Michael P Pragnell
Founder CEO, Syngenta AG
Michael studied modern languages at Oxford University. After graduating, he joined Courtaulds in London as a graduate trainee in marketing.
“As an Oxford linguist seeking a career in international business, I soon realised that I had a lot to learn. I decided to apply for an MBA and started looking at US schools. But at the time the UK was negotiating entry into the then Common Market. Leaving the UK to find out more and become part of this new Europe was a strong pull. INSEAD was the obvious choice.”
In 1971 there was only one MBA intake in September at INSEAD. “There must have been around 20 different nationalities, with the French contingent being the largest. I remember the excitement of this unusual and high-octane cultural hothouse, the sense we shared of being part of something very special. This was a period of great European projects and the school’s multi-culturalism was enormously stimulating.
“In the classroom I learnt how to think about business, how to structure my thinking and I acquired analytical skills that have developed over the years. Looking back I learnt as much from my classmates and classroom experiences, thanks to our professors, many of whom were probably only in their 30’s, not much older than the average participant.
“We were breaking new ground. To be there with bright, gifted, outward and forward looking colleagues was exciting and invigorating. It was a mind-opening and – dare I say it? – life-changing experience.”
Michael rejoined Courtaulds after he graduated and was sent to New York. “In the 1970’s an MBA had a certain cachet, but an MBA from INSEAD had a special ring particularly in the USA. It was this that took me to the First National Bank of Chicago in New York as it was expanding very fast internationally.”
A call from a rising former boss, who was to be future chairman of Courtaulds, persuaded Michael to return to his old employer in London. He found Britain in the late 70’s to be more dispiriting than he expected. But Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 was, he says, a ‘revolution’. “Political opinions aside, it was a fantastic time in the country and in the company to be a young manager.”
Michael spent 20 years at Courtaulds, for the most part in the paint division and latterly as CFO. Then in 1995 he was invited to join Zeneca, shortly after its demerger from ICI. He joined Zeneca as Chief Executive Agrochemicals and soon joined the Board.
When Zeneca merged with Astra to become AstraZeneca in early 2000, Michael agreed with the new CEO the need to determine an independent future for the agricultural business. After several months of courtship with suitors on both sides of the Atlantic, the Board agreed the recommendation to demerge the agrochemicals business and merge with Novartis’ agricultural division. This would create a new company with world-leading positions in crop protection and seeds. The new company Syngenta was listed in Zurich, London, Stockholm and New York in late 2000. Having co-led negotiations to create Syngenta, Michael was nominated its founder CEO.
“As every MBA student of mergers knows, two out of every three mergers end in failure. We were determined from the outset that Syngenta would be among the exceptions. A clear vision underpinned by a value system that stood the test of time, detailed merger planning and a steadfast determination not to be derailed, meant we succeeded.”
Through Syngenta, he established INSEAD’s largest scholarship foundation in 2005. The foundation provides four scholarships a year for MBA students from emerging countries. “I am very pleased with the significant impact that this has had. We also set up a custom-made sales and marketing programme that more than 700 Syngenta executives have attended to-date. This too has had an enormous impact on Syngenta and for the faculty as well.”
Michael retired as CEO at the end of 2007. “Syngenta is now recognised as worldwide leader in an industry that is essential to global food production. I am immensely proud of everything that my former colleagues continue to achieve in making the lives of farmers easier and more productive in both the developing and developed economies.”
“I have been very fortunate in my professional life. I was given a great education and INSEAD opened up so many possibilities. Experience taught me that business can be a jungle but I also learnt that an inspiring value system can make people rise above themselves. I was lucky to benefit from outstanding mentors and I shall always be hugely grateful to the many exceptional colleagues who gave me such strong friendship and support.”
“The creation of Syngenta and its enduring success is the professional achievement that gives me most pleasure. I also hope to be remembered as straight-forward, approachable, often challenging and as someone who believes in and puts trust in people, as well as for a ready sense of humour.”
“By my family and friends, I’d like to be thought of as fun, stimulating and enjoyable to have around.”