‘The pandemic has changed IR’: Thomas Kudsk Larsen on his move from AstraZeneca to small cap Sobi
‘For people doing IR, I think this pandemic has been so fundamental in terms of changing their daily lives,’ says Thomas Kudsk Larsen, talking to IR Magazine about why he made the move from pharma giant AstraZeneca – made a topic of household debate across the globe by the pandemic – to Swedish small-cap biopharma firm Sobi (short for Swedish Orphan Biovitrum) where he now serves as head of communications and investor relations.
Part of the issue is the nature of investor relations itself. As such an outward-looking profession – where the job is really about talking to people, whether investors, management, other departments or external stakeholders – much of what Larsen says was important to him about the job has changed.
Outside of the busy quarterly results periods, IR people are usually out and about having meetings, holding site visits or traveling to conferences and busy roadshows. Of course, all that stopped with Covid-19 and, although virtual stepped in, for people like Larsen who thrive from that personal contact, something vital had been lost. Many believe things won’t go back to the way they were either: four in five IROs believe the experience of Covid-19 will lead to a permanent change in roadshow activity, according to IR Magazine’s Global Roadshow Report 2021, with more than a third strongly believing we will not see a return to the pre-pandemic norm.
‘If you’re used to doing IR the ‘old way’ – and I had been doing this for 19 years before the pandemic hit – then the impact was huge,’ Larsen says. ‘I really missed going out and seeing people. People don’t often do small talk on Teams or Zoom, they just get straight into it. That whole recharging of the batteries and getting ideas and perspectives and kind of connecting the dots you can’t always see was lost. For me, it meant what I really love about this job disappeared.’
Seven years into his job at AstraZeneca, Larsen was at the top of his game. The company had won multiple awards – from IR Magazine and elsewhere – and consistently ranked at the top for IR across Europe and its sector. But Larsen says he started to question what the pandemic-induced changes meant for him and what he was looking for from his profession.
‘I asked myself: what does this mean for me? Because what I loved most about IR, I couldn’t do. And I don’t think we’ll be back to anything close to what we were doing in 2019 anytime soon. We have this new variant, but there’ll be more variants.
‘I realized that if what I loved most about the job was being taken away, and I couldn’t do much about it, then maybe I had to do a broader job so that I get to do an element of the IR I love. But I can also do other things. [As an IR professional] you can do internal and external communications, you can do IR, you can do a bit of sustainability. Maybe you can help your company go on a journey with sustainability and therefore also do more to help society. That is what I chose to do.’
What this often requires, says Larsen, is a move to a smaller firm, noting that the IR role is often very siloed at big companies. Big firms come with other restrictions too, he notes, talking about a sort of ‘glass ceiling’ around personal development.
‘A glass ceiling is not necessarily a matter of promotion or a bigger salary,’ he explains. ‘For me, it was more about, How do I continue learning?’ At a huge firm like AstraZeneca – and even more so during the pandemic with the constant news flow the team had to stay on top of – he says that time and that development just wasn’t available.
Larsen adds that this is an issue in big companies everywhere, and in part an issue related to the very nature of IR as a profession. ‘IR often becomes your first and your last job in a company, because it is a struggle for companies to further develop ‘career IR’ people,’ he says. While he acknowledges that some firms do rotational IR very successfully, he suggests that, instead, companies allow career IR experts to do what they do so well – but also to have a 10 percent to 15 percent buffer on their time, allowing them to develop interests and skills in other fields.
But Larsen’s move in August 2021 wasn’t just about having more time for personal development. Sobi is a company that focuses on treating rare diseases, often hereditary and detected in babies or at early childhood, and often without alternative treatments available. According to the company, around 95 percent of rare diseases currently have no approved treatment and 75 percent of rare diseases affect children. ‘You can start trying to make a difference with different medicines,’ says Larsen. ‘That is another symptom of the pandemic: you think a little bit more carefully about things.’
Sustainability is something else Larsen thinks carefully about and he says this is a further factor in the way IR teams are likely to adapt to a ‘new normal’ as far as travel goes. Now that we know a large proportion of meetings can effectively take place virtually, how can companies justify a return to pre-pandemic travel?
He notes that large organizations often look at ESG issues from a big-picture view. What he and the team at Sobi are doing is trying to think about the company’s individual role and the role of each employee when it comes to sustainability. ‘We try to be very aware of what each individual person’s impact on the environment is and how we can reduce that instead of thinking only as one big corporate,’ he explains. One example is offsetting the carbon any time Larsen has to fly from Cambridge, where he’s based, to Sobi’s headquarters in Stockholm.
The old guard
Anecdotally, Larsen says a number of IR professionals he knows personally have either changed jobs or are on the hunt for something new because the jobs they had have changed so much, and he notes some factors that might affect how you feel about the profession at the moment. One of those factors is location. Larsen says he’s been lucky in Cambridge, within easy reach of London. This means that even if there’s a hold on international travel, he can still see people. ‘If you’re in New York you can still do some meetings,’ he adds. ‘Also if you’re in Boston or San Francisco, for example. But if you’re in a country with no financial center? That’s hard.’
The other factor is whether you’re an old pro or not. ‘I think the guys who are new to IR, they will still be happy because they’re doing something new that they didn’t do in the past, so for them it’s an upgrade,’ Larsen says. ‘But for the people who have known IR for the past 10 or 15 years? I don’t think this new world is necessarily very appealing.’