Kirch insolvency may allow Murdoch and Berlusconi to carve up Germany

Political reverberations begin as media empire chaired by reclusive 75-year-old crashes
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The Independent Online

At age 75, the almost blind and reclusive, Leo Kirch, a man used to wielding enormous power, yesterday stood helpless as the media empire he spent a lifetime building, filed for insolvency.

The main Kirch business, in a labyrinthine corporate structure, admitted there was no way it could pay its debts. After months of trying to stitch together a rescue plan – a process that involved Germany's political leaders, its biggest banks and two colourful foreign media tycoons, Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi – Kirch ran out of options.

The private company built up debts and contingent liabilities, of about €10bn (£6.1bn), that it could not sustain. A career built on taking risks and borrowing big finally unravelled for Mr Kirch.

And his downfall has major political ramifications in Germany. Not only does it open the door to foreign media groups to enter the market, a sensitive issue, but it comes in an election year in Germany.

Mr Kirch is close to Edmund Stoiber, the prime minister of Bavaria and challenger to Gerhard Schröder in September's national election. He was also very friendly with Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor, whom he helped through two general elections.

Mr Kirch has been considered a Murdoch-like figure in Germany, wielding massive political influence. But he has never courted the sort of personal profile that other media moguls have found irresistible.

A visionary and a workaholic, Mr Kirch built a huge, secretive, media empire, which included Europe's biggest film library, Germany's leading pay and free-to-air TV operations, and the rights to Formula One racing, the German football league and the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

As a young man, Leo Kirch recognised the business potential of dealing in media content, as far back as the 1950s, and he pioneered commercial television in Germany.

Though he borrowed heavily throughout his career, he just about managed to stay ahead of the game until the last few years, when he went too far and bet too heavily. It was pay-TV, launched in 1996, that was his undoing.

Stefan Weiss, an analyst at WestLB, said: "Leo Kirch was over-optimistic about pay-TV in Germany and he did not correct the business plan when it became obvious that it was not succeeding."

In particular, Mr Kirch struck a deal in December 1999 with Mr Murdoch's BSkyB, which invested €1.3bn in Kirch's pay-TV business, Premiere, for a 22 per cent stake. But the deal gave the Australian tycoon the option to get his money back with interest if the business failed to perform. When that put option was called, as it now has, Kirch did not have the cash to pay up and was thrown into crisis.

"Murdoch is a shark. Sharks have sharp teeth. Anyone who can't swim with them shouldn't get in the pool with them," Mr Kirch said.

Leo Kirch is a classic self-made man. In 1956 he decided that importing films to Germany presented an opportunity and he borrowed money from his wife's parents to bag his first title, Federico Fellini's "La Strada". From there he established himself as a film rights trader and built what became by the 1970s a virtual monopoly for the German market, working as an intermediary between the Hollywood studios and Germany's public broadcasters.

He backed Sat.1, Germany's first commercial station in 1985, and built the business into one of the country's two main free-to-air broadcasters. In the 1990s, Kirch bought stakes in Axel Springer and Spain's Telecino.

Mr Kirch's long business career has frequently been through financial crises in the past but, by exploiting political connections, he always persuaded the banks to bail him out.

But the stakes got higher once pay-TV was launched and, much of the running of the empire was delegated to a young executive, Dieter Hahn. Kirch massively over-paid for sports and film rights, splashing out about £1bn for the World Cup rights, some £1bn to televise the German football league and, last year, €1.6bn for the rights to Formula One motor racing.

Deals with Hollywood studios added £2bn to liabilities. It was the cash requirements of this content acquisition trail and having to fund the huge operating losses at Premiere that led Kirch to the fatal deal with Mr Murdoch, as well as taking on new bank loans. It is said that Mr Stoiber lent on Bavaria's Bayerische Landesbank to advance Kirch €1bn last year.

The strategy for Premiere hugely over-estimated the likely growth of customers and ignored glaring problems. Because Germany has dozens of free-to-air channels, where the population can watch football or films for nothing, there is not much appetite for pay-TV.

The collapse of Kirch should have provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a big entry into the German media market. However, so inter-related are the debts and obligations between divisions, that no part of the business could be easily extricated.

The strategic investors, led by Mr Murdoch, were asked to join the banks in putting about €800m into Kirch and providing a €150m loan. But they could not agree terms with the banks on how much equity they would get in return. The free-to-air business, ProSiebenSat.1, was the most attractive of the assets that they all wanted.

The prospect of Mr Murdoch or Mr Berlusconi entering Germany has created shockwaves. Kirch has a 40 per cent stake in Axel Springer, publisher of Bild, Germany's biggest tabloid newspaper.

Unlike Britain, the sex lives of Germany's political leaders have largely remained out of the press. One German media executive said: "Politicians are scarred to death. They're terrified of Berlusconi because he would exert political influence and Murdoch because he would bring trash, including politicians private lives."

Leo Kirch has been a master at playing Germany's way of doing business, a cosy world that has been characterised as Germany Inc, where banks take stakes in and sit on the supervisory boards of the companies they lend to. In particular the Landesbanks – the state-owned regional banks - provide finance on favourable terms to companies operating in their area. This all meant that, until recently, companies were rarely allowed to go bust.

But now finance houses like Deutsche Bank, a major Kirch creditor, are insisting on modernising the country's corporate relationships. Leo Kirch seemed to believe the German system would allow him to go on forever. He was wrong.

ProSiebenSat.1

A profitable free-to-air broadcaster, in which Kirch has a majority stake. The business is one half of a duopoly, with RTL, that has sown up the German market. Although highly geared, this is seen as the Kirch's crown jewel. Annual revenues of more than €2bn. Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi would love to get their hands to this asset.

KirchMedia

This group contains most of the sports rights and the film rights but Kirch is committed to paying hugely inflated prices for this content, especially for movies from Hollywood studios. Loans of about €1.8bn are secured against the film library. Kirch has missed payments and new releases are no longer being supplied.

SLEC Holding

Kirch holds a 75 per cent stake in Formula One racing, acquired for €1.6bn. There has not been much interest in this asset. The agreement with the racing teams to televise the sport runs to the end of the 2007 season.

Axel Springer

Would be an attractive asset as this publisher is behind Bild, Germany's leading tabloid. But the agreement of Springer management is required for any transfer of ownership of the stake in this business.

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