Schaeffler: How a Putin understander gains influence – Economy

Wolfgang Reitzle is getting on in years, and there are indications that the former Linde boss will soon have more time for his Tuscan country estate, Villa Santa Stefano, where he and his wife Nina Ruge produce wine and olive oil. After 13 years as the head of the Supervisory Board of Continental AG, not only the fund company Deka is demanding Reitzle’s replacement. The involvement of the auto supplier in the diesel scandal, manipulated quality tests on cooling hoses, the theft of highly sensitive company data, the fall in the share price from 220 to 72 euros within five years – a supervisory board chairman who has been in office for as long as Reitzle can hardly pretend that he is not wearing any joint responsibility.

Ex-Linde boss Wolfgang Reitzle: His term of office at Schaeffler will expire next year.

(Photo: Stephan Rumpf)

His term of office will expire at the 2024 Annual General Meeting; he will then be 75 years old. An old friend of all people is showing him what a well-groomed exit looks like: Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann.

The 81-year-old matriarch is retiring from the Schaeffler AG Supervisory Board. You and Reitzle have a lot in common, privately and professionally. For a long time he was considered an influential advisor to the entrepreneur and her son Georg, 58. But the Schaeffler warehouse has been reorganizing itself for some time. Klaus Rosenfeld, 56, CEO of Schaeffler AG, who successfully converted the ball bearing manufacturer into a technology group, has gained influence. He also sits on the supervisory boards of Conti and Vitesco and enjoys Georg Schaeffler’s special trust since the ex-banker restructured the finances of the family, which was heavily indebted after the Conti takeover in 2009.

Supplier Schaeffler: Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann: The 81-year-old matriarch is retiring from the Supervisory Board of Schaeffler AG.

Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann: The 81-year-old matriarch is retiring from the Supervisory Board of Schaeffler AG.

(Photo: imago stock&people)

Reitzle’s star, on the other hand, has fallen to the same extent as that of an Austrian has risen: Siegfried Wolf, 65, an industrialist who has risen from school dropout to become one of the richest people in his country. It’s just stupid that he has a reputation for being too close to the Putin regime. And it’s also stupid that his reputation as a successful entrepreneur is thwarted by involvement in scandals and investigations by the public prosecutor in Vienna. Wolf is coming under increasing pressure in his homeland. According to media reports from the weekend, he is even threatened with prosecution for a tax affair.

A depressed back tax payment, a head of the tax office and business in Russia

She recently employed a parliamentary investigative committee that investigated allegations of corruption in the ÖVP at the time of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Wolf is said to have used his close contacts in his government to push back taxes from eleven million euros to around seven million, according to the allegation. And in the course of which the responsible head of the tax office (conveniently a friend from the golf club), who was well-disposed to him, helped with his contacts with a promotion. It’s getting tight for them too, writes the Viennese Kronenzeitung with reference to the public prosecutor. Wolf has strictly rejected all allegations for months; he feels prejudiced by the judiciary, the media and parts of politics. SZ-He left questions unanswered, including those about his business in Russia, his ties to the Kremlin-loyal oligarch Oleg Deripaska and his closeness to Vladimir Putin.

All of this is important in Germany because Siegfried Wolf has risen to become one of the most influential managers in the German automotive industry. At Porsche SE he sits on the supervisory board – when VW major shareholder Wolfgang Porsche married in 2019, Wolf was best man. He holds central positions in the Schaeffler family empire. The Franconian entrepreneurs control the automotive and industrial supplier of the same name, as well as Continental AG and the drive specialist Vitesco. Three corporations with more than 310,000 employees and around 60 billion euros in sales. Siegfried Wolf is a member of the Supervisory Board of Schaeffler AG and Chairman of the Supervisory Board at Vitesco.

