On Thursday morning, Matthias Brückmann, the chief executive of Germany’s fifth-largest utility EWE, had already heard that he had been fired. But he had not heard about it from his employers. The news had come to him via the German media.
It was everywhere – on the radio, TV and online. He was unemployed. Mr. Brückmann says he was stunned. Then two staff members bought him a stack of papers: His dismissal.
Handelsblatt spoke to Mr. Brückmann shortly after those termination papers arrived. He said he was planning to sue the company because his dismissal as a member of the board and chief executive officer, as well as the termination of his employment contract, were unjustified.
“As far as I am concerned, there was no breach of duty. That’s why I am absolutely confident that a court will establish that my dismissal was wrongful,” he said.
EWE’s supervisory board unanimously decided to fire Mr. Brückmann after a report by auditors KPMG found evidence of financial irregularities including a failure to follow company procedures in donating €253,000 ($267,000) to the Klitschko Foundation, set up by the superstar boxers Vitaly and Vladimir Klitschko.
There’s been talk of a dereliction of duty, but Mr. Brückmann contends the allegations against him seek to misrepresent normal, every day business transactions in order to oust him.
“I have to admit I was uncomfortable there, I pushed people. I stepped on some toes. ”
For example, Mr. Brückmann said he read that he had, apparently, wrongly awarded a public relations contract to an acquaintance.
“That is nonsense. The process was very clean,” he said. “A suggestion was made [about the public relations job], this was forwarded to the appropriate staff member who worked on it. The fact that I had a contract in my briefcase at the end of that process, that I signed, is completely standard procedure. The contract had already been signed by the responsible staff member before me. I wouldn’t then go there and ask if somebody did something naughty. I trust my staff.”
“But what I can say is that before my arrival, EWE regularly spent an annual budget of €5 million with an Oldenburg agency that I didn’t think was optimal. That’s why I put a stop to that. Maybe somebody didn’t like that,” he added.
EWE, Germany’s fifth largest utility with €8 billion in annual sales, has been plagued by a string of resignations in the past few months. In September of 2016, board member Nikolaus Behr resigned, allegedly for ordering that a worker be spied on. Three months later, his fellow board member, Ines Kolmsee, unexpectedly stepped down. External and internal investigations in recent weeks have shown a culture of bribery and kickbacks within EWE.
After Handelsblatt broke the news last Friday of an internal investigation, the state prosecutors’ office in the town of Oldenburg, where EWE is based, launched a corruption probe.
Mr. Brückmann, who was put on leave before he was terminated, points out that he arranged an extensive investigation of the corruption allegations prior to his dismissal. “I can only strongly advise the company to push through with that,” he added, before noting that he believes his dismissal, shortly after he launched the investigation, might be connected.
“I have nothing to feel guilty about in the whole affair. Where we go from here, we need to see.”
Mr. Brückmann also said the controversial donation to the Klitschko Foundation was handled correctly. “There was not even a hint of a breach of duty,” he said, adding that a €2,700 trip to Kiev, including $1,000 gala tickets, that has also been criticized, “was the first part of the donation.”
The trip was reviewed by the compliance department, checked by the controlling department and approved, he added.
Mr. Brückmann had offered to repay that trip out of his own pocket. “I offered that to resolve the matter. But I have nothing to feel guilty about in the whole affair. Where we go from here, we need to see,” Mr. Brückmann said. “In hindsight it’s become clear to me that I demanded too much of the internal politics with that donation.”
Mr. Brückmann took up his post in October of 2015 and when asked what his biggest mistake might have been, he says that he didn’t assess the corporate culture at EWE correctly. “I really didn’t expect that some of the senior management there were not used to making decisions independently. I have to admit I was uncomfortable there, I pushed people,” he conceded. “I stepped on some toes. In general, I underestimated the dogmatism in the company, on the board and in the politics there.”
Jürgen Flauger covers the energy market for Handelsblatt, including electricity and gas providers, international market developments and energy policy. Sönke Iwersen leads Handelsblatt team of investigative reporters. To contact the authors: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org