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May 2018


Dr Franz Humer is a Swiss-Austrian businessman, who has spent most of his career in the pharmaceuticals industry. He joined Roche Group in 1995, rising to become CEO and later Chairman, leading it through its transformation into a global player. He would later hold Non-Executive Director positions with other international companies including drinks giant Diageo, Director of Citigroup and Kite Pharma. Humer lives between Zurich and the US, where his two children also reside.
At one point, you were CEO of Roche and Chairman of Diageo at the same time. How did you manage having not one, but two big jobs?

Yes, I went from drugs to drink... The strategy is always to plan your time well ahead, so you know where you are, when, and what you’re doing. That way you can focus on the strategy for the relevant job – and that means not just time efficiency, but mental efficiency too. I know what I’ll be doing for the next three months. I hate disorganisation. Even when I work at home, I like ordered stacks of paper. It is the only way of dealing with the diversity of challenges, people and companies. That still leaves room for surprises in life though. Two years ago, at the age of 70, I started scuba diving. And why not? Ok, so I knew eight months in advance that I was going scuba-diving.

Looking back, what’s been the most satisfying aspect of your career?

It was the shaping and developing of Roche into the leading global pharmaceuticals company in oncology, and second or third largest in the world. That was a unique experience. But it’s also been a question of what [in that position] you can do for patients. My first wife died of cancer and was treated using drugs that were developed in the 1950s or 60s. If she had contracted cancer 10 years later, and so could have had more advanced drugs, she might have lived. But innovating in pharmaceuticals isn’t easy. You need very good scientists – ‘the drug hunters’. And you need to give them as little bureaucracy as possible. You need to allow different teams to take different approaches and come up with different solutions, because there are very different ways of thinking about scientific development culture to culture. It all looks like economic inefficiency but it’s a necessary ingredient. Too many large corporations stifle creativity in business through exaggerated control and centralisation.

The pharmaceutical industry is not without its controversies, especially in relation to pricing. How do you defend that?

The fact is that research into drugs is extremely risky and extremely costly. At Roche, we spent some $10bn a year on research, and you can’t predict the timing or outcome of any of it. Some 80 percent of that expenditure resulted in failure. If you don’t make money on the successes, you can’t afford the research money. People generally just don’t realise the money and time – decades sometimes – that go into developing drugs. Certainly the industry has not been good at explaining the value that drugs bring to society and standards of living. It has been too diverted into discussing drug prices rather than innovation. The problem is that health is a very special good: everybody wants to live longer and have a better quality of life. There’s a notion that access to the best quality healthcare is a right. But it comes at a price.

You seem to be particularly excited by the innovation in the business.

I am. We’re on our way to understanding what is euphemistically called “big data”. We’re approaching a time when digitalisation will allow algorithms to look at biopsy slides and come up with a much better, faster assessment than an individual physician. In time, this will revolutionise treatment and drug development. We can collect data in sufficiently large amounts and link it to treatment such that it will start to become predictive. You’ll be able to anticipate when a cancer becomes resistant to a certain drug before it happens in the body, which will make the process of treatment that much more cost effective. It sounds totally futuristic, but in 20 or 30 years time we’ll look back at treatments and drug development today and say we didn’t know anything.

As CEO of Roche you were notable in resisting attempts by other pharmaceutical companies to enter into a merger. Why was that?

Mega-mergers between large companies tend to set research back by years because they destroy the infrastructure you’ve established. Roche, as a family company, didn’t have to think in terms of half-yearly results but could take a much longer term view. It didn’t have to plan to chase a quick buck. In family companies too there’s a different sense of having roots, of a homeland, and I feel every innovative company needs that or it loses its spirit. It’s a living organism and has to change with the times. But I’m always opposed to those companies that move around the world to save on taxes. That way you become a vagabond.

Your philanthropic work focuses on being chairman of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children ( That must be a dark business.

It is a dark business, but it’s an important subject. People don’t want to admit that child pornography and molestation exists. But look closer and you find that it’s as widespread in developed nations as it is in developing ones. It’s the same behaviour. We’re working on a programme to help schools approach what is a hard issue. And I’m working with a cyber security company on the creation of the first global ID system for missing children. Certainly this is not a mainstream charity. There’s a reluctance among people to get involved and it’s not as easy to raise money as you might expect, given the involvement of children.
" For me it’s about convenience – NetJets will take you to airports you’ve never heard of – punctuality and, above all, safety. You know that NetJets won’t take any shortcuts. I just want to get where I’m going safely. "
Dr Franz Humer
You’re retired from Roche and Diageo but clearly still keeping busy. Do you still have ambitions?

Professionally I’m happy where I am and personally I wish to remain healthy for as long as possible. Happiness is such a fickle good but one hopes to remain content with one’s life. I still want to do a lot of travelling, especially to places I’ve never been before – Oman, Georgia, the Easter Islands. I travel a lot for work, but then you just see the airport and a boardroom, maybe a restaurant in between if you’re lucky. Travel allows you to see the diversity of people, of politics and of thought. Seeing the wealth of nature is unbelievable too. It’s so beautiful, so sublime. And it tells you how insignificant man is. We think we’re so important, but the relativity of ourselves is reflected in nature.

How do you use NetJets to assist your travels?

It’s great for wherever the connections are bad, or there are none, or for when you don’t want to fly to places where the airport doesn’t function so well. For me it’s about convenience – NetJets will take you to airports you’ve never heard of – punctuality and, above all, safety. It’s not that I don’t trust most commercial airlines, but there are plenty of fly-by-night outfits. You know that NetJets won’t take any shortcuts. I just want to get where I’m going safely.

How did you discover NetJets?

At Roche we had a corporate jet, and when I left the company I asked the Pilots what I should do. They did an analysis for me and said, “What you really need is NetJets.” A recommendation from one professional to another is really valuable. It’s that kind of thing – and the friendliness and concern of the NetJets crew – that makes me a happy camper.

You can sit back and relax and enjoy a drink when you fly too.

Well I don’t actually ever drink when I fly – I drink enough other times. But I am always pleased when I find Diageo brands on board. I tend to find that Johnnie Walker is nearly always there.

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