Stefano Pessina: the alchemist turning drugs into gold

Stefano Pessina © Getty images
Stefano Pessina: a dealmaker, not a retailer

Over 50 years and more than 1,500 deals, Stefano Pessina turned a struggling family firm into an international healthcare giant. What’s his next target? Jane Lewis reports.

Stefano Pessina “has walked a long road” from his father’s struggling pharmacy business in Naples to the top of the ladder of corporate America, says The Times. Last month, he “passed another milestone” when the conglomerate he built, Walgreens Boots Alliance – a $64bn pharmaceutical retailer and wholesaler – replaced General Electric as one of the 30 firms in the Dow Jones Industrial Average stockmarket index. It has taken Pessina, 77, about 50 years and a vast number of deals to achieve this feat. In the process, he has acquired a reputation as the “Italian alchemist” who turns “deals into gold”.

On first impression, Pessina seems self-effacing to the point of chilliness, said Fortune in 2016. “The closest thing to a personal item” visible in his cheerless office in a dreary Chicago suburb is “one bottle of San Pellegrino water”.

Perhaps that’s because he actually lives in Monaco with his partner, Ornella Barra, whose company he acquired on an earlier spree and who still works alongside him. But another reason is that he “isn’t interested in typical CEO activities” – and readily admits as much. “I am not a retailer… I am a team builder and a company builder,” he says. Mention a deal, however, and “his eyes crackle with energy”.

Pessina never planned to become a businessman. As a student of nuclear engineering at the prestigious Politecnico di Milano in the 1960s, he hoped to become an academic, but was turned off by academia’s left-wing politics, says the Financial Times. After a stint with AC Nielsen, the market-research firm, his father set him the challenge of salvaging the family business – a failing Naples-based pharma wholesaler. Pessina’s “ability with numbers” came up trumps, says The Times. He repeated the trick for some of his father’s business associates “in return for small stakes in their companies” – and his deal-making career began.

Expanding into Europe – and beyond

By 1977, when he’d combined some 150 small acquisitions into the newly named Alleanza Farmaceutica, Pessina begun venturing into France, Greece and Portugal. By the mid-1990s, the renamed Alliance Santé had made some 1,500 acquisitions. It wasn’t all plain sailing: Pessina’s hopes of building a pan-European pharma group was resisted in several countries. But, in 1997, he broke new ground in Britain acquiring Unichem, a publicly listed outfit with retail as well
as wholesale and distribution operations.

That gave him the scale to tilt still higher, says The Guardian. Having “stalked” the UK high-street chemist, Boots, for six years, Pessina landed his prize in 2006 after flamboyantly inviting the management “for merger talks on his yacht off Sardinia”. A year later, he teamed up with private-equity firm KKR to take Alliance Boots private in a $22bn deal that was then Europe’s largest leveraged buyout.

The Boots deal, which cast Pessina in the unflattering light of an international predator, was controversial – not least for the debt burden placed on the company. “People thought we were mad… but we ended up in a very nice spot,” he observed last year. “Boots needed a lot of investment and a clear strategy.” And it paved the way for him to cross the Atlantic and arrange to sell Alliance Boots to Walgreens in a £9bn deal.

He ended up as the largest shareholder in the merged firm, with a 14.4% stake (now worth around $9bn) and firm control of the reins. But he still isn’t done – his new preoccupation is cracking China. As he told Forbes in 2012: “My brain goes in just one direction: the future. I don’t worry about the present.”