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Oct 02, 2018

Spotlight on a top IRO: Karl Mahler, Roche

This article was produced by ELITE Connect and originally published on the ELITE Connect platform

Nominated for best investor relations officer (large cap) at this year’s IR Magazine Awards – Europe, Karl Mahler, head of investor relations at Roche, joins us to give an overview of his career so far and an insight into his views on the IR profession.

Can you please give a brief overview of your career history to date? 

I started my professional career at Ciba-Geigy in Switzerland [which became Novartis through a merger with Sandoz in the 1990s] as head of investment and strategic planning worldwide in 1987. During this time, I founded a cancer research hospital in Germany, the Tumor Biology Center Freiburg, in 1991-1992. 

In 1994-1995, I accepted a position as general manager for China with Ciba-Geigy in Shanghai, where I ran one of the first joint ventures in China (the production and marketing of anti-infectives). This was followed by additional leadership roles in China and I continued my work as a general manager based in Beijing, leading another joint venture with antihistamine and oncology medicines for Aventis. 

Before I joined Roche, I was deputy investor relations head for Aventis in Strasbourg. In summary, I was always ‘switching’ my roles between finance and pharma operations before I ended up in IR.

What first attracted you to a career in IR? 

Actually, I ended up in IR by accident. As you can see from my earlier remarks, I always moved between business and finance roles, and investor relations is the perfect bridge between them. This is because a strong finance background and a deep business knowledge are necessary for the role of IR.

What are the main changes you’ve seen over the course of your career?

Clearly, the market has become more regulated, with governance and transparency greatly increased. This has been good as it has removed some of the unnecessary volatility from the market. Also, the sell side has become more constrained, while the buy side has increased its knowledge base dramatically. This has resulted in more work for us, as you simply have more buy-siders than sell-siders in the market place. As a result, contact with the market has become more direct. 

What has been the highlight of your IR career to date? 

The closing of the Genentech deal [in 2009]. We had to raise more than $40 bn in the middle of the Lehman crisis, at a time when no one believed we could achieve it – we didn’t even have a credit rating! The deal is still the largest cash transaction so far, to the best of my knowledge. 

The financing itself plus the transfer of shares and all the other related activities opened up a whole new dimension and range of challenges to the company, as we in Roche were not used to such large deals. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

What are the main issues on your agenda and horizon at the moment? 

Generally speaking, volatility continues to increase. On the one side, liquidity in the markets is continuously rising, while we do not see the same growth in the real economy going against it. The question is: how long will that last? For investors that does not make decisions easier, as there are also low interest rates, trade complications and currency volatility to consider. On top of that, every company has its own risks and opportunities. It is up to us to explain the underlying strengths and risks of the particular business case.

What advice would you give to anyone seeking a career in IR?

I believe a good IR person needs excellent business knowledge, because without that understanding of your company sales and market environment, profit and loss and cash flow is hard to understand. My suggestion would always be to begin your IR career journey outside of IR to gather the knowledge and experience that will help you succeed.

What do you enjoy most about working in IR? 

The people: the market is somewhere with a lot of smart people. And no day is like any other – there is always something new to learn and act on.

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