Succession Battle

Oetker's Game of Thrones

albert christmann and richard oetker in 2014 source bernd thissen dpa
Handelsblatt has learned that a plan to end a leadership dispute at German foods conglomerate Oetker would see finance chief Albert Christmann, second from right, take over as CEO from retiring Richard Oetker, far right.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The longer the ownership dispute continues at Oetker, a German processed foods group with interests in banking and shipping, the greater the risk for the businesses to underperform.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Oetker Group is controlled by the eight children from three different marriages of Rudolf-August Oetker, who died in 2007.
    • The company, founded in 1891, initially sold baking and pudding powder, but now sells branded food products, and has shipping, finance and banking interests.
    • The finance director who is not part of the ownership family, Albert Christmann, may take over as CEO, while Carl Ferdinand Oetker, a younger heir, is promoted to a senior executive position.
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    Audio

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Just a few days ago, the smoldering succession battle at Oetker, the German food, shipping and banking group, seemed to have burst back to life. The supervisory board should have decided in June who would take over for Chief Executive Richard Oetker at year’s end. Mr. Oetker, who will turn 66 in January, says it is time to step down.

But the board couldn’t agree on a successor.

Now it seems a solution will be hammered out before the next board meeting in September. Handelsblatt has learned of a compromise deal from sources close to the board. This would see the finance director, Albert Christmann, become chief executive. Mr. Christmann is the preferred candidate of a group of older family members, led by patriarch August Oetker.

As quid pro quo, Carl Ferdinand Oetker, one of August’s seven siblings and half-siblings, is set to join top management as a representative of the family.

Officially, the company is saying nothing on the boardroom latest dispute. In an email, the company stated: “As with all themes, the board discusses this in a professional way. As soon as a decision is made, it will be publicized.”

Mr. Christmann is the preferred candidate of a group of older family heirs, led by patriarch August Oetker.

Mr. Christmann is a confidant of 72-year-old August Oetker, who led the group for many years. Oetker includes the prepared food brands, as well as industrial interests, the private bank Lampe and a shipping company, Hamburg-Süd. The younger generation fears Mr. Christmann will favor the interests of the older half-siblings.

This issue is tied to the dispute, which was solved temporarily by the recent appointment of Alfred Oetker as vice-chairman of Oetker’s supervisory board.

The deal seemed to put the succession question on ice.

Alfred Oetker clearly hoped Mr. Christmann would ultimately be ruled out as a candidate: Mr. Christmann, a finance specialist, for many years ran the group’s brewing business, Radeberger. This company is now caught up in a price-fixing scandal.

But the hopes of younger family members that Mr. Christmann might be stopped have not been fulfilled. Mr. Christmann remained in office, without damage to his position, as the company defends the brewing subsidiary against accusations of price-fixing by the Cartel Office.

The family dispute has long roots. Before becoming chairman, August Oetker was chief executive of the family firm for almost three decades, overseeing the rise in its annual turnover to €12 billion, or $13.2 billion.

He now represents the interests of five older children from the first two marriages of his father Rudolf-August, a grouping known as G5. In recent years, relations have grown tense between this group and the three children of Rudolf-August’s third marriage, Alfred, Carl-Ferdinand and Julia, a grouping known as G3.

 

carl ferdinand oetker source dpa picture alliance
Carl Ferdinand Oetker, the half-brother of patriarch Alfred Oetker, is a rival candidate for CEO supported by the younger wing of the eight siblings that control the Bielefeld-based group, which is diverse and has interests in shipping and banking besides prepared foods. Source: DPA Picture Alliance

 

The eight children each inherited 12.5 percent of the business, making them all billionaires. The crux of the dispute was not only the group’s strategic direction, but also the roles of the various heirs, and the power that went with these positions.

Rudolf-August, who served as an SS officer during the Second World War, died in 2007 at the age of 90. According to company sources, the old patriarch decreed in 2006 that Alfred should take over leadership of the company, if necessary with support from his half-brother August.

Just a year later, a dispute erupted between the sibling alliances over the interpretation of Rudolf-August’s will. The dispute involved strategic questions. While the older group of siblings wanted to form a shipping group, the younger group favored a diversified conglomerate.

