Corporate Encore The Prodigal CEO

Klaus Deller's brief tenure as chief executive of the Schaeffler Group and subsequent return to his old employer, Knorr-Bremse, is a tale of family and corporate intrigue.
Quelle: Pressebild
Here today, gone tomorrow, back to stay.
(Source: Pressebild)

Many careers take circuitous paths. Sometimes executives work for years to reach the top and then things don't work out. They are lured away, head-hunted and finally discarded. And what looks like a dead-end can sometimes turn into a career springboard.

That is what happened to Klaus Deller. On January 1, the mechanical engineer will take control of Munich-based Knorr-Bremse, the world market leader in truck and train brakes with annual revenues of about €4.3 billion ($5.3 billion).

Mr. Deller will replace Michael Buscher, who is resigning from his position as chief executive for "personal reasons" and leaving the company on “amicable terms” after just 18 months.

Mr. Deller’s appointment is remarkable for a number of reasons. At the beginning of this year, he was the subject of a tug-of-war between the two most powerful firms in Germany’s machine supply industry.

Heinz Hermann Thiele, 74, the patriarch of the family that owns Knorr-Bremse, did not want to lose Mr. Deller, a Knorr board member.

On the other side was Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler, a part owner of the roller-bearing maker Schaeffler Group, who wanted Mr. Deller as chief executive. Ms. Schaeffler’s advisor Wolfgang Reitzle, who is supervisory board head of the Schaeffler Group’s car-parts subsidiary, Continental, supported the move aimed at widening the manufacturing cooperation between Schaeffler and Hanover-based Continental.

With great reluctance, Mr. Thiele let his star performer go, only to be exasperated at Mr. Deller’s undignified dismissal in June when Schaeffler suddenly abandoned its plan to make him chief executive.

In the end, Schaeffler appointed its own chief financial officer and interim chief executive, Klaus Rosenfeld, to the top post. Mr. Rosenfeld, who has a close relationship with the Schaeffler family, had taken a liking to being boss and put his strategy in place before Mr. Deller even arrived.

Whether Henrik Thiele, who owns the company jointly with his father and sister, could take over the top job in the future is a matter for speculation.

Mr. Deller did make some mistakes, however, which did not endear him to his prospective employers at Schaeffler.

For example, he attended a soccer match where he seemed to be quite chummy with an ousted Schaeffler chief executive, Jürgen Geissinger. Some at Schaeffler feared a return to the unpopular old regime. In the end, Mr. Deller lost the power struggle with Mr. Rosenfeld.

For Mr. Thiele, though, Mr. Deller was not damaged goods. His respect for Mr. Deller's abilities as businessman and engineer remained unchanged.

Mr. Thiele, who took over an ailing Knorr-Bremse in the mid-1980s and made it into the world’s biggest rail technology supply company, still has great influence with the supervisory board.

070 Knorr Bremse-01


And family influence is strong at Knorr-Bremse.

The patriarch’s son, Henrik Thiele, is a board member. He has been with the company since 2005 and had been based in Hong Kong. The Chinese market is now by far the most important for Knorr, with the company supplying nearly all important rail and metro projects in the country.

Whether Henrik Thiele, who owns the company jointly with his father and sister, could take over the top job in the future is a matter for speculation.

In the meantime, the €11 million that Schaeffler is said to have paid Mr. Deller for non-fulfillment of his employment contract and his shiny new CEO job should smooth out any lingering dents in his ego.


Markus Fasse is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Munich, where he covers the aerospace and automobile industries. Axel Höpner heads Handelsblatt's Munich office. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].