After more than a decade at the head of Siemens (SI ), the icon of German industry, Chief Executive Heinrich von Pierer is something of an icon himself.
In 2003, his name was floated briefly as a candidate for the German presidency. After years of investor criticism that he moved too slowly to transform the $93 billion electronics conglomerate into a global competitor, von Pierer is getting the last laugh. While competitors such as Netherlands-based Philips Group (PHG ) suffered losses during the recent economic downturn, Siemens remained profitable. The share price has doubled over the past year, to almost $87 on the New York Stock Exchange. "He has done good work," allows shareholder advocate Daniela Bergdolt, a Munich lawyer who once told von Pierer at a stockholders' meeting that he should leave the company.
Now Bergdolt is worried about what will happen when von Pierer does just that. The 63-year-old executive's contract expires in September. He is widely expected to accept a two-year extension, but the question of who will succeed one of Germany's most important executives is fast becoming a hot topic in Germany -- and elsewhere in Europe, where a new generation of CEOs is fast taking over. The race to succeed von Pierer, in fact, has already started in earnest. Von Pierer and Siemens supervisory board members are now closely watching a handful of candidates. Front-runners include former U.S. division chief Klaus Kleinfeld and Thomas Ganswindt, who runs the fixed-line telecom equipment business.
The oddsmakers currently favor 46-year-old Kleinfeld. Last November, he was promoted to the seven-member central committee of the management board in recognition for his work as CEO of Siemens' $20 billion U.S. operations from January, 2002, until December, a post seen as good training for the top slot. Like Siemens worldwide, the U.S. operations are a collection of fiefdoms that often need to be strong-armed into cooperating. But there are other credible candidates, including 47-year-old Johannes Feldmayer, another central committee member.
Whoever prevails, a new generation of managers is already moving into Siemens' top echelons. In just a year, the average age of top management has fallen from 58 to 53, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM ) calculates. While rising fortysomethings won't foment revolution at consensus-driven Siemens, they are likely to speed the company's shift away from its conservative German roots. The new managers will focus more intensely on profit, move faster to unload underperforming units, and shift more production to cheaper locations abroad. "Obviously, von Pierer will be a tough act to follow," says Henning Gebhardt, head of German equities at DWS, the fund management arm of Deutsche Bank (DB ). "But after 10 years, sometimes a change at the top is good."
Von Pierer wrought mighty changes, even if his slow-but-steady pace didn't always satisfy investors. When he took over in 1992, Siemens relied heavily on government contracts, rarely disciplined managers who delivered poor results, and employed 61% of its workforce in high-wage Germany. Transparency? The company published no profit figures for its divisions, and often even employees didn't know if their units were making money.
POLITICIAN'S TOUCH. Now Siemens gives detailed company and divisional results quarterly and has sacked numerous underperforming managers. Net return on sales has risen from 2.4% in 1993, the year after von Pierer took charge, to 4% in the latest quarter. Von Pierer responded to criticism that Siemens, which makes everything from locomotives to X-ray machines, had too many moving parts. He spun off dozens of units, including chipmaker Infineon Technologies (IFX ) and the electronic-components unit known as Epcos. Now, 60% of employees work outside Germany and the domestic workforce has been cut by a third, to 167,000. Von Pierer, an engineer with a politician's touch, managed that without provoking extensive labor unrest -- no small feat in a land where layoffs are deemed unpatriotic.
The new generation of managers, though, is likely to be more willing to bust heads. Consider the way Ganswindt turned around the company's $8.9 billion Information & Communication Networks division. He cut the workforce by nearly 40%, or 20,000 workers, to reduce costs by $4.4 billion. He shifted production to Brazil and China. From a loss of nearly $865 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2002, ICN returned to a profit of $64 million in the last quarter.
Despite the improvements, Siemens still gets heat for mediocre margins. Ganswindt and the other young managers are sensitive to the criticism. "You can't innovate if you don't have money to invest," he says.
Rising managers will also continue pushing the engineer-dominated company to focus more on customers' needs. They will maintain Siemens' steady drive to globalize -- not only by investing in Asia and the Americas but also by importing non-German ways of doing business back to Munich.
There is no question, however, of Siemens transforming itself into something other than a German company. "A new CEO will mean change, but I don't expect a radical departure from the existing philosophy and strategy," says analyst Roland Pitz of HVB Group in Munich. The fear is that some company directors will try to keep things too German. The supervisory board could name a lower-profile candidate such as Kurt-Ludwig Gutberlet, head of BSH Bosch & Siemens Household Appliances, a profitable joint venture with Stuttgart-based Robert Bosch. "It could be someone who is not the strongest but has the strongest consensus among the gray heads," says a source who works closely with Siemens. Still, it's clear that at Siemens, gray heads are becoming ever more scarce.
By Jack Ewing in Frankfurt