The BDI and its Presidents, 1949 – 2016

The roll of honour of former BDI Presidents (from left to right): Fritz Berg, Hans-Günther Sohl, Hanns Martin Schleyer, Nikolaus Fasolt, Rolf Rodenstock, Hans Joachim Langmann, Tyll Necker, Heinrich Weiss, Hans-Olaf Henkel, Michael Rogowski, Jürgen R. Thumann, Hans-Peter Keitel, Ulrich Grillo. © BDI

On 19 October 1949 representatives of 32 business associations and working groups founded the Ausschuss für Wirtschaftsfragen der industriellen Verbände / Committee for Economic Issues of the Industrial Associations at the Excelsior Hotel in Cologne. In addition to the President of the first German Bundestag, Dr. Erich Köhler, the evening reception was attended by four Federal Ministers: Vice-Chancellor Franz Blücher; Minister of Economic Affairs Ludwig Erhard; Minister of Labour Anton Storch and Minister for Transport Hans-Christoph Seebohm.

As its headquarters the Committee rented offices at Kaiser-Wilhelm-Straße 2-4 in Cologne until 1953, followed by offices at the Habsburger Ring 2-12 until the beginning of 1971 and finally, from March 1971 until the move to Berlin in November 1999, it had a prominent address in the newly constructed Haus der deutschen Industrie at the Oberländer Ufer 84-88 which became the Gustav-Heinemann-Ufer in 1981. With the envisaged foundation of the Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund / German Trade Union Federation (DGB) in autumn 1949, the allied forces also acknowledged the necessity of an umbrella representation for entrepreneurs in the Federal Republic of Germany, which was founded in May 1949. However the name also takes into account the allied forces’ concerns regarding a permanent umbrella organisation. The Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Arbeitgeberverbände / Working Group of German Employers’ Associations was also founded in the autumn to address important social and social-policy questions from the business perspective. In January 1950 German industry’s umbrella organisation was renamed “Federation of German Industries”.

The founding members elected the SME entrepreneur Fritz Berg (19.10.1949 – 31.12.1971) as the first BDI President. He had already made a name for himself at regional level in Rhineland and Westphalia in 1945 during the reorganisation of the economy, and also since 1946 as Chairman of the Wirtschaftsverband Eisen-, Blech- und Metallwaren / German Trade Association for Iron, Sheet Metal and Metal Goods. During his term of office as BDI President, stretching over more than two decades, Berg played a key role in the BDI’s organisational development and its impact on economic policy. The Berg era (1949-1971) highlighted three major themes: 1. The BDI’s positioning in the public economic debate, 2. The German association landscape’s development and expansion, as well as internationally the West German economy’s integration into the European economic area, and 3. The transatlantic partnership, particularly with the USA. The Marshall Plan was the starting point for this.

Berg was also one of the founders of the Rat der Europäischen Industrieverbände / Council of the European Industry Associations (REI), founded in 1949, to which he was elected as the representative of German industry.  

Fritz Berg’s successor was the Chairman of the Board of the August-Thyssen-Hütte AG, Hans-Günther Sohl (1. 1.1972 – 31.12.1976). In the social-liberal coalition’s first years German industry’s competitiveness came under great pressure as a result of the oil crisis. The unemployment figures rose rapidly and exceeded one million between 1975 and 1977– four times higher than in 1972. During this period Sohl criticized the disproportionate rise in wages, which led to companies investing less. Sohl’s successor, Kurt Hansen, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Bayer AG and BDI Vice-President, whom the Presidential Board proposed for the 1977/1978 term of office, waived this office in favour of a double Presidency between the BDI and BDA (Confederation of German Employers’ Associations).

As President of the Federation of German Employers’ Associations, Hanns Martin Schleyer also became President of the Federation of German Industries (1.1.1977 – 18.10.1977). He was a Member of the Board of the Daimler-Benz group, had been BDA President since the beginning of 1974 and is the only President to hold the double office. Only a few months after assuming office at the BDI he was kidnapped by members of the RAF on 5 September 1977 and murdered on 18 October 1977.

The extraordinary General Meeting appointed Nikolaus Fasolt, Managing Partner of the Wessel-Werk GmbH, President for the remaining term of office (6.3.1978 – 18.8.1978). As a result of tax evasion and party financing donations, he resigned on 18 August 1978.

