The two sides of Hasso Plattner become evident in the eastern city of Potsdam. At one end of the university campus is the high-tech institute that he finances and which is named after him. At the other end is his venture capital firm, through which Plattner buys stakes in start-up companies that promise future profits.
Here is Plattner the benefactor, there is Plattner the capitalist. But regardless of whether he's being a donor or an investor, he's got to be an adventurer. A man like Plattner has money for both -- a lot of money. Born in Berlin, he is of the five founders of the software giant SAP, and is one of the few Germans to have managed to make billions in just one generation. He's also gained a worldwide reputation. Since stepping down as head of SAP, Plattner, 64, spends a large part of the year in the US or in South Africa, where he owns a hotel.
The former IBM manager is a fan of fast cars, has been praised by Bill Gates for his art collection, and engages in wild sailing duels with his arch-rival, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. But he still keeps coming back to Potsdam.
It is noon on a rainy day in Potsdam. Down in the parking lot, Plattner's silver Ferrari is sparkling. Its windows get terribly fogged up in the mornings, he says, dressed in a shirt and heavy sweater. He's currently looking for an apartment in the area because he doesn't want to keep staying hotels when he's got things to do in the Berlin area. In a few days he is flying to the Bahamas. At least the weather is better there. The economic crisis catches up with him wherever he goes.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Plattner, we want to talk to you about money.
SPIEGEL: A dramatic year for the world economy is drawing to a close. Do you know how much you personally have lost in 2008?
Plattner: I honestly haven't calculated how much less my SAP shares alone are worth. It won't be difficult through. And it's certainly a lot.
SPIEGEL: Well over a billion Euros.
Plattner: Fortunately that's just what it's worth on paper. Right now I'm more worried about my foundation
SPIEGEL: which supports a whole university institute here in Potsdam with several hundred million euros. Because it's underpinned by SAP shares?
Plattner: Yes, and of course the foundation loses capital when the share price drops. In this way, it's losing real value.
SPIEGEL: Someone with as much money as you certainly isn't investing it himself.
Plattner: I have a private wealth adviser who just works for me. And I also asked him in the last months if we had any derivatives. We didn't have any. I don't even understand them. The whole business model. I even said that one time in the company when the subject came up. Some people smiled at that.
SPIEGEL: You still want to know how business works?
Plattner: Many years ago I invested money in real estate that I knew nothing about. It went pretty badly. And you know what? It was my own fault. I should have looked into it better first. There can be a damned big difference between publicity photos in a brochure and reality! But my father had an even worse experience.
SPIEGEL: Do tell.
Plattner: He once bought land in Florida. He had only seen it by low tide. At high tide, it was underwater, and every now and again a crocodile would swim by.
SPIEGEL: Have you ever taken a big loss yourself, for example like the owner of pharmaceutical company Ratiopharm, Adolf Merckle, who spent millions of euros betting against VW stock and then ended up brazenly demanding government guarantees?
Plattner: That was a particular kind of speculation. And I can't bring myself to feel much regret for Mr. Merckle's losses
SPIEGEL: because somebody who's betting on falling share prices is likely to talk down the company?
Plattner: Not necessarily. Others say that by using methods like short-selling you can control a company, because only those who are really susceptible will react. In the end, though, every kind of speculation is a bet. If you accept speculation, it has to be regardless of whether share prices are going up or down. But when I lose money like that, I don't get to call in the government like Mr. Merckle.
SPIEGEL: Currently SAP share prices have fallen quite sharply. Is that because of the usual unfair market jitters?
Plattner: I have no idea. Maybe SAP was overvalued in years past.
SPIEGEL: Have you ever wished that you had never taken your company public?
Plattner: Oh, you know, secretly you always have thoughts like that. But the company didn't go public because it needed money for investments.
SPIEGEL: That's the usual reason for taking that step.
Plattner: Sure, but we were actually always able to finance our growth from our own coffers. That said, without the stockmarket listing SAP certainly wouldn't have become so popular around the world so quickly.
SPIEGEL: But the ongoing pressure for high returns can strangle a company.
Plattner: Of course, there's always that demand for growth. And as a CEO, you can feel like a gladiator in the Colosseum. The jeering crowd of ancient times has been replaced by today's analysts who give you the thumbs up or down. And of course shareholders will be angry if SAP's high profitability drops. But if you're going to play the game, you have to play by the rules. And it's a game that's being played around the world. We can't allow ourselves to have any illusions about that.