Supplier Schaeffler: Trouble because of the taxes, Putin friend - and influential string puller in the German auto industry: the Austrian Siegfried Wolf

Trouble because of the taxes, Putin friend – and influential string puller in the German auto industry: the Austrian Siegfried Wolf

(Photo: imago/GEPA pictures)

Before that, he was a member of the Conti control committee for eleven years. Georg Schaeffler relies on the “little oligarchs” (Austrian magazine butterfly), nothing come. “We have known Siegfried Wolf for many years as a straightforward person in whom we have full confidence,” he once said business week. “We see no reason to doubt his integrity.”

From 2010 he got big in Russia

Wolf’s biography not only impresses the boss of the company. The farmer’s son from Styria grew up with six siblings, dropped out of high school and trained as a toolmaker. Later he saddled up with the master craftsman’s certificate and a degree in mechanical engineering. Via the Vereinigte Wiener Metallwerke and the ammunition manufacturer Hirtenberger, he came to the automotive supplier Magna of the colorful Austrian-Canadian entrepreneur Frank Stronach. Wolf made it to the top of the group. From 2010 he got big in Russia. He was hired by Deripaska, rose in his orbit to become chairman of the board of directors of the vehicle manufacturer GAZ and chairman of the supervisory board of the GAZ parent company Russian Machines, which is also active in railway and aircraft construction as well as in military technology. Until a few months ago, Wolf was the head of the supervisory board of the European subsidiary of Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank. In 2016, Vladimir Putin awarded Siegfried Wolf the “Order of Friendship”. His relationship with the Kremlin ruler? He doesn’t have his private phone number, but Putin is a “very, very, very correct man” and he himself would like “a little more Russian democracy” in the EU, according to Wolf, according to documents from the investigative committee shortly after the Russian one annexation of Crimea in 2014. Wolf also acted as a political door opener between Moscow and Vienna.

The question is: How much longer can German companies afford Wolf’s services?

People who know Siegfried Wolf describe him as clear and competent, as a “tough but fair dog” with the ability to shake hands and profound knowledge of the automotive and industrial business. “He can do something,” says one, “the guy is good”. In 2021, Wolf bought the MAN plant in Steyr, expecting many deals with GAZ. Russia? Putin? There are also many German managers and entrepreneurs with long, close ties to Moscow, say Wolf fans. Others, however, doubt whether German companies, whether the Schaeffler Wolfs services can afford much longer.

In Austria, “der Sigi” is a big name in the Freundrl network. When the tax authorities demanded eleven million euros back taxes from Wolf, he and his team intervened dozens of times at the highest levels, including the then finance minister. “Anyone who had the necessary influence and the necessary money could hope for preferential treatment by ÖVP-led ministries, especially the Ministry of Finance, in the event of adversity,” said the Greens in the National Council in their final report on the committee of inquiry.

In this case, Team Wolf was successful. Eleven million resulted in an additional payment of around 7.6 million euros. In 2018, it was also possible to negotiate away 630,000 euros in interest on the tax liability, which the Ministry of Finance subsequently classified as “not proper”. Shortly before the decree, Wolf invited the responsible head of the tax office to coffee by SMS, conveniently a first-name friend from the golf club. According to the still unpublished final report from the investigative committee, Wolf then sent a short message to Thomas Schmid, then a close confidant of Chancellor Kurz and Secretary General in the Ministry of Finance: “I talked to the lady from Wiener Neustadt,” it said. “She wants to take a bath – I told her it will be considered and she should do her thing!! Please Edi should stay on it.” Edi meant a responsible official in the ministry and Baden meant the larger tax office in the city of the same name.

“With pleasure… you just buy one”

The officer’s wish came true. Everything went correctly, according to Wolf as a witness in the investigative committee. The Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office for Economic and Corruption is still investigating whether there is a criminal background; It is the presumption of innocence. Wolf let them SZ-Inquiry whether he had influenced his tax affair through political channels and supported the promotion of the civil servant, unanswered. The woman thanked him via text message: “Thanks again!!!!!! seems to have been proposed to the Chancellor as a board member”. Then Wolf: “With pleasure…you just buy one.”

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