Ceconomy CEO Wildberger has eager sellers breathing down his neck
The public discussion about the entry of the Chinese online retailer JD.com into Ceconomy's capital stock certainly was nothing needed by CEO Karsten Wildberger. The challenges for the parent company of the electronics retail chains Media Markt and Saturn are enormous already - even without changes in the ownership structure. Wildberger, who has been at the helm of Ceconomy since August 2021, was brought in to bring the long-suffering entertainment electronics retailer back on the road to success. He also directs the destiny of Media-Saturn-Holding (MSH) in a dual capacity.
A fresh start personified
Thus, the PhD physicist symbolically stood and still stands for a new beginning, as his predecessors had become entangled in trench warfare between Ingolstadt and Düsseldorf and lost sight of the operational business. Historically, the seat of MSH and thus the operational business is in Ingolstadt, while Ceconomy, which emerged from Metro, is based in Düsseldorf. After numerous confusions and complications, it was not until the spring of 2021 with the change at the top of the supervisory board from Jürgen Fitschen to Thomas Dannenfeldt that movement came into the leadership vacuum.
With Dannenfeldt's election to the top of the supervisory body, the former CFO of Deutsche Telekom must have quickly realised the state of Ceconomy; especially since the Corona pandemic, if not thwarted, had at least severely delayed the transformation of the business model. It was fortunate that Wildberger, who was then still on the board of Eon, was willing to change. Because in the race to succeed at the top of Eon, Wildberger had come up short. With a substantial welcome bonus to compensate for his contract with Eon running until July 2028, the supervisory board and the CEO-designate quickly came to an agreement.
No shortage of laurels was spared. Enthroned as an "internationally experienced manager who brings the necessary experience in operational sales, digital transformation processes and a clear customer focus," it was clear to everyone that the 54-year-old had started as a turnaround manager. However, even Wildberger had to learn quickly that a decade of neglect cannot be caught up in a few months. Speaking in December 2021, he said that Ceconomy had "passed the stress test," but reality caught up with him a year later. With net debt of 2 billion euros and a meager equity ratio of 5.9% at the end of the 2021/22 fiscal year, there was not much room for manoeuvre.
Wildberger also inherited medium-term targets from his predecessor Bernhard Düttmann, which turned out to be unrealistic. Therefore, the former management consultant used the capital market day in June of this year to swear in investors on new, realistic goals. Unlike in the past, the new executive team – with Kai-Ulrich Deissner joining as the new CFO in February of this year – did not promise the moon but convinced with a conservative, yet realistic, plan.
Solid, but less fancy
Solidity and seriousness are what Wildberger embodies in his demeanour. Although he has retained the consultant's habit, he mostly refrains from choosing to use superlatives. Instead, the manager confidently relies on his profound experience. After starting his career at the Boston Consulting Group, he quickly focused on the telecommunications industry, where he worked in various positions between 2003 and 2016 for T-Mobile, Vodafone, and Telstra. The manager's lack of trade expertise is compensated by his broad expertise in transformation processes.
Share price debacle
Wildberger has made many correct decisions and was rewarded for this in July with an extension of his contract until 2028. It is surely too early to celebrate successful transformation. However, there are at least initial indications that the path taken is leading to the goal.
Completing the transformation is likely a matter close to the ambitious manager's heart. The speculation about a takeover interest by JD.com comes at a bad time, even if Ceconomy does not comment on it. It is certainly not Wildberger's fault that the traditional company Haniel is willing to sell. The family-owned company is one of the founding shareholders of Metro, from which Ceconomy ultimately emerged in 2017.
However, the fact that the digitalization expert has so far been unable to stop the share price from falling is now taking its toll. At the start of his tenure in August 2021, the SDax value was still well over 4 euros, today it is 2.28 euros. Without the surge in share price triggered by the takeover fantasy, the balance sheet would be even poorer. On December 18th, Wildberger has the opportunity to fuel the share price with business successes when the accounts for the fiscal year ending in September are drawn up.