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Pharma giant Bayer’s shares have fallen 70% in 6 years—but its football team, the best in Germany, is thriving

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When the office softball group or five-a-side football team goes on a winning streak, it’s a nice pep for morale rather than the balance sheet. 

Then there’s Bayer AG, the German conglomerate that owns Bayer 04 Leverkusen, a football team that on Saturday could complete the first-ever undefeated season in the country’s top-tier Bundesliga in front of 30,000 fans.

Leverkusen have already clinched the league title, breaking Bayern Munich’s 11-year stranglehold, and they’re in both the national and a European cup final.

Leverkusen’s dominance has been a morale boost at corporate Bayer, where employees have been accustomed to an overflow of bad news. On LinkedIn, the company has been pumping up the achievements of Die Werkself, under the inspiring leadership of Spanish coach Xabi Alonso.

Before a recent European quarter-final, football flags were hoisted in front of Bayer’s headquarters. “They’re known as the #Werkself, or Factory Eleven. We call them our colleagues,” declared a company LinkedIn post after the team won the Bundesliga. 

Bayer’s shares have plunged 70% since it shelled out $63 billion to buy US agriculture giant Monsanto six years ago. And since Bill Anderson joined the company as chief executive officer last spring, he’s performed a high-stakes strategic review of the company and pushed through the first of thousands of job cuts. The goal is to reverse the fortunes of a manufacturer that has business units focused on everything from cancer drugs and corn seeds to skin creams.

Bayer’s finance chief, Wolfgang Nickl, sees potential for the football team’s fortunes to help a bit with the parent company’s financial problems that include high debt levels. 

“All great players appreciate in value,” Nickl said at a press conference on Tuesday. “But that’s probably all we can say at this point in time.”

Founded 120 years ago by workers at the company that had just invented the wunderdrug aspirin, Leverkusen spent its early years in the lower leagues and didn’t join the Bundesliga until 1979. Since then, it became known as one of Germany’s stronger teams.

However, Leverkusen botched a title run in the 2000 season, and then lost the finals for the German Cup and the Champions League a couple of years later, earning it the unflattering nickname “Neverkusen” from the English media.

Still, Bayer’s management team has never considered selling a stake in the team. Back in 2006, one attendee at the AGM called on the company to divest the club. The call was dismissed with the team being labeled “a precious advertising asset for Bayer AG.”

If anything, the company has increased ties with its football club. In 2007 it announced it would be renovating its stadium, allocating €56 million ($60.9 million) to build new stands and a roof. 

“Our football team is an important way to promote our image both at home and abroad,” explained then-CEO Werner Wenning, justifying the construction to shareholders. Wenning retired in 2010 and has been chairman of Leverkusen ever since.

Bayer is still a major sponsor of its football team, although it’s unclear how much it pumps in each season. In an email, a company spokesman said that the club generates an advertising value in the “mid-three-digit million” euro range, which is a multiple of Bayer’s annual investment. 

In part, that’s because Bayer is better known among football fans who recognize the corporate logo on the uniforms compared to the broader public, the company said.

It’s unlikely the investment will decrease any time soon under CEO Anderson. A Texas native, he never considered selling any stake in the club as he reviewed Bayer’s portfolio of assets since last spring, he said Tuesday at a press conference. Plus, the Bundesliga’s stringent ownership rules don’t allow for the sort of deals that helped boost valuations of teams in England’s Premier League.

“There’s very strict limitations on what can be done with German football clubs,” Anderson said recently. “That’s not even an option.”

Outside of the corner office, Anderson gifted a personalized football jersey to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz while accompanying him on a trip to China. Recently, he sat down for lunch with Alonso.

While the Bundesliga title is in the bag, the possibility of ending the season unbeaten is electrifying supporters and managers alike. On Saturday, Anderson plans to join the 30,000 fans who’ll pack into Leverkusen’s BayArena — just a 10-minute drive from Bayer’s headquarters — for the final league match in hopes of seeing a historic performance.

“It’s a really great day for Leverkusen, for the town and the club,” he said. And for the company, which could certainly use one.

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