Picture: MARTIN RHODES
Picture: MARTIN RHODES

Frankfurt am Main — Germany's huge industrial company Thyssenkrupp sank into fresh turmoil as it announced plans to fire CEO Guido Kerkhoff, in a new episode of the drama plaguing boardrooms of “corporate dinosaurs”.

The chaos on Thyssen’s executive floor underlined the hefty challenge faced by the conglomerate, which has grown over more than two centuries into a behemoth making products from raw steel to submarines and car parts, to slim down and refocus.

Kerkhoff, who had been in the job for 14 months, had been tasked with splitting the company in two, finding an alternative after a planned merger with India’s Tata collapsed, and floating the profitable elevators division, estimated to be worth about €15bn. But all the plans to trim the unwieldy outfit now stand incomplete.

Kerkhoff had stepped up as Thyssen’s CEO after his predecessor Heinrich Hiesinger quit in July 2018, after months of back-seat driving from activist investors such as US-based Elliott and Sweden’s Cevian. Then-supervisory board chair Ulrich Lehner soon followed, complaining of “psychological terrorism” from shareholders of the manufacturer, which for years has suffered from cut-price competition from Chinese steelmakers.

Its plans to slim down its complex structure by merging that arm of its steel operations with Indian firm Tata were frustrated earlier in 2019 by the European Commission’s competition watchdogs. That, in turn, collapsed a scheme to split the company into two separate halves, “materials” and industrials”.

Meanwhile, the flagging car industry and trade wars have undermined the broader German economy, eating into Thyssenkrupp’s performance. Now the supervisory board’s personnel committee has suggested Kerkhoff should go, to be replaced by present supervisory board head Martina Merz for up to a year.

While it is still making profits, Thyssenkrupp last November reported its earnings have slumped in its 2017-18 financial year to just €60m, down 78% on 2016-17. A day after the latest management chaos erupted, the company’s shares were trading at just €12.35 late on Wednesday morning, down from above €26 in early 2018. It has also lost its blue-chip status as a member of the DAX index of leading German stocks.

With its 18% stake, Cevian expects “that the new leadership will speed up the transformation process that Thyssenkrupp so urgently needs”, founding partner Lars Forberg said in a statement. Forberg urged a “crystal-clear strategy and a well-defined plan of action”.

Dying-out of ‘dinosaurs’

But across Germany’s corporate landscape, Thyssen is not alone in its travails. Several other huge German groups have also in recent years embarked on such reorganisation exercises — mainly spinning off business units and refocusing on “core” activities.

If size was an advantage “the whole world today would be full of dinosaurs”, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser told investors earlier in 2019. “Something must have been wrong with them, because, obviously, they don’t exist,” he said.

In recent years, Siemens has trimmed sail with moves such as spinning off light-bulb division Osram and floating its Healthineers medical devices unit, a step also planned for its energy arm in 2020. But even Kaeser appears on the way out, as supervisors have named Roland Busch deputy CEO as heir apparent. Slimming-down processes don’t always run smoothly.

Bosses at once-sprawling chemical and pharma company Bayer faced an unprecedented rebuke from shareholders at their annual general meeting in 2019, as they voted against signing off the board’s 2018 actions. Investors were angered by billions in legal risks resulting from the group’s takeover of US seeds and pesticides firm Monsanto — part of Bayer’s years-long transition to a “life sciences” firm focused on pharmaceuticals, agrichemicals and over-the-counter medicines.

Even car industry behemoths are inching towards streamlining. VW part-floated its Traton heavy trucks division earlier in 2019, while Daimler is restructuring into three more independent divisions covering cars and vans, trucks and buses and financial and technology services.

But restructurings often chew through the bosses who drive them forward.

With Christian Sewing, the country’s biggest lender Deutsche Bank is on its fourth CEO (including one pair in Anshu Jain and Juergen Fitschen) because of the financial crisis. None has so far succeeded in righting the struggling ship, and Sewing’s plans for deep cuts in investment banking and a new focus on the German and European markets have yet to convince investors and observers.

AFP