The fateful phone call came around this time last year as Karl-Ludwig Kley was preparing for his Christmas holiday. It was Werner Wenning, an old colleague who Mr. Kley, the chief executive at pharmaceutical giant Merck, had worked with at rival Bayer in the 1990s.
At 65 years old, Mr. Kley was getting ready to step down. With just a few months left on his contract before the mandatory retirement age, he was looking forward to some well-deserved rest.
Mr. Wenning had already been through the same, retiring as chief executive of pharmaceuticals heavyweight Bayer. He immediately put his vast managerial experience to use, stepping up to the boards of numerous companies including as the chairman of energy company E.ON. That was why he was calling: he wanted Mr. Kley to take over the job.
Mr. Kley didn’t need much persuading. This was a unique position with considerable challenges and responsibilities. As the two veteran executives knew very well, E.ON was once the most valued stock on Germany’s DAX index. But ever since the energy transition — the term given to the country’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out nuclear energy and boost renewables — it has all been downhill for E.ON. The company is barely breathing.