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Ben Thorpe Helps Keep Goldman’s Health M&A Franchise in Top Shape

Goldman Sachs’ head of health care investment banking for EMEA counts pharmaceuticals giants AstraZeneca and Novartis among his clients.

In April 1999, Ben Thorpe made a big career decision. Then an associate at U.K. merchant bank Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, he’d spent the weekend preparing a presentation for his bosses as part of their pitch to win Swedish pharmaceuticals company Astra as a client.

But when Thorpe’s superiors flew to Stockholm from London on Monday morning, Astra’s management had already boarded a plane headed in the opposite direction — to thrash out a $67 billion merger with British rival Zeneca Group, using Goldman Sachs Group as advisers. “That brought home to me the fact that I was working very hard while the real action seemed to be taking place elsewhere,” he recalls. “That’s when I decided I wanted to work for Goldman.”

Now Goldman’s London-based head of health care investment banking for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Thorpe has worked on the biggest deals in the industry on both sides of the Atlantic since arriving at the firm in July 1999. Last November he capped a whirlwind year with personal and professional triumphs: He was made a partner, and his wife gave birth to their fourth child before he celebrated his 40th birthday.

“Goldman takes a very long-term view and rewards people who maintain a consistency of service to clients, which is something I’ve always strived for,” Thorpe says of his recent promotion. “But I was also in the right place at the right time — in the middle of the biggest boom in health care M&A.”

Goldman ranked first for EMEA health care deal volume again last year, advising on 11 deals worth a combined $45.5 billion, according to Dealogic, a 38 percent increase over its $33 billion tally for 2013. Worldwide, announced health care transactions hit a record $67 billion in 2014, versus $63 billion the previous year. “We’ve seen an unprecedented appetite for M&A because markets are realizing that health care is a growth sector at a time when growth is highly prized and highly valued,” Thorpe says.

In April he advised Swiss drugmaker Novartis, one of his long-standing clients, on a $25 billion asset swap with London–based GlaxoSmithKline. Thorpe was in the middle of the Novartis-GSK deal when AstraZeneca hired Goldman to fight off a £70 billion ($110 billion) hostile bid from U.S. rival Pfizer. AstraZeneca prevailed in the monthlong battle after Pfizer withdrew its offer and admitted defeat for its controversial plan to pursue the takeover to shift its tax residence to Britain and shelter its offshore revenues from U.S. taxation.

“AstraZeneca had an interesting portfolio of drugs coming through the pipeline that could drive the medium- to long-term growth of the business,” Thorpe says. The defense was based on making investors aware of this huge potential upside, he adds. “Also, we were aware of the debate over inversions and wondered whether Pfizer would actually be able to realize all of the tax benefits it was aiming for.”

Born and raised in Nottingham in central England, Thorpe liked science at school and considered a career in biochemistry; he earned a degree in that field from Durham University, where he was a keen rower. During college he spent a summer working at U.K. pharmaceuticals company Glaxo’s laboratory in Ware, Hertfordshire. That experience gave him an understanding of the protracted process of drug research and development: “I realized I didn’t have the patience to be a scientist, so I figured a career helping health care companies would be a better option.”

After taking an analyst post with Dresdner Kleinwort in 1994, Thorpe spent four years with the bank’s health care team, focusing on smaller biotechnology companies. That whetted his appetite for supporting entrepreneurial ventures, but he had larger deals in his sights. Goldman hired him as a London-based analyst just two months after its 1999 initial public offering, and the timing proved good. With the pharmaceuticals industry at the start of a major M&A wave, Thorpe advised Glaxo Wellcome on its $76 billion acquisition of Britain’s SmithKline Beecham in 2000.

As M&A activity declined early last decade, he moved to the U.S. in 2003. The attraction was twofold: America was the largest health care market, and New York was Goldman’s global headquarters, putting him near some of the firm’s most influential figures.

Thorpe worked with then–global head of M&A Gordon Dyal, started advising Novartis and branched out by advising managed care providers such as Minnetonka, Minnesota–based UnitedHealth Group. What had been intended as a 12-month stint turned into a stay of four and a half years; when Thorpe returned to London in 2008 with M&A plummeting in the face of the financial crisis, he stayed busy, representing Novartis on its $39 billion acquisition of U.S. eyecare company Alcon from Switzerland’s Nestlé, a two-stage deal that ran from early 2008 through late 2010. Two years later he was promoted from managing director of EMEA health care to co-head along with Raj Shah, becoming sole head this February when Shah left.

After the flurry of deals in 2014, Thorpe thinks there’s more to come, especially in Europe, where M&A has been more muted. “The top health care M&A transactions in 2015 have come from the U.S., but from a European standpoint there is a very healthy level of activity,” he says. “The deal sizes tend to be smaller, but the pace of activity remains robust as companies need to access growth.”

The health care M&A boom has its critics, among them Sir Andrew Witty, CEO of GSK, who has contended that the race to do deals is making companies overpay. “R&D cycles are lengthy, so it’s a long time in the future before the true value of an acquisition can be judged,” Thorpe says. •

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