Mauro Ajani loves his native Italy. That’s why in 2006 he tried to list Cosmo Pharmaceuticals SpA, the drugmaker he founded a decade earlier, in his hometown of Milan. After waiting three months to meet the head of the stock exchange there and getting no response, Ajani put sentimentality aside and called the SIX Swiss Exchange.
“Italy is a wonderful country,” Ajani told investors on a conference call last week. It’s also one of the most difficult countries to do deals in, he said. “If you are not a friend of a friend, everything is difficult.”
Cosmo began trading in Switzerland in March 2007, and lately has been on a tear. The Lainate, Italy-based company is up 122 percent this year after jumping 174 percent in 2013. The increase has elevated Cosmo’s market capitalization to 2.82 billion Swiss francs ($3.15 billion) and made Ajani, who holds a 38.9 percent stake through Cosmo Holding SpA and Cassiopea SA, a billionaire. He’s never appeared on an international wealth ranking.
“This is a dream,” he said in a phone interview last week. “This is something that people work to achieve.”
Cosmo, which makes therapies for the treatment of gastrointestinal disease, got a boost last week when it struck a $2.7 billion deal with Salix Pharmaceuticals Ltd. to sell the Raleigh, North Carolina-based company three key U.S. patents. The transaction will allow Salix to incorporate in Ireland and cut its tax bill.
Ajani, 59, has spent his entire career in the pharmaceutical industry. He began as a 19-year-old selling pharmaceuticals door-to-door in Italy before taking jobs in Russia, Spain, France and California.
“He started his career with a bag in his hand, going from one pharmacy to another,” Alessandro Della Cha, the CEO of Cosmo who’s known Ajani since 1992, said in an interview last week. “Mr. Ajani doesn’t have a university degree, he should be given one.”
Ajani founded Cosmo in 1997 after buying a contract manufacturing business on the outskirts of Milan from Parke Davis, now part of Pfizer Inc. A year after its Zurich listing, Cosmo was awarded one of its first major U.S. patents for its MMX technology.
MMX enables drugs to be released in tablet form in a delayed manner so they take effect along the length of the colon. Salix said one of the main reasons for its deal with Cosmo was to acquire the patents for rifamycin MMX, being tested for traveler’s diarrhea and diverticulitis, and methylene blue, a dye to help detect pre-cancerous lesions in the colon.
“People realize that the potential applications of its dye technology are much broader,” Julie Simmonds, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity Corp. in London, said by phone. She rates Cosmo a buy.
“It’s made for a very attractive business that’s very well-financed, that wasn’t particularly widely held, and the scarcity of the stock has been driving it up,” she said.
The Salix deal offers Cosmo a gateway to the U.S. market, Ajani said.
He says he still has too little free time to enjoy his wealth or even to cheer for his beloved soccer team, Inter Milan. He saw the team play at Milan’s historic San Siro stadium for the first time when he was four years old. These days he rarely attends.
“They’re so bad, that it’s not relaxing,” Ajani said. If he has a couple of hours free, he prefers to devote the time to improving his golf game.
American-style ambition is what Italy lacks, he said.
“One of the major problems we have in Italy is people don’t dream,” he said. “I still have a lot of dreams.”
(In an earlier version of this story, the company corrected the size of Ajani’s stake in the company.)