The Interview: Liam Condon Chief Executive Bayer Healthcare Germany
Liam Condon has come a long way from his humble origins in the German-Irish Chamber of Commerce to his rise to prominence with the German healthcare giant. By Thomas Molloy
Published 14/07/2011 | 05:00
BACK in 1986, an 18-year-old Liam Condon walked around Fitzwilliam Square knocking on doors and looking for a summer job. After several days, he got two offers; post boy in an advertising agency and an assistant in the German-Irish Chamber of Commerce. He chose the latter, developed an interest in Germany and his life changed forever.
Today, the Dubliner lives near Dusseldorf and runs the German division of Bayer's healthcare division which has sales of €1.5bn and sells products such as Aspirin, which was invented by Bayer more than a century ago, along with everything from machines to measure blood-sugar levels in diabetics to the blockbuster MS treatment Betaferon.
Condon is an oddity in German corporate life; a foreigner who speaks German like a native and heads the domestic division of one of the country's national treasures. He is perhaps the mirror image of Christoph Mueller, the German chief executive of Aer Lingus.
The son of a gravestone carver from the Navan Road in Dublin, he credits his ability to smash through the glass ceiling that prevents foreigners worldwide from rising to the top to his knowledge of China.
Condon's big break came when Bayer acquired the much smaller rival Schering in 2006 while the Irishman was running Schering's operations in China. He assumed Bayer would want to put its own people in charge and told his German wife to prepare to return home.
Instead, Bayer used an outside agency to interview officials at every level in the organisation to determine which Bayer and which Schering executives were doing the better job. When it came to China, they chose Condon.
"The process was almost scientific, very German, very structured," he remembers.
Despite this success, he was soon eager to return home to Germany where he has lived on and off since finishing his studies in international business, French and German in DCU. Condon has a straightforward take on how to get ahead in big companies; tell them what you want to do next.
"You need to say very clearly where you want to go. Don't let your bosses take the decisions for you."
To make sure this happens, you need to identify who can make decisions, "talk about concrete steps and then keep following up. People tend to be vague but a big company will only do it if you prod them."
A marathon runner who recently ran 100km in just over eight hours in a race in Japan, Condon believes it is vital to keep challenging yourself to move out of your comfort zone. It is only by doing this that one can learn, he believes.
It was this belief that led him to apply for a scholarship to study at Berlin's prestigious Technical University during his studies, which then led him to Schering. It was the same belief that saw him apply for a post in China and the same philosophy which encouraged him to run 50km and then 75km and 100km after completing his first marathon.
Condon is clearly very well settled in Germany but his working hours are still more Irish than German. He starts around 8.30am and tries to finish at around 7.30pm to see his two sons before they head for bed. "It would be easy to work 15 to 16 hours a day but it would be inefficient," he says. "It's very important to get the work-life balance right."
Looking at Ireland from outside the country, Condon is clearly saddened by what is happening here but can take the long view at times.
Following Moody's decision on Tuesday night to downgrade Ireland's bonds to junk status, he was reminded of an old friend from China who he knew from his posting there. The Chinaman used to say, "It looks like the sky is falling down, but tomorrow the sky will still be there, life will go on."
Condon is cautious about making comparisons between German and Irish working habits but he does see clear differences.
"Germans are always very strategic in their thinking," he says. "The tendency in Ireland is to go for the quick gain and ignore the long-term costs."
Another difference he detects is that Germans tend to be "very firm about getting signatures" at the end of negotiations and firm conclusions at the end of meetings. "The Irish are great at soft skills," he adds, but don't always focus on ending talks with a solid deal.
On a day-to-day basis, Condon believes he has three duties. The first is to ensure that people working for him understand how Bayer's global strategy affects what they do on the ground.
"I break it down into something people understand," he explains.
This helps with prioritisation and lets every worker know what they should be working on. His second duty is people development.
Condon selects junior employees with high leadership qualities and sends them to assessment centres with other high-potential candidates where they are offered tailored training to overcome weaknesses and improve strengths.
The rest of his time is spent staying close to the customer by attending medical conferences, talking to politicians and other policy formers as well as keeping in touch with customers. Last Friday, he was among a small group of business leaders who had dinner with Eamon Gilmore when the foreign minister visited Berlin.
What happens next to the businessman in his early-40s remains to be seen but judged by his career so far, and his appetite for picking new challenges once he has mastered a task, it seems likely that the long-distance runner has some way to go.