Entrepreneurship. Management consultant Roland Berger, almost 80 years old, is still an entrepreneur. He can't let go of new business ideas or the company that bears his name. It is a struggle for sovereignty over one's own meaning.
"The documents are still missing." The voice sounds demanding. Roland Berger, 79, stands in a salon of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich. The spring sun is reflected in silver cans and leg-coloured etageren. An oval table is set for breakfast for a dozen journalists - along with press material from the so-called Riverbank.
Berger, slim, the Bavarian Order of Merit in the buttonhole, a small wristwatch on the right, greets the guests with practiced charm, in the legs somewhat wobbly, but with firm handshake and alert gaze. The fact that a journalist has his place settings, but not the important papers, has not escaped the brown eyes.
Actually, a small Frenchman of 40 years (formerly Morgan Stanley) with the title of CEO should now calmly present the new bank to which he provided the idea and Berger et al. the capital. But "Rrrrollon", as he respectfully calls Berger, interrupts him after a few minutes. In a few sentences he has drawn the bank, its great prospects, its wealth outline, a steep growth curve in the air. The Frenchman nods: "That is exactly true."
He is no longer often seen as the founder of the only German management consultancy of international importance. Perhaps even in tabloids, when he celebrates his birthday in rented large museums or awards donor prizes. He seemed to be only a shadow, an image of the old Deutschland AG, one of the elderly gentlemen who once managed this country, quite earlier.
But show a few minutes of shared breakfast: Berger is still there and wide awake, he still sees himself as part of the game, he can't calm down, he still wants to know - but what exactly?
"Berger was smart, quick, challenging, as you wish. Probably just charming a lot because he wanted something. But very communicative, also compassionate, reliable." Burkhard Schwenker, 59, who after Berger has been CEO and Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the management consultancy for many years, willingly tells on request how he experienced the founder. It is a "giant grace" that Berger also has this capacity in old age: "I think it is right that he fills it. His drive has always been curiosity."
Berger defines himself not only as a sprightly business angel and skilful investor. He has obviously not yet given up on his company either. When asked, he calls himself a "door opener" for the consulting company ("It often helps when the founder comes, especially in Asia and Latin America."). He also refers to his network ("If you know the predecessor, then you usually also know the successor. When I call, I get put through."). Schwenker comments the differentiated: "This is an illusion. At some point the networks will no longer be there," he says, who himself has since relinquished all management functions. "But it's a nice illusion."
The company Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, today simply Roland Berger GmbH, has actually been running independently of Berger as a person for a long time: 2400 employees, 250 partners, a fee turnover in the mid three-digit million range that has unfortunately not been updated in the commercial register for some time, offices all over the world.
In 1967, the 30-year-old Roland Berger founded the consulting firm in Munich and made it big, later the consultants took a stake in the capital as is customary in the industry. At the end of the 1980s, Berger sold the consultancy to Deutsche Bank, but retained the majority of votes. Eleven years later, he persuaded the partner consultants to buy back the loan - a management buy-out.
That's still up to him today. "When it came to the sale, Berger was the one who made the cash. The buyback was then incredibly unfavorable; you paid off 20 years." That's what a former partner says who doesn't want to be named. And maybe getting angry today for agreeing. Berger himself, at any rate, rejects this representation. He never made cash; the buy-back was very attractive for the partners.
After all, the succession seemed to be settled. The partnership could manage itself, theoretically choose its own leadership. In 2003, the senior manager vacated the top management position and became Chairman of the Supervisory Board. In 2010 he also gave up this position, henceforth calling himself AR Chairman on an honorary basis. He never considered anchoring his own sons in the company: "This is a very personal profession. The consulting business is not suitable for the formation of dynasties."
Burkhard Schwenker, a long-standing member of the partnership, took on the role of "entrepreneur's son". There were apparently the usual problems with letting go on the part of the outgoing generation. According to Schwenker, Berger certainly tried hard to make the handover a success. It was intellectually clear to him that he was not supposed to interfere. But: "This was not an easy situation at all. Berger and I only had a half-good relationship. It was a deeply emotional story."
Berger still holds between 2.7 and 3.5 percent of the company, according to its own figures - depending on the number of other partners. But there's more capital in it from him. According to an insider, he had instructed the consulting company to pay more than 50 million euros in 2011. Whether it was an interest-bearing loan or a gift, the representations diverge. The foundation initiated by Roland Berger in 2008 (for student scholarships in Germany and human rights worldwide) is also said to have invested the same amount in the company. Berger himself does not want to comment on these topics.