Over the last year, a compromise was worked out: Alfred Oetker would become vice-chairman of the supervisory board. However, this effectively blocked his path to executive power. According to company rules, the supervisory board chair is excluded from becoming chief executive. Insiders speak of this as a coup by the older half-brother August, which set up the conflict now playing out in Bielefeld in northwest Germany, where Oetker is based.

Alfred had long held ambitions to become chief executive: He enjoyed considerable success as head of the company’s Dutch subsidiary.

According to sources on the board, younger family members are now ready to accept Mr. Christmann as chief executive. But they wanted to see continued representation for the family on the management committee.

The corporate bylaw’s upper age limit of 65 means older siblings are effectively ruled out. And since Alfred legally cannot be chief executive, the focus has shifted to his half-brother, Carl Ferdinand, since his sister Julia already declined the position. But it remains to be seen if the older generation will accept Carl Ferdinand.

It was no coincidence that a report in Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, suggested Carl Ferdinand was unsuitable for the role, since he did not become a managing partner of Lampe, the private bank owned by the Oetker group.

Carl Ferdinand, who is 43, is regarded as just as ambitious as his half-brother, Alfred, and has spent most of his career in the financial industry. After studying in the United States, he worked for Boston Consulting, investment fund Schroeders, insurer Axa, and BHF Bank, before returning to the family business in 2002 to work for Lampe, working his way up to general manager.

In a surprise move last year, he left the bank. In a letter to staff, Lampe said he wanted to “devote himself to his entrepreneurial interests.” Allegedly, he was thwarted in his ambitions to run the bank. The former chief financial officer of the Oetker group, Erbst Schröder, is chairman of Lampe’s supervisory board.

He is seen as a close associate of August Oetker, and was best man at his wedding. Carl Ferdinand continues to hold offices within the group: He is deputy chairman of the pharmaceuticals manufacturer Stada, and member of several boards, including print manufacturers König & Bauer and spice producer Hela.

He is also active as an entrepreneur in his own right with a punching tool company, Wink. He raised his stake when Lampe sold its interest.

It is clear that, as a family representative, Carl Ferdinand is being groomed as a successor to Mr. Christmann. But it could be many years before this post is vacant again. By then the balance of power on the board may be very different.

As a family representative, Carl Ferdinand is being groomed as a possible successor to Mr. Christmann.

Carl Ferdinand and Alfred both shun publicity. But some weeks ago, Alfred gave a rare glimpse into his thinking, when he spoke to a gathering of 400 business people at the AGM of fashion service company Katag. He addressed the topic of evolution and revolution in family-owned companies, insisting that large acquisitions are not good for family firms. “Anyone who has to make a big deal, has previously missed out on something,” said Mr. Oetker. He said his company only swallowed “digestible portions,” for example Coppenrath & Wiese.

He added that evolution for a family firm meant not putting all its eggs in one basket. Nothing new for Oetker, where diversification has led to success over four generations, now also on an international scale. The company, which sells deep-frozen pizzas in 40 countries, persisted in the face of discouragement, said Mr. Oetker. Growth in China had been slow, he said, not least because many kitchens there lacked ovens.

Internationalization also affected management and family, he added: they also become global. “Do not get the idea that knowing English is enough,” he said. He himself knew seven languages and had lived in ten countries. His wife is Italian, while his children were born in Belgium. His family now lives in the Netherlands. All of this changes one’s view, he said, adding that Dutch bosses were sometimes known to bring coffee to their female secretaries. Family businesses also needed a whiff of revolution, he emphasized, which could even bring about a complete change of attitude. The coming months will reveal if the Oetker Group can manage that kind of revolutionary change.

 

Florian Kolf leads a team of reporters covering the retail, consumer goods, luxury and fashion markets. Christoph Kapalschinski covers consumer goods, textiles and food for Handelsblatt. Anja Müller writes about family and small- and medium-sized firms. To contact the authors: kapalschinski@handelsblatt.com, kolf@handelsblatt.com, mueller@handelsblatt.com.

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