‘I’m proud of my CQ’: Boss of Ozempic parent company revels in his Arab-British heritage

Novo Holdings CEO Kasim Kutay controls the biggest stake in the maker of the obesity wonder drug transforming lives worldwide. The secret of his success? Forget IQ – ‘cultural intelligence’ makes all the difference

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When Kasim Kutay describes the Alexandria where his mother and father met in the early 1960s, he winds back the clock to what was a vibrant, cosmopolitan social scene in the city known as the pearl of the Mediterranean.

It is forgotten now, he muses, that Egypt’s third-oldest historic district was a natural destination for people across the Middle East, like the Turks importing tobacco on his paternal side and the Syrian textile merchants on the other.

Since his birth there in 1965, Kutay has become a bit of a chameleon, which he regards as a gift from his parents and the nature of his subsequent upbringing in Jeddah, Beirut and London.

“I like terms such as Arab-American, Hispanic-American, African-American because it shows that while there is a predominant identity there is a heritage that defines who you are as well,’’ the boss of Ozempic-maker Novo Nordisk’s parent company tells The National. “I wish there was a term like Middle Eastern-British or Arab-British because that would really define who I am.

“Importantly, when you look at the factors of success, people talk about IQ and EQ, emotional intelligence, and then there’s CQ, sort of cultural intelligence if you like. I'm quite proud of my CQ. You can put me anywhere in the world, and I feel very comfortable.”

This capacity serves him well as Kutay, 59, rotates around the Novo Group’s offices in San Francisco, Boston, Singapore, Shanghai, London and the global headquarters on Tuborg Harbour near Copenhagen.

Skipper at the helm of Novo Holdings

The journey to the latter from his home in the royal quarter is Kutay's favourite. So great is its appeal that he can often be found enjoying the view out the window of a bus on the city’s ring road along the famous strait that serves as the Danish-Swedish border.

"You see the Oresund for a good chunk of my commute, which is not a very long one, a 15-minute drive. In spring and summer, the light in Denmark and that sea-infused breeze are just wonderful."

From behind his desk overlooking the sailboats in the marina, Kutay sits at the helm of the holding company that manages the assets of the world’s wealthiest enterprise entity, the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

As such, Novo Holdings has the controlling stakes in the multinational pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk and the global biotechnology company Novonesis, and also oversees a $30 billion investment portfolio about half of which is allocated to life sciences and health care.

Social code of Jante

Novo Nordisk is a household name in Denmark, not least for the broad benefits it brings to the country from being the most valuable company in Europe by market capitalisation and 12th largest in the world, outstripping the likes of JP Morgan Chase, Exxon Mobil, LVMH and Walmart.

It is less known farther afield. Kutay puts some of this variance down to janteloven, originally created as a satirical device setting out the law for characters in the fictional village of Jante (pronounced Yan-tuh) in a 1933 novel but which has come to define a social attitude in Scandinavia.

“Jante is basically about modesty,” he explains. “Ultimately, it’s about egalitarianism, community, not using success or money or achievements to try to stand out from the pack, to always be humble, stay rooted and connected.

“I think being a Danish company there’s no question that the values are influenced by jante.”

Wonder drugs Ozempic and Wegovy

While you might not have heard of Novo Nordisk, the chances that you know of its blockbuster weight loss and type-2 diabetes drugs are much higher. Wegovy and Ozempic, which have varying levels of the active ingredient Semaglutide, filled the coffers at such a pace that they even caught the company by surprise.

The two treatments helped Novo Nordisk to profits of $12 billion last year, its best performance since 1989, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

"We are living through a golden age of healthcare innovation,” Kutay says. “Look at what the industry was able to deliver during Covid-19 with [messenger RNA] – mRNA was a moon shot 10 to 15 years ago. Now, it's a reality. It's incredible.

"We've had years of record [US Federal Food and Drug Administration] approvals. So, the industry as a whole is being quite productive. And I think, in many ways, we’re still at the tip of the iceberg.’’

Prevention better than cure

My question as to whether pharmaceutical companies prioritise the pursuit of treatments that net them long-term future revenue over looking for one-off cures compels Kutay to talk about an alternative near to his heart.

“The pharmaceutical industry works very hard to treat and cure,” he says. “In a market-based system, who's going to develop a drug unless you get some kind of return on investment? But there's no better cure than prevention.”

Bringing about a paradigm shift from treatment to prevention in healthcare systems is easier said than done but Kutay argues that the urgency for doing so, to save lives and costs, cannot be ignored any more.

There is a preventive element, too, to Best For You, a new approach to adolescent mental health care that Kutay advocated in another of his roles as chair of CW+, the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust charity.

“Prevention is something I talk about day and night at the moment. I feel quite passionately about it. Some societies are doing it very well, particularly Singapore.

"I was in the Gulf, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, not long ago and was very impressed by what they’re trying to do. A real focus on screening, well-being and provision of health care early. So hats off to the Emiratis for that focus because, given the therapeutic and diagnostic tools that we have available to us today, this is the time to be doing it.”

Another area that Kutay is animated about is the transition to a green, decarbonised, more sustainable world and how biotech companies are at the sharp end of making that happen.

Biotech and the green revolution

While Novo Nordisk garners much of the attention, Novonesis quietly gets on with creating change through biosolutions or bioindustrials.

"We’re talking about the enzymes that go into bread to increase its shelf life. It's the enzymes that can go into animal feed to increase the absorption of what they eat, hence reducing the reliance on antibiotics.

“It's bacteria that can feed on industrial offtake gas and help contribute to biofuel and other sustainable energy production", Kutay says, adding that alongside such work, Novo Holdings is also intent on broadening its investment footprint in planetary health.

