Europeans used to marvel at the youth of American chief executives. Not anymore. The makeover at Siemens (SI ) is typical of a trend sweeping Europe. At Deutsche Telekom (DT ), CEO Kai-Uwe Ricke is all of 42. At France Télécom (FTE ), Chief Executive Thierry Breton is 49, as is Henri de Castries, chief executive of AXA (AXA ), France's insurance and financial-services giant. And on Feb. 18, DaimlerChrysler (DCX ) named 43-year-old Wolfgang Bernhard to run the group's Mercedes-Benz unit. "Everywhere you look, there is pressure for new blood, for diversity, for change," says Sophie L'Hélias, a shareholder-rights activist in Paris.
L'Hélias and other institutional shareholders are forcing much of the turnover. They pushed out Credit Suisse head Lukas Mühlemann two years ago, and a revolt at Zurich Financial Services was key in Rolf Huppi exiting the scene the same year.
The question now is how long activist shareholders will let the young bloods reign. "This is the second generational renewal I've seen," says Brigitte Lemercier, the managing director in Paris of executive-search group Russell Reynolds Associates Inc. "There's a renewal every 15 years." In around 2020, then, Corporate Europe should start talking again about another generational shift -- provided investors don't demand that new leaders step in sooner.
By John Rossant in Paris