Maximilianstraße Munich, a quiet entrance in a side street, on the third floor the company sign "Roland Berger". High, white lacquered rooms, herringbone parquet, large-format art. Roland Berger has the corner room out to the boulevard: low seating area, model aircraft on the windowsill, huge black desk, behind it on the wall a real Baselitz - upside down, as it should be. The eagle looks as if he is throwing himself at the gray gentleman in a dignified posture. Or does he want to protect him with his black wings, enclose him?
Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder once had such a Baselitz eagle in the Chancellery. A few years ago, the painting was the key image of an exhibition entitled "Showing Power" in Berlin. The consultant has always sought proximity to politics, especially to Schröder.
Berger has been residing in these suites for a year now, with a secretary and a personal assistant. The conference room looks as if a full board of directors is to meet here. But renting the rooms also documents a distancing, perhaps an alienation. Roland Berger GmbH's move from the high-rise building in North Schwabing to its own building on the eastern edge of the Englischer Garten was a move that the founder took part in two years ago, but now he is sitting here alone.
An inkling of certain rejection effects also gives that the company wanted to get its founder to stop using the e-mail account rolandberger.com by means of a temporary injunction. "The company has withdrawn the lawsuit. The case is now closed," comments Berger. On his business card it says rolandbergergroup.com.
"I never retired, the company still bears my name," was O-Ton-Berger's message at the Riverbank press conference. In an individual interview, he differentiates: "I am surgically outside. I continue to be a partner in the company and regularly attend Supervisory Board meetings." He was honorary chairman, without the right to vote, but with some duties. Is this interest, sense of responsibility or the search for recognition? Does he want to see his own brilliance further mirrored, as is the case with many successful people?
Berger has indeed always been brilliant, says Alexander Rittweger, 52, once Roland Berger's youngest partner, then inventor of the Payback card and founder of Loyalty Partner, which he sold to American Express. "He can get to grips with something extremely quickly, and he immediately finds every mistake, every discrepancy in a piece of paper."
Sometimes he still has him on the phone, Roland Berger, who is still invested in joint ventures with Rittweger. "What are you doing in Beijing, what are you doing in Toronto?" Rittweger asked him then. "You're through, that's all you can do." I'm sure Berger is still appreciated by many, he's a "cool guy," says Rittweger: "But there's also this hunger he has."
The senior himself explains this as follows: "It's not just about achieving something. It's about sharing and keeping myself awake." To refine his golf handicap or just to travel and see all sorts of things is not for him. Museums, concerts, that's what he always did when he was on business: "I've travelled the world for decades".
He outlines his activities as follows: "I collect art, am interested in music, and work with my foundation to promote equal opportunities for talented children." I have a reasonably diversified portfolio in Europe, the USA, China." The house in the Bogenhausen district, a holiday home in the Engadine, two grandchildren in Munich. Berger's life could be a contemplative one. "That's not me," he says. "I can't imagine being idle."
Berger is a war child, born 1937. Rittweger suspects that there is a very strong biographical element there. He, though much younger, knows what he is talking about: "My father raised me as if I should not survive my own youth, but his."
Roland Berger remembers his own story very well. And she herself says that you can't forget what lean times mean, even in old age, with her in your luggage. What it's like to have the Gestapo in your house. Or when concentration camp prisoners are driven through the village. If you have seen your own father - the Mr. Reichskassenrevisor in Berlin, the Mr. General Director in Vienna - fall, break up the Nazi regime, prison, war, captivity.
Privileged refugees were his refugees at the end of the war, in the Bavarian village of Egglkofen, where they used to spend their holidays with their grandfather. There the child Roland attended elementary school. For the grammar school in Landshut he had to move out, live with a widow, so at the age of ten he was already on his own. The next grammar school in Nuremberg was similar. There his host family introduced him to the world of art and music.
Being alone, freedom, that didn't frighten him, but rather gave him wings, that he saw as an opportunity: "I knew I was different from the others, I wanted to go my own way". He learned a lot from other people. But a role model, especially from a moral point of view, was only his father, because the initially convinced party member had clearly opposed the Nazis from 1938. However, Berger says, it was only on the occasion of Kristallnacht that the pogroms went too far for the convinced Christian.
Is Berger's life a compensation for his father's fate? Did he have to heal the loss of family status? The 79-year-old does not jump at these keywords. "It was clear that I would study," he just says. And then he tells the often circulated story of business studies in Hamburg and Munich, which he made "more interesting" by means of aesthetic studies and two business start-ups (a launderette, a spirits discount). Even Milan didn't frighten him, where he learned the trade of a consultant during the partnership with Gennaro Boston. A jack-of-all-trades, fearless, lightning-secure, yet cultured, handsome, charming - this is how the young Berger appears in these stories.
