Handelsblatt Exclusive Leadership Turmoil at Deutsche Bahn

The chairman of Germany's national railway operator may be forced to resign, Handelsblatt has learned, just days after the sudden departure of its chief executive. Speculation is already mounting about successors.
Uth-Hellmuth Felcht, left, might announce his resignation after meeting with his political boss, Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt, middle. Deutsche Bahn CEO Rüdiger Grube suddenly quit on Monday.

The non-executive chairman of Deutsche Bahn, Utz-Hellmuth Felcht, might soon be forced to give up his post, Handelsblatt has learned from people familiar with the matter. It comes just days after the surprise departure of the state-owned railway operator’s chief executive, Rüdiger Grube.

Mr. Grube, who had been chief executive since 2009, unexpectedly announced his resignation on Monday after a dispute with the government about the extension of his contract. As the non-executive supervisory board chairman, Mr. Felcht may be held responsible for the decision, which has left one of Germany’s biggest companies without leadership.

The non-executive board has the power to hire and fire management and set a company's strategic direction.

A key moment could come later Wednesday: Mr. Felcht is meeting his political boss, Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt, to discuss Deutsche Bahn’s leadership predicament.

Volker Kefer, who resigned as an executive board member last year due to cost overruns, is one of the candidates to replace Mr. Grube as Deutsche Bahn’s chief.

The German state owns 100 percent of the company, a major firm with €40.5 billion, or $43.7 billion, in annual sales, and €22.3 billion of outstanding debt at the end of June.

Deutsche Bahn, which also owns British train and bus company Arriva, lost more than €1 billion in 2015 and has been struggling to fend off competition from long-distance bus travel firms and modernize its network and rolling stock.

If Mr. Felcht is forced out, his successor could be Michael Frenzel, a former boss of travel company TUI and a current supervisory board member, Handelsblatt has learned.

Volker Kefer, who resigned as an executive board member last year due to cost overruns, is one of the candidates to replace Mr. Grube as Deutsche Bahn’s chief executive. On Monday, the supervisory board discussed Mr. Kefer as a possible successor to Mr. Grube, people familiar with the matter told Handelsblatt.

Another executive board member, Ronald Pofalla, a former chief of staff to Chancellor Angela Merkel, is also seen as a possible new chief executive, but politicians in Berlin think he still lacks the executive experience to be the railway company’s head, government sources told Handelsblatt.

The former politician joined Deutsche Bahn as chief lobbyist in January 2015, after being pressured into taking a one-year cooling off period upon leaving Ms. Merkel's government. He got a board position as head of legal affairs just eight months later. Last month, he was promoted to the key role of head of infrastructure.

Mr. Pofalla was long seen as Mr. Grube’s designated successor and was slated to take over in 2019 at the expected end of Mr. Grube’s contract. The latter's early departure, however, could scupper those plans and open the door for Volker Kelfer instead.

How quickly the matter will be resolved is unclear. Other political parties want to have a say in the selection of the new boss; Green Party politicians have even called for involving parliament in the process.

Until a decision is made, finance manager Richard Lutz will act as Deutsche Bahn’s interim manager.

 

Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt's Berlin office. Dieter Fockenbrock is Handelsblatt’s chief correspondent for the companies and markets desk, focusing on corporate governance, opinion and rail transport. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]