
CMi2i, the world’s leading forensic capital markets intelligence firm, specialises in the world’s most accurate Equity & Debtholder identification service and supports issuers and their advisors with investor relations, M&A, virtual AGMs/EGMs, shareholder activism, capital restructuring and reputation management goals. The company has supported more than 1000 corporate transactions, and has over 500 clients worldwide.