He highlights companies in the portfolio that are making bioleather from fungus or biobricks using a method inspired by the way that microbes help create coral reefs.

“We’re very convinced that it’s not only the right thing to do but it’s going to be an area where some very interesting returns can be generated,” Kutay says.

Wake up, policymakers

But he laments that the move away from fossil-fuel-based solutions for industry is being hindered by obstacles such as regulation within the EU.

It is deeply frustrating for someone whose favourite book is Seeds of Science by the British author Mark Lynas, which lifts the lid on the sidelining of technology as public hysteria against genetically modified organisms swept the world.

"This is where policymakers in Europe really need to wake up. There is this historic anti-GMO sentiment and what it means is it takes seven to eight years to get a bioindustrial product approved in Europe versus two to three years in the US."

I think Labour has come much closer to articulating a vision and a plan than any other party

He believes, too, that a lack of vision on industrial policy in Britain is causing long-term structural issues holding the country back.

Shortly before the UK Conservative government came to power 14 years ago, he gave £25,000 ($31,810) to the party but has switched political allegiance to the Labour opposition with £50,000 donated since 2022.

“You can't deal with the productivity issue that ultimately has to do with business investment by not talking to business. I don't think you can deal with a social mobility issue unless you're talking to academia or the healthcare backlog unless you're thinking about how to optimally work with the private sector.

“It needs to be in partnership. I think Labour has come much closer to articulating a vision and a plan than any other party.”

His concerns about the UK’s enormous unleashed potential stem from a deep affection for the country that he has called his own since civil war ended an idyllic period in childhood when Kutay would happily fish for mullet and sea bream with his father, Yashar, from a boat off the Lebanese coast.

Kutay and his two younger siblings moved with Yashar and their mother, Ilham, to London for what they thought was a temporary stay. As the family’s weeks in the Sheraton Hotel turned into months, the decision was taken to rent a property in nearby Kensington.

The adjustment to permanent residency in their adopted country was initially not too bad for 10-year-old Kasim, made smoother because Yashar had always ensured that English was spoken in their various homes.

Getting down to business

He has fonder memories of his time at the American Community School in the capital than the preceding two years at an English boarding school in the south-west, but felt a strong sense of direction from knowing early on that he wanted a career in business.

I know that I was inspired by people from my part of the world who were successful in Europe and the West

“The twist came later," he says, when a passion for international relations while doing a master’s degree in politics and economics almost led him down the path to academia.

But this was the late 1980s, the time of Margaret Thatcher and the Big Bang deregulation that strengthened the City of London’s position as a global financial centre, and opportunities to make money in investment banking were plentiful.

"It was what all the smart people around me were doing and I said: ‘Fine, we'll give that a go.’"

The long hours and work conditions experienced as a graduate trainee at Morgan Stanley, however, came as a bit of a shock. Kutay persevered and, by the mid-1990s, had moved into the healthcare team under the direction of Bob Bradway, who would go on to be his mentor and chief executive of the US pharma giant Amgen.

From there, his course was set, and eight years ago anchored at Novo Holdings as chief executive. These days, Kutay and his wife, Maha, a Lebanese architect who is co-director of Zaha Hadid Designs, divide their time between Copenhagen and London.

Life outside work

Two of the couple’s grown-up children, Yashar, 27, who works for GE Healthcare, and Teymour, 25, a university student, live in England, while their only daughter Serena, 22, graduated last week from a politics and economics degree at the University of Southern California.

When not in the office, where he is regarded as mild-mannered and collaborative, the unwary should be warned that Kutay's competitive streak emerges on the tennis court or golf course. Junior members of the Novo Holdings team who took their chief executive out for a drubbing in an 18-hole tournament once learnt that the hard way when he went home with the trophy.

Other pursuits include boating on the Med using a licence to skipper vessels of up to 15 metres, going for drives in his British racing green classic 1989 Aston Martin Vantage, and, when not restricted by chronic back pain, horse riding and seeking the next fly-fishing catch in “some of the most amazing places in the world”.

“I tried it once and got hooked, pun intended,” Kutay says of the first time he donned full angling kit and waded into a river north of Reykjavik in 2000.

“Absolutely magical. I’ve always been mesmerised by crystal-clear flowing water. I can stand and look at it for hours.

"Two months ago, I was in Belize saltwater fly-fishing in the Caribbean Sea. Last year, in the Seychelles: Alphonse Island, a little atoll, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Words cannot describe the natural beauty. It’s also such an adventure.”

A lasting legacy

While not motivated by money as a measure of success, Kutay acknowledges that it does enable his hobbies and the travel through which he meets interesting people, whether entrepreneurs, business builders or senior corporate executives.

Of all those with whom he has crossed paths throughout the years, Nemir Kirdar, the Turkish-Iraqi founder and chief executive of Investcorp, the private equity fund based in Bahrain, had a particularly galvanising effect on Kutay as someone with similar heritage competing with the best from the West.

Investcorp were doing deals in the US and Europe – they owned Tiffany, they turned that around, they owned Gucci, they turned that around. As someone who has always been a corporate animal, if you like, I really admire the vision, tenacity and, frankly, the boldness of people who create businesses from scratch and build them into successful enterprises.”

Asked this time to wind the clock forward to a future when his own career trajectory might give rise to a new cohort of investment bankers and chief executives from the Middle East, Kutay shifts uncomfortably.

“I know that I was inspired by people from my part of the world who were successful in Europe and the West, and it does give you hope and encouragement. It’s something to look at and think that maybe there’s a role model there.

“It’s very interesting, though. I often tell people: ‘Wait for the legacy before you make the final judgment.’ Take the long view,” he says, in a gentle side-stepping of the question that would make the people of Jante proud.

Updated: May 23, 2024, 10:31 AM