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German baron wins Von Roll battle

Chairman Oskar Ronner failed to convince shareholders Keystone

The German family group von Finck has won the struggle for control over Von Roll, one of the grand old names of the Swiss engineering industry.

This content was published on August 13, 2007 - 21:30

At an extraordinary general meeting in Zurich on Monday, shareholders elected four additional board members, all nominated by the minority shareholder group.

The vote gives the von Finck family, which owns a 31 per cent stake in Von Roll, five out of a total of nine seats on the board compared with the current one seat out of five.

Shareholders also voted in favour of von Finck's proposal for a capital hike between SFr7 million ($5.81 million) and SFr323 million, which analysts say the German group wants in order to push through a growth strategy based on acquisitions.

Von Roll has a current market value of $1.2 billion. The core business of what was once a giant in the iron and steel industry is insulation products it manufactures for the electrical industry. It also makes composite parts and materials for industrial applications.

The firm, founded in the early 19th century, is only a shadow of its former self. On the verge of bankruptcy in 2003, Von Roll has slowly recovered but its turnover of SFr532 million in 2006 was only a quarter of its 1990 revenues.

Nonetheless, the 2006 figures were 43 per cent higher than the previous year, proof of Von Roll's turnaround and an argument in favour of its strategy focussing on its core business.

Resignations

Following the vote, all of the current board members with the exception of the lone von Finck representative announced they would step down. The CEO, Walter Vogel, also resigned.

The board led by chairman Oskar Ronner had urged shareholders to reject von Finck's proposals, calling them an attempt at a "covert takeover of the company".

It failed to convince shareholders that its more conservative growth strategy was a better one. The board argued that it could deliver double-digit growth rates, strict risk control management and above-average profit growth with its own funds.

The von Finck family launched its coup attempt in May. A family spokesman said it wants to re-establish the company as a broad-based industrial concern of worldwide renown.

German baron

The von Finck family is led by Baron August von Finck junior. In 1990, the elderly industrialist sold the Munich private bank Merck Finck & Co which he had taken over from his father, as well as his interests in leading German insurance companies and breweries.

He then began to focus his investments in Switzerland, buying substantial stakes in the restaurant and hotel chain, Mövenpick, as well as firms including Von Roll, Alusuisse-Lonza, Oerlikon and the inspection, verification, testing and certification company, SGS.

He added the castle of Weinfelden in northeastern Switzerland to his list of Swiss acquisitions and has resided there since 1999.

According to the United States magazine Forbes, the von Finck family has a net worth of SFr10 billion.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Founded in canton Solothurn in 1823, Von Roll became a giant in the iron and steel industry.

The steel division was sold to Moos Holding in 1996, which later became Swiss Steel.

Von Roll barely escaped bankruptcy in 2003 at which time it was forced to sell off its foundry business. Its electrical insulation sector was all that remained.

Within three years, the number of employees fell from 6,000 to 2,000.

Turnover in 2006 was SFr532 million, including a SFr23.5 million profit.

58.8% of shareholder votes on August 13, 2007 were in favour of proposals to give the German von Finck family control of Von Roll's board, and the family's growth strategy for the company.

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