Germany moves in on the world's boardrooms

Corporations are forsaking their old, cosy alliances and taking their cash mountains abroad. Imre Karacs and Michael Harrison report
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The Independent Online
SPRINGER'S flagship Sunday paper, Welt am Sonntag, devoted two paragraphs yesterday to its latest Spanish acquisition and the possible takeover of the Mirror Group. Other papers cared even less. The relentless march of German capital into the boardrooms of the world has failed to excite the German public because it smacks of desertion rather than conquest.

German companies have been merging with each other, swapping shares and spinning complex webs of cross-ownership for decades. What is new is that they are at last broadening their horizons, fanning out from their own protected - and so far highly profitable - market into the rest of the world.

Corporate Germany was slow to wake up to the challenges of globalisation, but has been making up for lost time ever since. So far it has devoted most of its energies expanding into English-speaking markets, snapping up investment banks, publishing companies and car makers in Britain and the US. In part this is a response to the increased competition that Deutschland AG is experiencing through world trade liberalisation and the EU-inspired breakdown of national monopolies.

The old friendly ways - fixing markets, prices, wages and just about everything else with the help of a bank which happens to own a large slice of the company - are breaking down.

Through this cosy system, many German corporations have accumulated vast wealth which can no longer be spent at home. Hence the natural urge to take these cash mountains abroad by buying into bigger markets.

Volkswagen, already Europe's largest car maker, will still have plenty of short change left over if it buys Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. Daimler Benz has been plotting expansion plans for at least three years, and will carry on growing even when the merger with Chrysler is completed.

Bertelsmann, the publishing giant, remains in predatory mood after swallowing up the US publisher Random House. And Springer's next acquisition will not be the last in the near future. Siemens, meanwhile, has acquired large parts of Westinghouse in the US and NEI Parsons in the UK, reinforcing its position as one of the world's biggest power station suppliers.

Two of Britain's oldest merchant banks - Morgan Grenfell and Kleinwort Benson - are now under the respective ownership of Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank.

A British executive who has worked extensively in Germany says that the big change in corporate outlook took place about four years ago. "I suppose it was partly to do with the psychology of unification. Until the two halves of Germany were united the concept of expanding externally was not on their mental map."

He also detects a new willingness to embrace Anglo-Saxon style capitalism alongside the old corporatist, paternalistic, social model prevalent for so long in Germany, with its two-tier boards and workers' representatives, and cross-shareholdings between banks and big industrial conglomerates.

"They have suddenly discovered shareholder value," says one adviser who has worked extensively on the privatisation of Deutsche Telekom. "Exposure to the capital markets has been the catalyst that has sparked the change because it brought with it a realisation that if you want access to the capital markets then you have to deliver proper returns for investors.

"That has encouraged a new breed of manager much more willing to change the way the company invests and does business. It has made for a much more open and shareholder-friendly environment and a more outward-looking one as well."

As German companies' natural market is thrown open to competition, German scouts are spreading out towards the four corners of the globe.

Their progression may appear from across the Channel or the Atlantic as a triumphant advance, but the view from the rear is rather less flattering.

In Frankfurt and Bonn, the worry is what this international expansion will do to employment prospects back home, since what German capital is doing is hedging its bets, taking investment and often jobs abroad.

It is the end of the road for Deutschland AG, and the beginning of Germany Inc, a place to which formerly German multinationals repatriate some of their profits. In this new world, many Germans fear the only job they will find is as Gastarbeiter.

GERMANY'S CORPORATE INVASION

Buyer Target Date Value Sector

BMW Rover March 94 pounds 800m Cars

Dresdner Bank Kleinwort Benson June 95 pounds 1bn Banking

Siemens Westinghouse Nov 97 pounds 1bn Power

Bertelsmann Random House March 98 $2bn Publishing

Volkswagen Rolls-Royce May 98 pounds 430m Cars

Daimler-Benz Chrysler May 98 $38bn Cars

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