Early in 2001, The Lawyer reported the move of Oxford University Press lawyer Mark Wilkinson to pharmaceutical giant Bayer. Wilkinson was tasked with setting up the legal department of Bayer’s UK arm; a role that has seen him grow the function ten-fold and form an integral part of the company’s 800-strong global law patents and compliance function (LPC). But 17 years on, Wilkinson is still finding there is room for improvement.

Mark Wilkinson, Bayer
Wilkinson: “The lawyer has become very business-focused”

One of the biggest shake-ups instigated by Wilkinson was the 2016 adoption of a new business partnership model in Bayer’s global LPC. Co-led by Bayer’s UK legal head, the project saw Bayer’s lawyers become “strategic partners” of the business to add value and better support different departments.

“Historically, questions on legal advice were largely reactive and you can become a bit inward-looking,” Wilkinson says. “But as business partners, you sit on the leadership team and you’re naturally invited to team away days, brand planning and sales trips. The ultimate aspiration we have is for people to walk into the office and to say in the first 10 minutes ‘I can’t quite tell who the lawyer is’. The lawyer has become very business-focused.”

The trigger for the shift was the announcement of a new Bayer chief executive Werner Baumann at the end of 2015. Appointed to lead on the LPC project, Wilkinson kicked off the process with a survey to identify what internal and external stakeholders wanted from the business. Narrowing down the areas of interest into four worksteams – business understanding, innovation, collaborative legal risk management and mindset – Wilkinson set about implementing each of the new focuses per quarter during 2017.

My colleagues say the work they do now as a “business partner” is one of the most satisfying things they do – Mark Wilkinson

“My colleagues say the work they do now as a “business partner” is one of the most satisfying things they do in-house,” Wilkinson says. “We should always be looking at how we can promote the success of the business.”

Bayer does not manufacture anything in the UK, with the operations instead housing marketing and sale functions. It is one of the largest pharmaceuticals corporates in the world and is close to completing one of the biggest-ever mergers worth $60bn with Monsanto. However, the deal has been led out of Bayer’s German headquarters, meaning Wilkinson has stayed clear of merger negotiations, focusing instead on a range of internal improvements.

As a former corporate and commercial solicitor, Wilkinson has been involved in domestic acquisitions including its 2007 takeover of Schering which instigated a whole raft of changes for the company’s distribution arrangements. He also provided key in-house support on Bayer’s purchase of Roche’s consumer assets in 2004 and takeover of Merck’s consumer care business a decade later.

On a more domestic level, Wilkinson advised on Bayer UK’s office move in Berkshire, turning to local advisers Coffin Mew for support. Aside from Coffin Mew, Wilkinson has a series of global firms on call including Arnold & Porter which handles product liability and regulatory issues. Squire Patton Boggs focuses on commercial, employment and data privacy work, while CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang is Bayer’s main corporate firm in the UK. McCann Fitzgerald and Philip Lee provide support in Ireland.

With Bayer’s global LPC totalling near to 1,000 individuals, the group is “just like a law firm”, says Wilkinson. However, not all are qualified lawyers, with Wilkinson’s team of 11 in the UK split between legal, compliance and patent specialists. He leads a team of seven solicitors, alongside four professional support staff including a corporate compliance training manager.

Despite being in charge of a small proportion of Bayer’s mammoth in-house team worldwide, Wilkinson has still led on some of Bayer’s biggest external and internal shake-ups. It’s been a transformational 17 years.

CV: Mark Wilkinson

Reports to: UK and Ireland CFO Ute Bockstegers

2001 – present: Head of legal and compliance, Bayer UK

1996 – 2001: In-house lawyer, Oxford University Press

1991 – 1996: Trainee and solicitor, Hogan Lovell

Bayer UK 

Industry: Pharmaceuticals
Number of employees: 1,000 in UK and Ireland
Size of legal team: 11
Main external firms: Arnold & Porter, CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang, Coffin Mew, McCann Fitzgerald, Squire Patton Boggs