CEO Shake-Up

Power Struggle Leaves BHF Bank in Crisis

BHFBank-imago-Hannelore Foerster
Few German banks have had as tumultuous a history as BHF Bank.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    BHF Bank has a turbulent history. A leadership change has plunged it back into crisis just as many had thought the bank’s worst days were behind it.

  • Facts


    • BHF Bank has had four owners in the past 15 years, including the Dutch bank ING, German banks Sal. Oppenheim and Deutsche Bank.
    • The investment group RHJ acquired a majority stake in the bank in 2014.
    • BHF Bank rose to become one of the pillars of Germany’s finance sector in the 1970s, but has struggled in the past decade.
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There was an oppressive silence in the BHF Tower, located near the downtown of Germany’s financial capital Frankfurt.

One day after an abrupt and dramatic change in top management at the storied BHF Bank, the anxiety felt by employees at a company meeting on Wednesday morning was almost palpable.

“We are in a state of shock at the bank,” said one attendee.

A leadership struggle has deeply shaken this historic private bank, which dates back to 1854 and has long thrived on discretion rather than publicity stunts. The bank has had a checkered history in recent times, changing hands four times in the past 15 years.

Many had thought the bad times were in the past. But this week’s events have once again exposed major rifts between different camps. Employees fear the management dispute is scaring away customers, and that the upheaval has upset a delicate balance of power they thought had been holding at the bank over the past year.

“It’s extremely harmful to BHF’s banking business to be hearing new background music again,” said one BHF banker.

“We have put a 10-year success story at risk,” said another banker.

The crisis comes down to a power struggle between two men: Supervisory Board Chairman Leonhard (“Lenny”) Fischer, a charismatic former investment banker whose investment group took over the BHF last year, and chief executive Björn Robens, a strong-willed traditional retail banker who was a holdover from the BHF’s previous owners, Deutsche Bank.

On Tuesday, the supervisory board, which has the power to hire and fire managers, announced that Mr. Robens was stepping down over “disagreements” on strategy. Alexander Mettenheimer, a 63-year-old former Merck-Finck CEO, will replace him in the interim. A new chief executive is to be found within a year.

The news came as a surprise to employees and shareholders alike. It comes just one year after the takeover of BHF by an investor group led by Mr. Fischer’s investment company, RHJ. In the past year, Mr. Robens had sought to consolidate power and prevent Mr. Fischer from having a say in the bank’s running.

Both camps are now melodramatically accusing each other of attempted coups and of wheeling and dealing over the past year.

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