SPIEGEL: Sometimes it's a nasty game. In 2005, Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackerman announced a 25 percent return for the company while at the same time saying it would lay off more than 6,000 employees.
Plattner: Objectively speaking, he was completely right. His bank needed those returns in order to stay globally competitive. He just expressed it badly. It's something that's understood almost everywhere around the world, just not in Germany, where one sometimes comes across a confused social romanticism.
SPIEGEL: What's utopian about people wanting a just society?
Plattner: Is German society unjust, then? Ever since the economic miracle of Ludwig Erhard, we Germans have been entrenched in a capitalist business system, on top of which we have super-imposed the cloak of a "social market economy"
SPIEGEL: which we find reasonable, because it softens the effects of extreme capitalism.
Plattner: I completely agree. But there's a feeling in this country that we don't want capitalism any more, and instead want something different, something nicer. But nothing better exists, despite all the system's weaknesses and its dark sides. East Germany showed us where a communist planned economy would lead us. Some people have started talking fondly about those times.
SPIEGEL: For example, the actor who played the police detective on the TV crime show Tatort, Peter Sodann, [now running for the largely ceremonial post of German president on behalf of the Left Party in an election next year] said: "I won't let the GDR be taken away from me."
Plattner: For me, that's just curious. On the other hand, the man is a candidate for the office of president of the republic.
SPIEGEL: In surveys, fewer and fewer Germans say they consider democracy to be the best political system, or capitalism to be the most sensible economic system.
Plattner: That really bothers me too. The only thing to do is take a look at the world, Cuba for example.
SPIEGEL: But one of the origins of the financial and economic crisis was the relentless greed for ever increasing returns.
Plattner: That greed is there. But even more decisive was the fact that stakeholders took on unmanageable risks. All of them at that -- bankers, politicians, analysts, rating agencies, American homeowners and European small investors. People who don't understand what Lehman certificates are shouldn't buy them. At every level, the intransparency of the risk was largely responsible for the crisis. Most people didn't know what they were buying anymore. So these dangerous investments were able to infect the whole world without people noticing. Once the disease broke out, it was already too late.
SPIEGEL: When did it first become clear to you that this crisis was bigger than all previous cyclical fluctuations?
Plattner: At first I saw television pictures of the long lines of people outside branches of the British bank Northern Rock. People were suddenly scared -- of mismanagement by their bankers. Some time later I was in the Caribbean, on Martinique, where Americans like to vacation. All at once they had disappeared. Then you saw pictures everywhere of Americans forced to leave their houses because they could no longer pay their mortgages. Even today I find that incomprehensible, since the banks don't get anything from having the houses sit empty. They can't get rid of them anyway. They could have at least spared those people the trauma of not having a roof over their heads.
SPIEGEL: Isn't that typical for this extreme trait of capitalism? First everyone wants to hit it big, then everyone runs away.
Plattner: I knew an American who suddenly fell ill. It turned out that he didn't have any health insurance. As long as he had a job in the USA, he thought, I'll just pay it myself if anything happens. This man lost his job, his house, and in the end, his life. That's when I really began to think about the problems in the system.
SPIEGEL: What was the result? Had it become too easy for Americans to live on credit?
'We're All in a Complete Fog'
Plattner: They were driven into debt by the American banks which hoped to earn money by lending to poorer and poorer people. There was a crazy amount of advertising behind it. The message was: you'd have to be stupid not to take out a loan for a house at these low interest rates, since houses will always go up in value. That's how America began sinking into mass debt. Maybe it's a cultural question, or a generational one. Personally, I was raised never to have debts.
SPIEGEL: It sounds like you're giving the main responsibility not to the banks but to the dumb small investors.
Plattner: Everyone took part in this, not just the bankers. Americans were ready to live with debt. Why did they buy for example massive cars that could go much faster than the speed limits on their highways would allow? It wasn't just the industry that was seducing them. People want to be seduced. I believe this game would have continued for quite a while if the USA hadn't had to finance two big wars. Wars that ended up being paid for on credit in the same way that ordinary people were borrowing money to buy their homes. That's how everything got even worse.
SPIEGEL: Maybe people on Wall Street should have used more common sense, rather than letting trading operations be managed by cold computer programs.
Plattner: You're right about that. Thinking has in part been taken over by computer algorithms. It's a bit like autopilot on a plane; you can't do without it, but it also can't fly the plane alone.
