Bayer AG Chairman Werner Wenning will step down as the German drug and chemicals company wrestles with the growing fallout from U.S. lawsuits over its Roundup weedkiller.
Wenning will be succeeded in April by Norbert Winkeljohann, 62, who has served as chairman of the management board of PricewaterhouseCoopers Europe until June 2018 and has been a member of Bayer’s supervisory board since May 2018.
The shares traded 2.2% lower early Wednesday in Frankfurt. They’re up about 3% over the past 12 months, regaining some ground after steep losses last year when the Roundup litigation spiraled.
Bayer has been engaged in settlement talks with as many as 85,000 plaintiffs claiming that the herbicide causes cancer, which Bayer denies. The company inherited Roundup through its acquisition of Monsanto, a deal engineered by Wenning, who is 73, and Chief Executive Officer Werner Baumann.
After losing three trials in California that resulted in combined damages of $191 million, Bayer said in December that it agreed to postpone some Roundup trials to give mediation a chance. At least a half-dozen trials scheduled to start this month and next have been put on hold. Bayer is appealing the verdicts it lost.
Wenning, who has been chairman since 2012, had been elected to serve until 2022. He said in a statement Wednesday that he originally planned to step down last year but decided to stay on at the supervisory board’s request.
Baumann lost a confidence vote from Bayer shareholders last April amid the Roundup turmoil. It’s unclear whether the CEO could survive another such vote.
Wenning’s departure could ratchet up the pressure on Baumann, since the two of them both orchestrated the Monsanto deal and Wenning’s considerable clout over the company was seen as protecting the CEO, analyst Markus Mayer of Baader Bank said by email.
The chairman groomed Baumann for years, both in the U.S. and in Germany.
Wenning’s departure could offer Baumann more flexibility to steer Bayer in different directions if the Roundup litigation can be resolved soon. There are plenty of calls for that, with some investors voicing a desire to ultimately split up Bayer’s crop science and pharmaceutical divisions. That hasn’t been the company’s strategy until now.
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