Few people would give up a plum job at a multi-billion-dollar company because of a disagreement with the boss and join a little-known start-up firm instead. But that is what Marcus Meadows-Smith did when he left Chemtura in 2007 and landed as chief executive officer of the biopesticide maker AgraQuest. The gambit turned out fine: In July he agreed to sell the firm to Bayer CropScience for $500 million.
Today, Meadows-Smith, 51, is head of biologics at Bayer CropScience, where he is responsible for strategy and business management at the unit, which includes AgraQuest. The purchase of AgraQuest puts Bayer firmly into the biologics control market, which Meadows-Smith says is a market with $1.5 billion in sales per year today and will have $4 billion in sales by 2020.
When Meadows-Smith left Chemtura, a specialty chemical maker, in July 2007, he was an executive vice president in charge of a portfolio of businesses, including crop protection, with annual sales of nearly $2 billion. When he joined AgraQuest nine months later, he was running a start-up firm with a limited product line and sales that industry observers set at less than $15 million.
Over the next four years, Meadows-Smith built the biopesticides maker into a firm with sales of roughly $100 million. He also expanded AgraQuest’s portfolio to include seven biofungicides and biopesticides and a pipeline of new biological pest-control agents.
The journey from Chemtura to AgraQuest and then Bayer was rough at first, Meadows-Smith admits. A disagreement with then-chief executive officer Robert L. Wood over Chemtura’s business strategy was Meadows-Smith’s cue to leave the firm in 2007, he tells C&EN. Wood himself left Chemtura in December 2008, a few months before the firm went bankrupt.
Meadows-Smith says he didn’t plan to work for a start-up firm when he left Chemtura. After the break with Wood, Meadows-Smith spent nine months working “discreetly” on acquisitions for the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and private equity firm Bain Capital. During that time, he had job offers including one as chief operating officer of a specialty chemical firm, but none seemed right, he says.
When a headhunter approached him about the job at AgraQuest, “I almost turned it down flat,” Meadows-Smith says. As a veteran of a large specialty chemical business, he was skeptical of start-ups, but he decided to investigate further. “I did my due diligence. I looked at the science, the people, and the market drivers,” he says. He liked what he saw: “AgraQuest fit my passion for farming, science, and the environment.”
Going to work for AgraQuest allowed Meadows-Smith to indulge a passion for entrepreneurship and adventure. As a boy growing up in rural Kent, England, he bred and sold rabbits, and he gathered frogs from his parents’ pond and sold them to the local pet shop. At the age of 16, he managed a retail store where adults in their 30s and 40s were reporting to him.
After graduating from England’s University of Birmingham in 1984 with a degree in genetics, Meadows-Smith took off for South Africa to spend a year at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. There he worked on a breeding project to improve the yield and drought resistance of cassava, a tropical food crop. At the end of his time in South Africa, he hitchhiked his way back to England with $150 in his pocket.
Back at home, Meadows-Smith joined the Japanese trading firm Sumitomo. Given his training in genetics, Sumitomo assigned him to sell agricultural chemicals in Russia and the Middle East. “It turned into a great career,” he says.
He stayed with Sumitomo, he says, until he “hit a glass ceiling as a non-Japanese person.” In 1993, he joined Uniroyal Chemical; in 1996, it became part of what is today Chemtura. Over the years he developed a reputation as an executive who could be called on to expand healthy operations and fix others in trouble.
Meadows-Smith increased the firm’s crop protection footprint in Eastern Europe and eventually oversaw agricultural chemical efforts in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Wood, the Chemtura CEO, brought Meadows-Smith to the U.S. in 2004, first to head the global crop protection operations.
However, Wood soon assigned Meadows-Smith oversight of other businesses, including ailing consumer products, plastic additives, and pool chemicals businesses. “Wood put me where leadership was needed to deliver results,” he says.
The experience at Chemtura “taught me how to be a business leader and how to drive value creation,” Meadows-Smith notes. He used that experience at AgraQuest “to decide what would create value, whom to partner with, and where to devote R&D.” He cultivated relationships with firms such as Bayer, Monsanto, and DuPont and focused the R&D organization on bringing new products to market.
Meadows-Smith and AgraQuest’s private equity investors considered taking the company public, he says. But Bayer’s purchase offer was persuasive—it more than compensated the companies’ owners—and the German firm’s strategy “dovetailed with AgraQuest’s,” Meadows-Smith says.
“Good science and strong R&D is a personal passion,” he notes. Bayer CropScience has promised to spend $6.5 billion on research between 2011 and 2016, he points out, and AgraQuest will benefit from the investment. With Bayer, AgraQuest has an opportunity to “bring its technology forward,” Meadows-Smith says. It now has a place where it can “fit in and thrive.”