Has he never been afraid? Berger has to think. "Yes, in the early years as an independent consultant in Munich." They were only busy for two to three months at a time. But the employees had six months' notice and the lease ran for five years. There one was driven by the compulsion to bring in orders, more and more, faster and faster.
For 20 years, he's been struggling. Then he was 50 and actually wanted to do something else in life. The idea of founding an investment bank with Alfred Herrhausen, then head of Deutsche Bank, came from this period. Berger's consulting firm was to provide the necessary industrial and corporate know-how. Herrhausen was murdered by the RAF in 1989, which allegedly buried the shared dream at the same time and simply made the bank a silent partner in the consultation.
The business idea of Berger's new Riverbank seems to pick up this thread again, except that Berger and his partners are the bank this time. They want to enable fast and easy lending to small and medium-sized enterprises. The loan application is made through a network of partners and sponsors, "consultants well known to us", who consider the borrowers (young companies with growth prospects) worthy and thus keep the risk small. The processes themselves are digitized, so that decisions are to be made within four to six weeks. An institution between traditional banking and Fintech.
The withdrawal from the "old" company was much less hands-on and more hesitant. At 65, Berger was still very active as chairman of the supervisory board, always on the road with the consultants, always in the service of the customer, as he himself says. "You can't half do a job like this," he says. "The company wouldn't have developed this way if I hadn't been actively involved."
However, he did not influence the economic thriller surrounding the two attempts to merge with Deloitte in 2010 and 2013. But the fact that the partners rejected the merger at the time seems to satisfy him. The business models and cultures are very different. Competitors who followed this merger model had not been successful: "Staying independent is the right strategy". The founder stifled further advice for the management consultancy, which currently does not have a good press throughout.
As a leader, he is said to have been a tough dog, very precise even on a small scale. To the own employees like im Umgang with the partners. Berger, says a companion, has always had a 75.1 percent stake in the company and has even had the copying costs paid by the partners. In the entrepreneur's self-image this representation does not fit. He is already demanding, but he does not get loud, there are no insults. Sometimes he's faster than others. And he always took the whole risk.
Even the job description of the "consultant" sounds different to what was seen last year in the film "Toni Erdmann", where the guild was drawn in all its ambivalence. Berger believes that consultants are doing something for humanity. With their knowledge, they contribute to satisfying material needs and creating jobs. They are a multiplier of good corporate governance. Their sometimes bad reputation is based only on the methods of Anglo-Saxon competitors, who have only the share price in their sights: "We care about the fate of the people employed by our clients". Of course, there is also self-interest for the consultant. But at the same time there is curiosity for the cause itself - and the possibility of serving society.
"A life out of a suitcase" was the headline of a newspaper in 2010 that appeared in Berger's "Abschied". What price did he pay? Little time for children, family, friends. "Especially the lost time with the children cannot be made up." The woman (Berger has been married to a former journalist for almost 37 years) had to be the right partner, "one who understands that I am the way I am, one who goes along with me, one who encourages me in my work". But perhaps someone who doesn't rest, who benefits from the splendor of the person Berger, who appreciates life as part of society, says a companion: "I don't think a Roland Berger should grow old.
"An evening among friends" is what the invitation says when Roland Berger turns 80 on November 22. Loaded, he says, are 180 people. He celebrated his 75th birthday according to "Bild-Zeitung" with 250 guests in the brand-new Egyptian Museum in Munich - with chamber orchestra and serenades of the scholarship holders. The participants are always Wolfgang Reitzle from Linde (who brings his wine from Tuscany) and Michael Käfer from the delicatessen of the same name. Horst Seehofer and Edmund Stoiber normally come as well.
What else is there to do? He is currently in the process of structuring his assets differently in order to make them more inheritable, says Berger and is now formulating them noticeably more slowly. Friends report that a heart operation a few years ago had made him think, that he was now involving his sons more. Berger himself these topics are too private.
He'd like to build another house, one he likes. He wants to stay healthy as long as possible and be able to use his brain. Otherwise nothing occurs to him: "I am not a person who constantly dreams of what he could do tomorrow or the day after tomorrow".
According to his own words, however, he is out of the question as a role model. Or is it just coquettish when he says, "I wouldn't want anyone to become like me."
Author: Cornelia Knust