Christian Democrats

Not Your Average Backbencher

Berliner CDU starten in den Plakatwahlkampf
Poster boy. Source: Kay Nietfeld/DPA.

It’s hard to tell by the brown leather moccasins he wears — and which his wife, an art historian, wants him to throw away — but Thomas Heilmann is rich and doesn’t need to work for a living anymore. And yet Mr. Heilmann has just been through a bruising fight with his own party, the conservative Christian Democrats, in his local district in Berlin to get nominated for a promising ticket to get into the Bundestag in the election on September 24. The odds are that he will succeed. But when he takes his seat in the back rows of parliament, he will be no ordinary backbencher.

For a start, he already has the ear of the Christian Democrats’ leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, having advised her on technology policy. That is because Mr. Heilmann, aged 53, has behind him a long career as an investor, entrepreneur, activist lawyer, and regional politician. If he were to seek a more public role, he certainly has qualifications.

The fifth of six children of a philosophy professor, Mr. Heilmann joined the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, at just 16. But rather than going straight into politics he became an entrepreneur. In the 1990s, he teamed up with two partners to found Scholz & Friends, an advertising agency that became the largest in Germany of those not owned by the international giants. Scholz & Friends was eventually (in 2011) sold to London-based WPP for something just short of €200 million.

“At the state level in Berlin, I am pretty unloved by a segment of CDU members.”

Thomas Heilmann, CDU candidate for the Bundestag for Berlin

In the meantime, Mr. Heilmann had already launched a string of other ventures across a bewildering spectrum. In 1999, he invested in, which is now Europe’s largest seller of toys. He also invested early in a Berlin-based web firm; co-founded Xing, Germany’s equivalent to LinkedIn; and put money into a Californian firm called Vicinity whose geolocation data powers the search engine Bing. Oh, and he bought into Facebook all the way back in 2006 — “far less than 1 percent’’ – before selling it three years later, when Facebook’s value had multiplied by 15 times.

If that is how he made his money, he made his reputation with two other quests. In 2000 he played a pivotal role in breaking open Germany’s still-crusty natural-gas market. In theory, the market had already been liberalized; in practice, a large company called Ruhrgas still controlled the market at the wholesale level. Mr. Heilmann, who had helped launch an upstart firm, Ampere, which traded in electricity and natural gas, decided to fight in the courts to get equal access to gas at honest prices.

He struggled for a year. Often he sat alone on one side of the table across from 15 energy lawyers and investment bankers, he recalls. And yet he prevailed. At the end, his opponents came to him offering to settle: “OK, you won in court. How much money do you want?’’, Mr. Heilman recalls. “And I said: ‘None. I want the liberalization of the German natural gas market and you can’t buy me.’’’

The other feather in his cap came in 2010 out of his role as facilitator during the looming bankruptcy of Karstadt, a huge German department-store chain. Its collapse and the resulting job losses would have become a political disaster. So Mr. Heilmann was picked to unwind the knotted tangle of bankers, labor unionists and investors. He engineered a solution in which Karstadt was sold to Nicolas Berggruen, a German-American investor and scion of a renowned art collector. (Mr. Berggruen sold Karstadt again in 2014).

His reputation after the Karstadt rescue helped in 2012, when the Christian Democrats chose him to be justice minister of Berlin, one of 16 federal states. The CDU was only the junior partner in government. But Mr. Heilmann pushed through a law-and-order program that included drug-sniffing dogs in prisons and surveillance cameras in trouble spots.

Mr. Heilmann nonetheless received a drubbing in the regional election of 2016, when he lost his bid for a seat in the state parliament. So he turned his sights to the national Bundestag. But to get himself on the ticket for his district’s seat, he first had to win a nasty food fight with a rival Christian Democrat. After mutual accusations of manipulation, Mr. Heilmann finally prevailed. But the fight left scars. “At the state level in Berlin, I am pretty unloved by a segment of CDU members,’’ Heilmann says.

That is unlikely to keep him out of the Bundestag, for if the polls are even remotely close, his seat appears safe. Once in that chamber, Mr. Heilmann will join party cohorts composed largely of civil servants, academics or career politicians. He’ll have to get in line for the good committees. But he could do well if he gets on them.

During that time, Ms. Merkel, then in her fourth term, is widely expected to groom a successor. Names bandied about include defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, chief of staff Peter Altmaier, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a regional governor who recently shined in an electoral triumph. Whoever does succeed Ms. Merkel in the CDU will need to promote a new generation of party cadres. Mr. Heilmann might be tempted to send in his resume — even if that takes a while to print out.


Kevin O’Brien was Handelsblatt Global’s chief editor until March 2017.

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