SPIEGEL: If they all used the same software
Plattner: ... they all behave the same...
SPIEGEL: ... like lemmings.
Plattner: If all these clever mathematicians and statisticians with their software and financial models shaped such a disaster in the end, the call for more market monitoring and regulation is the wrong answer.
SPIEGEL: Objection! Letting the market run free has clearly failed. That's why all the stakeholders are calling for government intervention.
Plattner: So? Private debt will be exchanged for public debt. The problem will just be transferred. Of course we need short-term financial support, even if it is still a mystery to me why the very companies who practiced the worst business principles should be the first to get money from the state.
SPIEGEL: Are you against state support for banks and businesses?
Plattner: In our current situation, it may not be possible to do without bridge loans. Banks and businesses need time to adjust. But in principle, subsidies are problematic. It's better to invest in the future, in infrastructure and education.
SPIEGEL: And why is the call for greater regulation the wrong reaction?
Plattner: Clearly, we need to draw new boundaries. But in the end it's a question of transparency. More than anything, markets need laws that ensure openness. Look what happened with the fashionable subject of biofuels! In the beginning, many countries sponsored big development programs to produce grain-based energy sources. Then suddenly the UN sounded the alarm because the price of basic foods had doubled.
SPIEGEL: This was another problem powered by speculation.
Plattner: That may be. But suddenly there was a worldwide starvation problem. In the end it's just another example showing that the governments are also just stakeholders, and also make mistakes. The way individuals make mistakes. Transparency helps us recognize such mistakes faster.
SPIEGEL: Is the USA just part of the problem, or also part of the solution?
Plattner: Both, naturally. They sprung this crisis on us, but I feel certain they will also be the first to emerge strengthened from it. The Americans by the way also have no problem locking someone away for 25 years when he's proven to have lied and committed fraud, like Worldcom founder Bernie Ebbers. When something doesn't work, Americans change it fast and sometimes hard.
SPIEGEL: Bonuses for managers were also part of the problem. At the American investment bank Goldman Sachs alone, several billion went out in bonuses over the last few years.
Plattner: That may sound crazy to us, but things work differently in America. Even our top people there tell me, 'You may have founded SAP, but we're developing it further and delivering you the profits -- so we want a piece of the pie.' And you know what? I think they're right.
SPIEGEL: The bonuses are tied to criteria like stock performance. Little wonder that leads people to embellish balance sheets and engage in frenzied activity.
Plattner: It works just the other way round -- increasing company profits lead to a rise in share prices, which in turn leads to increased bonuses.
SPIEGEL: In the last months there have been bankers who drove their companies into the ground and still landed big severance packages.
Plattner: That may be difficult to explain to people. These severance packages and bonuses are really just an echo of past success, their dues for previous years. You can't suddenly deprive managers of components of their usual income. People have contracts. Find me someone who would sign one for, let's say, just one year? To me it seems crazy that only managers are singled out for exorbitant earnings. Owners are rarely taken to task for that.
SPIEGEL: The financial crisis was unbelievably quick to affect real business. Many companies are considering layoffs. Not even a success story like SAP can give a clear outlook for 2009.
Plattner: Having no outlook is worse than having a bad one. We're all in a complete fog. We have no idea anymore how things are going to turn out.
SPIEGEL: Even SAP is now saving on business trips, company cars, and so forth.
Plattner: Oh, that wasn't a big deal. We're cutting back on a few things. Maybe that was communicated a little clumsily.
SPIEGEL: Is it normal for you as the head of the supervisory board to attend the works council meeting to whip up sentiment?
Plattner: It's not unusual for me to show up there. And current circumstances are really unusual. But we aren't the biggest problem for SAP right now, it's the analysts who want their numbers.
SPIEGEL: What lessons have you personally learned from the current economic crisis?
Plattner: Recently on German TV they showed "Domino Day." You could see the pieces falling at an incredible speed. Remorselessly. With the same remorseless resolve, piece after piece in the economy is falling down at frightening speed. I don't have the impression, though, that we're much cleverer now than we were back in the world economic crisis almost 80 years ago. The world has been living too much on credit, and is still doing so.
SPIEGEL: How so?
Plattner: When we look at ourselves, how we are exploiting the environment, there is only one conclusion -- that we are all living way beyond our means, and we don't even notice it. And when the bill finally arrives
SPIEGEL: Mr. Plattner, thank you for the interview.