Viennese Waltz Wintershall Boss Heads to Austrian Rival

Rainer Seele, head of BASF gas and oil subsidiary Wintershall, has announced he will take the reins at the Austrian competitor OMV in July.
Oh, Vienna! But does Mr. Seele listen to Ultravox? 

Rainer Seele, chairman at BASF gas and oil subsidiary Wintershall, cited “urgent personal reasons” earlier this month when he canceled the company’s annual news conference at corporate headquarters near Frankfurt.

Now it’s clear why Mr. Seele had no time: He was conducting negotiations about a move to Vienna.

Last week, the supervisory board of OMV, the Austrian oil and gas company, announced the German would be its new chief, effective July 1.

His appointment signals the end of a management crisis at Austria’s largest company. The 54-year-old Mr. Seele will succeed Gerhard Roiss.

The Austrian Mr. Roiss – who made the right moves in restructuring the company to concentrate on oil and gas production – was the victim of Viennese political intrigue.

The assertive manager apparently fell out of favor with a major shareholder, the state holding ÖBIB, and endured a smear campaign in the Austrian media for several months. The Austrian state still holds 31.5 percent of OMV.

Mr. Seele, from Bremerhaven in northern Germany, is familiar with the scheming in Vienna. And he knows his future depends not least of all on the goodwill of Austrian finance minister, Hans Jörg Schelling, a former manager at furniture retailer, XXXLutz.

As president of the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Seele has urged an end to Western sanctions.

Foreign managers of semi-state owned companies in Austria have a particularly difficult time in this politically charged environment. Only recently, the German Hans-Peter Floren, board member for gas at OMV, had to leave after losing a power struggle.

A difficult challenge awaits Mr. Seele at the Wintershall competitor. Low oil prices have sent OMV, which has annual revenues of €36 billion, into a tailspin. In 2014 annual profits fell to €367 million, or about $398 million, from €1.16 billion the year before.

In addition, the board is paralyzed by quarrelling. So Mr. Seele will hardly be able to enjoy the view from his high-rise office near Vienna’s famous Prater park. First he has to haul the company out of depression – and generate higher profits again.

Leaving Wintershall will not be easy for Mr. Seele, a trained chemist who spent his entire career at BASF and has led the company since 2009. He might be leaving due to lack of prospects at the parent company. Although Wintershall was responsible for a major part of profits for years, Mr. Seele was not made a board member.

Mr. Seele has business contacts in Russia, where Wintershall is closely connected. He is a longtime friend of Gazprom deputy chief, Alexander Medvedyev. And as president of the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Seele has urged an end to Western sanctions.

“We cannot see good business relations with Russia, which we have built up over decades, carelessly be put at risk,” he warned last year in an interview with Handelsblatt.

His pro-Russian attitude will meet with approval in Austria.

His successor at Wintershall will be Mario Mehren, currently board member in charge of exploration and production in Russia, northern Africa and South America.

 

Jürgen Flauger covers the energy sector for Handelsblatt. To contact him: [email protected]. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s Vienna correspondent. To contact him: [email protected]