Hasso Plattner had actually found his perfect successor. There is no better person than Punit Renjen, said SAP supervisory board chairman Hasso Plattner last year. He has a good reputation and technological expertise, and someone like that would be difficult to find. It is anything but easy to inherit someone like Plattner, who co-founded Europe’s largest software company a good 50 years ago and headed the supervisory board for more than 20 years. Renjen didn’t think Plattner could do it.
At least back then. On Sunday, SAP surprisingly announced that Renjen would not become chairman of the supervisory board after all, and immediately conjured up an alternative out of the hat: the Finn Pekka Ala-Pietilä should be elected in May. What happened?
To answer this question, it is worth taking a closer look at Plattner’s dismissed successor. “I am not Hasso Plattner,” Renjen, 63, said himself at the annual meeting in May 2023, and he would not even try to be Hasso Plattner, whom he called a legend and an idol. What sounded like expectation management was, above all, an attempt to sharpen one’s own profile outside of Plattner’s huge footsteps. Renjen wanted a different focus; he didn’t want to be as product-focused as Plattner.
Nose in, fingers out is the supervisory board’s maxim, which Renjen did not adhere to
The American with Indian roots was previously global managing director of the management consultancy Deloitte for seven and a half years and immediately brought former Deloitte colleagues with him to his office at the SAP headquarters in Walldorf. Because supervisory boards only meet in person every few weeks and otherwise connect digitally, it is not the rule for a supervisory board chairman to march in with an entire team. But Punit Renjen is different. He wanted to have a say, to get involved. And that’s exactly what he ultimately stumbled upon.
As a supervisory board member of a European company, you have a control function: nose in, fingers out is the maxim. The SAP board led by CEO Christian Klein sets the strategy; the supervisory board must approve it and may also object. But Renjen wanted more. We learn from company circles that he wanted to have a say in what the strategy should look like. He went deeper into the operational business, too deeply, and repeatedly exceeded the limits of his actual role. Renjen was told several times what his role was, the company says, and he hasn’t changed. From Deloitte he was used to always having a say in decision-making because the American system does not separate between management and supervision.
The second disadvantage of the actually perfect Plattner successor: His former employer is not listed on the stock exchange, Renjen was unfamiliar with the special requirements of the SAP Group, which has to make shareholders and analysts happy. The American reacted emotionally to the decision at the weekend: He immediately deleted SAP from the biography in his Linkedin profile, even though he is still on the supervisory board until mid-May.
The new Plattner successor had been on the SAP supervisory board for years
Renjen should have seen his expulsion coming because it wasn’t a spontaneous decision. The supervisory board, we learn, realized that it wasn’t a good fit and decided almost unanimously to entrust Ala-Pietilä with control of the software company instead. The 67-year-old Finn has several advantages: He was chairman of the supervisory board at the Finnish packaging manufacturer Huhtamaki for 13 years, where the separation between operational business and control is practiced. He knows about the role of the supervisory board and is also familiar with the peculiarities of a listed company. Ala-Pietilä also knows the SAP Group because he sat on the supervisory board between 2002 and 2021 and enjoyed great trust there. He knows the technology industry anyway, also because he headed the telecommunications group Nokia between 1999 and 2005. Ala-Pietilä is quoted in the company statement as saying that he is looking forward to his old and new colleagues and would like to continue writing the “SAP success story – revolutionary technology that delivers real results.”
According to reports, Ala-Pietilä gets along well with Hasso Plattner and the two value each other. Plattner said the supervisory board was in the best hands with the Finn. “His thoughtful approach is exactly what SAP needs.” Ala-Pietilä is more reserved than Renjen, but it won’t be easy for him to follow the company legend Plattner either. He should only do this on a temporary basis; he should serve for two years and not four as usual. SAP wants to take its time finding a suitable candidate for the generational change. This shouldn’t be an old acquaintance, but rather a fresh head for future topics from cloud to AI. The search for the perfect Plattner successor is ongoing.