XY FACTOR Old Boys Club

The aging, male board members of Fresenius and Fresenius Medical Care may be forced to admit women if Germany's corporate gender quota becomes law.
Gentlemen only, ladies forbidden? Left to right, Klaus-Peter Müller, Dieter Schenk, Gerd Krick, Roland Berger.

Male, elderly and misogynistic: This is what the supervisory boards of healthcare firms Fresenius and Fresenius Medical Care could be viewed as – and no amount of financial success can hide it.

The Deutsche Schutzvereinigung für Wertpapierbesitz – a German shareholder association known as DSW – has taken notice.

In a study, the group credited leading German firms for adding women to their supervisory boards – the non-executive panels that hire and fire chief executives and set major company policy – as a “small step in the right direction.”

The only two exceptions, DSW noted, were Fresenius and Fresenius Medical Care. Fresenius operates the Helios chain of hospitals and clinics and sells infusion therapies and child nutrition products. Fresenius Medical Care makes dialysis equipment and runs a chain of dialysis centers around the world.

Among major companies on the DAX blue-chip index, women hold 25 percent of positions on supervisory boards and 7 percent on German management boards, the panels that include the chief executive and top corporate officers, according to a Reuters report.

Last month, Germany’s coalition government agreed to pursue a law requiring women to hold 30 percent of supervisory board seats at top German companies by 2016.

Final approval in the German parliament is expected later this month.

The debate over gender quotas has drawn criticism this year from conservatives and business leaders, but few have been as sharp as Fresenius, . “A legally imposed quota for women is in the interest of neither companies nor women,” said Dieter Schenk, head of the governing board of the Else-Kröner-Fresenius Foundation and a behind-the-scenes power in the Fresenius Group.

Fresenius officials said the lack of women on their supervisory boards is just “a momentary situation.”

Well-known faces at the all-male gatherings of Fresenius group supervisory boards include the former head of Commerzbank, Klaus-Peter Müller, 70; the consultant Roland Berger, 77; and the former chair of Fresenius' management board, Gerd Krick, 76.

All three also sit on the decision-making committee that controls the Fresenius enterprise through a limited partnership. Seats on the board are also held by the Fresenius foundation's Mr. Schenk, 62 and Karl Schneider, the former head of Südzucker who is celebrating his 87th birthday this week. Both are executors of the will of former company owner Else Kröner, and also sit on the administrative board of the foundation that controls Fresenius.

 

A new German gender quota could force top-level reshuffing at Fresenius and Fresenius Medical Care, suppliers of hospital and dialysis services.

 

The last woman on a Fresenius supervisory board was Gabriele Kröner, daughter of Else Kröner’s husband, Hans, who occupied the seat until 2008. She resigned after conflicts with Mr. Schenk.

Fresenius officials said the lack of women on their supervisory boards is just “a momentary situation”and pointed out that from 1999 to 2006, Fresenius had a 25 percent share of women on its boards.

“Without legal regulation, it is only a matter of time until women are once again represented,” said a spokesperson.

In the coming months, the two Fresenius companies must find six women — four for Fresenius and two for Fresenius Medical Care — to sit on supervisory boards by 2016. Otherwise, board seats will be left vacant until the government-decreed quota is filled.

In addition to being all-male, the Fresenius group's supervisory boards are unusually old. The average age of Fresenius Medical Care board members is 70 years; at Fresenius, it is 69. For DAX companies, the average is 61.

The two companies could fix both age and gender issues by appointing women to supervisory boards, according to the DWS shareholder association study. The average age of women on DAX-listed boards is 55.

 

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Dieter Fockenbrock and Maike Telgheder work on Handelsblatt's companies and markets desk. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].