Bayer has started making practical moves towards combining its business with Monsanto’s ahead of the completed merger, which it expects will close by the end of the quarter.
Last week the German company announced the executive leadership team of the new combined crop science team with five out of the 10 positions announced coming from Monsanto.
With this merger, Bayer is taking on some of the most controversial issues in agriculture and absorbing a company that has battled an overwhelmingly negative reputation, ranking in the bottom five of the Harris Poll’s Corporate Reputation Quotient since 2014 along with Haliburton, Wells Fargo, and 2018 new addition, The Weinstein Company.
From the safety of GMO foods to the ubiquity and safety of the company’s flagship herbicide glyphosate — which is again in the news even today — to the newest tangle of lawsuits regarding anther controversial herbicide Dicamba, Bayer is wading into some very hot water.
And though some see the merger as tarnishing Bayer by association, including Bayer employees reportedly, others see it as an opportunity for Monsanto to step away from a name mired in controversy and start afresh.
However, the list of executives moving from Monsanto to Bayer reveals which Monsanto voices Bayer has decided to hold on to and suggests a complete overhaul is not in the cards.
While Monsanto’s best-known leaders are not present in the line-up — Monsanto’s CEO Hugh Grant and Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer are both stepping down — Bayer is keeping others from Monsanto’s leadership signalling some continuity.
Brett Begemann, president and chief operating officer at Monsanto, will become head of commercial operations, and Jesus Madrazo, head of global supply chain and commercial operations at Monsanto, will be head of agricultural affairs and sustainability in a team led by Liam Condon, president of Bayer Crop Science. (Read our recent interview with Condon here.)
From a public perception point of view, keeping Grant and Fraley away from the new division’s executive could be a clever move. Both of them are widely credited with the rise of modern genetically modified crops (GMOs); Fraley helped to invent the first GMO seeds and has been with Monsanto for more than 30 years, in which he became the public face of Monsanto’s science; a hero to those in favor and a villain to those against.
However, Begemann and Madrazo are both also public proponents and defenders of Monsanto’s scientific achievements, many of which have been controversial with consumers and farmers.
Both Madrazo and Begemann rose to their current positions at Monsanto in 2013 when the company reportedly woke up to the fact that it had largely lost the public’s trust. That same year, an estimated two million people marched against Monsanto in 400 cities around the world.
“We haven’t spent nearly the time we have needed to on talking to consumers and talking to social media and really intercepting this” opposition to biotechnology, said Fraley in 2013, as reported by Politico.
Begemann has since been a major part of what several media outlets have called Monsanto’s “charm offensive,” to mixed results.
A 2014 Wall Street Journal editorial called him “Mr. Frankenfood,” – though the name was presented somewhat sarcastically – as he called arguments against GMOs “emotional” and stoked by “outright myths.” But the editorial also highlighted his desire for safe food, motivated by his family, and a need to “have a dialogue” with GMO opponents.
“I wish we had started sooner,” he said to WSJ regarding communicating with the public and echoing Fraley’s comments in 2013. ”We were focused on our farmers.”
He later spoke on stage at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival defending the company: “The overwhelming scientific consensus supported by every health organization in the world that has studied it … agree with the overwhelming position that these products are just as safe and nutritionally equivalent to any conventionally grown.”
Madrazo has also been a major part of Monsanto’s attempted makeover since 2013.
He has been with the company for nearly twenty years, joining in 1999 as legal director of Latin America North. The Mexico native has been vice president of corporate communications since 2013.
Madrazo has been visible mainly to audiences outside of the US and in the Spanish-language press as vice president for global commercial and supply chain and commercial operations.
He told the Wall Street Journal in 2013, “We’ve seen really clearly that when we have the opportunity to talk with people about the work we do, people can begin to understand the value of modern agriculture… A small number of people may never be interested in having a dialogue.”
Bringing Madrazo, responsible for sustainability along with Dr. Robert Reiter from Monsanto, who will be head of research and development for the new Bayer Crop Science, means that overall operations, sustainability and new technology will all be symbolically and literally in the hands of Monsanto alums.
Monsanto’s work in the field of GMO seeds has been much less controversial with farmers than consumers on the whole. But a more recent issue has put the company at odds with some of its customers since it began selling corn soybean seeds resistant to a powerful pesticide called Dicamba in 2017. Through what some farmers say is malfeasance and what Monsanto says is improper use, Dicamba drift has allegedly damaged surrounding nonresistant crops. The controversy is centered around Arkansas, but Dicamba-related crop damage has been reported in a dozen states.
Vice president of global strategy Scott Partridge has been the leading voice from Monsanto on the subject of Dicamba, but Begemann has also made public statements defending the substance and the resistant seeds that go along with it. Partridge’s post-merger fate has yet to be announced.
“The vast majority of growers had a positive experience with the system, and we are hearing from many who have a desire to significantly increase their on-farm use in the coming year,” Begemann said on Monsanto’s 2017 Q4 conference call as reported by CropLife. Begemann continued, “For those who did not, we remain dedicated to improving their experience with the system, and we are actively developing plans to reinforce and expand our training and grower education efforts across the country.”
In addition to recently inviting stakeholders to discuss pressing issues, Bayer, through Condon, has indicated that it is aware the merger presents an opportunity to reset public opinion about controversial technologies like GMOs and Dicamba. But the team they’ve chosen to lead the fight may be Monsanto 2.0 (the 2013 reboot), but they are not fresh faces, nor baggage-free.
Particularly, the public debates around the proliferation of GMOs and the risks and problems associated with Dicamba are about to be adopted by Bayer and the executives joining Bayer from Monsanto have clear statements on both that Bayer seems to be signing up to defend.
The question remains, with pressing new technologies, such as gene-editing, to sell to both farmers and the public, is the new entity’s ability to build trust with its stakeholders going to be affected by the people it has chosen to tell the story?
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Other post-merger executive announcements include:
- Dr. Michael Stern will become head of digital farming and the Climate Corporation after serving as chief executive officer of Climate for more than three years, and working for Monsanto since 2007. Stern will be based in St. Louis.
- Dr. Robert Reiter will be head of research and development after serving as technology integration planning Lead at Monsanto and 20 years at the company. He will be based in Monheim, Germany.
- Also to be based in Monheim, James Swanson will become crop science chief information officer and head of IT digital transformation. He currently serves as chief information officer at Monsanto.
- Frank Terhorst will become head of crop strategy and portfolio management. Currently, he is responsible for re-merger planning within Bayer’s crop science division. Terhorst will be based in St. Louis.
Dr. Dirk Backhaus will serve as the head of product supply. He currently holds the same position within Bayer’s Crop Science Division. He will be based in Monheim.
- Gabriele Oehlschlaeger will serve as Head of human resources. Currently, she is responsible for talent management within Bayer’s human resources and organization. She will be based in Monheim.
Michael Schulz will become chief financial officer crop science and head of finance. He is currently responsible for finance for Bayer’s crop science division and will be based in St. Louis.
- Dr. Lars Benecke will become head of law, patents and compliance. He currently holds the same position within Bayer’s crop science division and will be based in Monheim.
- Martin Dawkins will become head of post-merger integration. Currently, he is responsible for post-merger integration within Bayer’s crop science division. Dawkins will be based in Monheim.