Who would have thought that the corruption scandals at Siemens could have so quickly been topped by yet another scandal? But now the unthinkable has happened at Siemens headquarters in Munich. The flames are rising ever higher and there is no fireman in sight.
The Siemens madhouse: There has probably never been a case before in which the boss of a global company, with 475,000 employees, has been so unscrupulously undermined by his own supervisory board, one packed with prominent figures. Even though the decision had already been made to offer CEO Klaus Kleinfeld's contract, the board hesitated and even started looking for his replacement behind the chief executive's back. In the end, the only alternative to getting fired was for Kleinfeld to quit.
The driving force behind the putsch didnt come from the expected source -- the trade unions who oppose his harsh Anglo-American style of management -- but rather from the crème de la crème of the German business world: Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann and the former head of ThyssenKrupp Gerhard Cromme.
So why did Klaus Kleinfeld have to go? What made the supervisory board so furious that they were willing to plunge Siemens into such a severe leadership crisis and to place the value of Siemens shares at risk? The dry ad-hoc announcements emanating from the company ("Kleinfeld informed the supervisory board at its meeting today that he is no longer available for a renewed contract") have done little to answer these questions. But there are several possible scenarios:
Scenario 1: Kleinfeld is complicit. The supervisory board has proof that, despite all the assertions to the contrary and investigations, the outgoing CEO is in some way involved in the corruption scandal. But if that's true, then the supervisory board would likely have had to provide at least some concrete facts by now. Probability: 10 percent.
Scenario 2: Ackermann is scared of the Americans. The Securities and Exchange Commission in the US is pushing for new management because of the corruption scandal. Siemens' shares are listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and Siemens fears a lengthy legal battle with the American securities regulators as well as hefty fines. Both the SEC and the US Justice Department are already investigating Siemens for possible criminal violations. In order to accommodate the SEC, both von Pierer and Kleinfeld had to go. Probability: 30 percent.
Scenario 3: Von Pierer is taking Kleinfeld down with him. The former chairman of the supervisory board, Heinrich von Pierer, who has been replaced by Gerhard Cromme, only agreed to resign on Friday if his successor and protégé was also forced out. The reason: he may have felt that Kleinfeld had left him alone to weather the media storm over the bribery scandal. Kleinfeld sought present himself as a clean pair of hands, thus indirectly making von Pierer look guilty. Probability: Rather unbelievable.
Nevertheless, statements attributed to Ackermann seem to strengthen the viability of the last scenario. He reportedly made it known that a supervisory board could not tolerate this kind of behavior from a CEO. According to Siemens insiders, von Pierer was already looking for a successor three weeks ago. They say it was already clear to him that he wouldnt be chairman for much longer, and that if he had to give way then Kleinfeld should also go.
This has all left Germany's most famous industry giant without a leader capable of acting or the ability at the moment to present any successor. That, of course, has made the company shares vulnerable. Indeed, hedge funds managers must be rubbing their hands with glee. It is no longer unthinkable that this pearl of German industry could soon become a target for financial raiders, who could use the leadership chaos and plummeting share value to take over the company and to break it up to make profits.
It will only gradually become apparent what exactly provoked the supervisory board to place the company in such danger. But it is clear that Ackermann, Cromme and Co. have done the German economy a great disservice. It couldn't have been any worse.
The author is the editor in chief of manager-magazin.de