Former Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella has spoken about his move to New York and the controversial CHF72 million ($76 million) golden gag he was – briefly – promised to keep away from rivals.
“Vasella talks!” shrieked the frontpage headline of Swiss tabloid Blick on Friday, showing a picture of the 59-year-old doctor and businessman, suited and with briefcase, mingling unnoticed among commuters on New York's Madison Avenue.
The next two pages were devoted to an exclusive interview with the man who stood down as chairman of the Basel-based pharmaceuticals giant on February 22 after 17 years at the top.
The first of more than 50 questions wondered why Vasella was leaving Switzerland. He replied that with the end of his time at Novartis, a new chapter was beginning and he and his wife had thought about moving.
“I’m not turning my back on Switzerland,” he stressed. “I’m looking for a change of scenery”.
Vasella admitted he wouldn’t miss the “wave of criticism”, but said it hadn’t played a decisive role in the move.
Government ministers, business groups, the media, shareholders groups – practically everyone in Switzerland – had lined up to slam the proposed “non-compete” payout, which was to come on top of the estimated CHF300 million he had received in pay and bonuses during his time as chief executive and chairman.
Despite his promise to contribute the CHF72 million to philanthropic projects, the deal was eventually scrapped in an agreement between the Novartis board and Vasella himself.
When pushed as to what exactly he would be doing in the United States, he said that in addition to working – he is already on the boards of PepsiCo and American Express – he would be giving business coaching and hoped to travel.
“The US is future-oriented. It offers many job opportunities – and it offers me anonymity,” he said, although he denied he planned to become a US citizen.
In one of many terse answers, when asked how long he’d be staying in the Big Apple, his reply was “God knows”.
He was more forthcoming on his relationship with Switzerland and whether it had changed over the past few weeks.
“My colleagues and I built up a world leader based in Switzerland. The company’s in good hands, the product pipeline is amply filled and the finances are solid. It saddens me that all this appears to have been forgotten because of a payment which was never made and which I turned down.”
Asked how important to him his image was in Switzerland, Vasella admitted it was “not easy being a symbol for everything negative”.
“What’s hit me the most is that certain people are trying to take advantage of the situation – for example a former member of my household staff who is making massive accusations against me for the first time in 17 years to try to make me pay hush money. The accusations are simply not true.”
Nevertheless, Vasella said he had been “pleasantly surprised” by messages of support and flowers from strangers – in addition to the well wishes and generosity of his colleagues, which had helped him a lot.
On March 3, a proposal to rein in pay-outs to top managers and company board members won a two-thirds majority in a nationwide ballot. The initiative, launched nearly seven years ago, was the brainchild of a businessman-turned-politician, Thomas Minder.
“I expected this result,” Vasella said. “The initiative hit a nerve that is running through large parts of Europe. Whatever you think of him, you have to admit that Mr Minder is a very successful politician.”
But in his view, the fuss over his CHF72 million pay-out had only a “marginal” effect on the end result.
When asked to explain the political and popular outrage over the payment, he said there were many reasons.
“The amount. The thought that someone’s getting money for doing nothing. Minder’s initiative. The calculation of what I’d earned over the 25 previous years. Probably many others…”
Could he understand the outrage? “Yes, I can. But understanding something doesn’t necessarily mean that you share the same point of view. It’s all to do with your norms and values. Today there is often a great gap between the norms that different people have. Rapprochement and dialogue would certainly be constructive.”