You may remember, though it feels like a lifetime ago given what has happened since, that the front pages of the British business press in early 2014 were full of debate about whether to welcome or be worried by the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s bid to take over AstraZeneca, a UK-Swedish company. The £63bn bid would have made it the biggest foreign takeover of a British company in history.
Initially the British government wanted to portray the bid as a vote of confidence in what they had done to make Britain an attractive destination for foreign investment. However, the former CEO of AstraZeneca, Sir David Barnes, said that he was concerned that Pfizer would “act like a praying mantis and suck the lifeblood out of their prey. “ Pfizer wants to move its tax domicile to Britain when it acquires AstraZeneca, to take advantage of the UK’s low corporate tax rate and what is called a “patent box”, which gives tax breaks for research.
If Pfizer want these tax incentives, it should invest in the UK itself, and not attempt to do it via a takeover, Sir David argued. Pfizer last hit the headlines in the UK when it closed down its 60 year old research facilities in the east of England, with the loss of nearly 2000 jobs, in 2011. A few years before that it closed R&D sites in Nagoya, Japan and the US. The reasoning at the time was that research was better outsourced to smaller companies.
I have not heard anyone say that this trend has reversed, yet AstraZeneca committed to investing £500 million in a new research facility and headquarters in Cambridge, which is the main science cluster in the UK. Pfizer say it would honour this investment, and the jobs that depend on it, for five years at least.
The consensus in the UK seemed to be that given Pfizer’s “accounting led” approach, such commitments may not be worth much. The US company Kraft also promised it would not cut jobs when it took over one of the UK’s most famous companies, the chocolate manufacturer Cadburys, in 2010, and then shortly after closed down one of its factories.
This does not mean that the UK is hostile to all foreign takeovers, however. Japanese companies are much more welcome, as they are seen as having long term commitment to their investments. Takeda’s acquisition of Swiss company Nycomed did lead to job losses but this is seen as inevitable after a merger.* It is the wholesale closure of a factory or R&D site with major impact on the community around it which troubles people in Europe.
Many of the British researchers laid off by Pfizer in 2011 have found jobs in small start ups, but not everyone can be an entrepreneur or has the personal resilience to go through the trauma of redundancy. When I ask participants in my training what they like about working in a Japanese company, they almost always mention the stability, the long term view and the loyalty of the company to its staff. Large, stable employers are important for the health of the community, whatever the country of origin.
* Takeda announced it would close its Cambridge Science Park R&D facility in August 2016. R&D activity will be concentrated in the US and Japan, and the UK will move from global coordination activities to European only. I wonder how long that will last if the European Medicines Agency moves out of the UK however.
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