A shareholder stand-off in the Black Forest
If you have ever struggled to assemble a flat-pack wardrobe, the chances are that its wooden pieces were cut, drilled and finished on machines made by Homag. Founded in 1960 in Schopfloch, in the Black Forest, Homag is one of those little-known world champions that are the backbone of the German economy.
But not all is well in Schopfloch. Gerhard Schuler, one of its founders, now a sprightly 85, is at war with Deutsche Beteiligungs AG (DBAG), a private-equity firm that was once his dream partner. After buying into the company in 1997 DBAG built up a stake of 60%. When Homag was floated on the stockmarket in 2007 it kept 33% and Mr Schuler stayed on as honorary chairman with a small stake.But business dipped in 2008 and the shares plunged. Mr Schuler and his supporters, worried about the direction the company was taking, started buying.They built a blocking minority of 25.01%.
That did not stop DBAG kicking Mr Schuler’s three appointees off Homag’s supervisory board two years ago and replacing them with people who were “more internationally minded”. Since then, the two sides have been at screwdrivers drawn.
At a stormy shareholders’ meeting last month things came to a head. Mr Schuler and his allies accused DBAG of being a “locust” interested only inshort-term profit, and of selling out to a foreign buyer. Local staff want Achim Gauss, Homag’s long-standing technical director, who resigned abruptly “for personal reasons” on May 23rd, to be reinstated. IKEA, a Swedish furniture chain and Homag’s biggest customer, also expressed concern at Mr Gauss’s departure.
DBAG, one of Germany’s oldest private-equity firms, is not obviously locust-like. Its executives insist it is there for the long term. However, Homag is DBAG’s biggest investment and its shares have not performed well. Half of DBAG’s stake is owned by two of its investment funds, one of which is scheduled to wind up this year. So a partial exit would be logical. There is no reason for a forced sale,says a DBAG source: that would weaken DBAG’s influence. Meanwhile, Mr Schuler’s crowd are looking for a white knight.
More happily, Homag’s business is on the rebound. Last year’s turnover of ￡800m ($1.1 billion) was near the pre-crisis peak, and the closing of three German subsidiaries should cut costs. Gordon Schonell of Bankhaus Lampe, a private bank, says that “the managers are doing the right things.” But for Mr Schuler the shift from family firm to shareholder capitalism has gone too far.