With his six-year term of office Rolf Rodenstock (25.9.1978 – 31.12.1984), elected BDI President in September 1978, ensured continuity, whereas the designated BDI President, Eberhard von Brauchitsch, did not take office in 1983 due to the party financing scandal. Under Rodenstock’s leadership the BDI called for a supply-driven competition policy. He had been General Partner of his father’s company, Optische Werke G. Rodenstock, since 1953 and had been involved in the founding of the BDI.

The BDI General Meeting elected Hans Joachim Langmann (1.1.1985 – 31.12.1986), Chairman of the Board of E.Merck OHG, as his successor. His central themes were reducing the tax burden on companies and simplifying the German tax system. He underlined the identity of interests of small and large industrial enterprises.

After Langmann, Tyll Necker (1.1.1987 – 31.12.1990) was elected. He was head of the BDI when the wall fell and Germany was reunified. He took a special personal interest in making the market economy popular in the new federal states. He is regarded as one of the fathers of the debate on the competitiveness of Germany as a business location after he urged politicians, entrepreneurs and unionists to support Germany as a business location at the opening of the Hanover Trade Fair in 1988. He was also in favour of making environmental protection a "Matter for the Boss" and integrating it into company policy.

Heinrich Weiss, Chairman of the Board of the SMS Schloemann-Siemag AG, did not complete his term of office as BDI President (1.1.1991 – 29.8.1992) either. He resigned prematurely.

Necker became President once again (until 31.12.1994). He considered it important for German economic policy to drastically reduce the debt burden, generally reduce the tax burden on companies and enhance research promotion.

In an innovative concept entitled "For a More Attractive Germany" Tyll Necker’s successor, IBM Manager Hans-Olaf Henkel (1.1.1995 – 31.12.2000) streamlined the BDI proposals on economic and social-policy issues. The structural shift in the economy was also taken into account by the BDI: Associations which represented the interests of industry-related service-providers became BDI members. An important theme was the range of opportunities offered by competition. During Henkel’s term of office the BDI moved to Berlin-Mitte in November 1999. Together with the BDA and DIHK, it took residence in the newly constructed Haus der Deutschen Wirtschaft in Breite Straße 29, near to the government district.

At the beginning of the new millenium, Michael Rogowski, a former VDMA President, was appointed for the next terms of office (1.1.2000 – 31.12.2004). The key theme of his BDI presidency was freedom. In the BDI overall reform concept for a "more attractive Germany" in 2004 freedom was emphasized as a fundamental requirement for a functioning market economy.

Under Jürgen R. Thumann (1.1.2005 – 31.12.2008), who was President of the member association WSM until 2005, the efforts to merge the BDI and the BDA broken off in the seventies became important again. Joint head of department meetings, board meetings and executive meetings of the member associations were held with the BDA. However, at national level the concept proved yet again not viable. Among the important themes of Thumann’s era were inheritance tax reform, climate policy, including the initiative "Business for Climate Protection", as well as transatlantic economic integration. Thumann became the European spokesman for the Transatlantic Economic Council (TEC), founded on the initiative of the BDI and the federal government.

During his two terms of office as BDI President Hans-Peter Keitel (1.1.2009 – 31.12.2012), former CEO of Hochtief, devoted himself to the motto “Strengthening Germany as an Industrial Country”. Essentially, he wanted to give economic growth a vigorous boost. The investment required to achieve this in times of financial and debt crisis, e.g. for Greece, meant it was not always easy to convince policy-makers and get them to contribute their share. Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the federal government made a swift decision and shut down eight nuclear plants. During Keitel’s term of office only plans could be made to implement the required energy turnaround. Other key issues during this period included raw material supplies, minimum wages and the quota for women in management positions.

During the BDI Presidency of Ulrich Grillo, who was President of the member organisation WVMetalle during the previous four years, industry was confronted with dramatic political events – ranging from the financial crisis and the situation in Greece to the growing number of migrants entering Europe. In the face of these challenges the family entrepreneur was determined to ensure that the business community played an active role in socio-political debates: “A Committed Business Community“ was the guiding principle of his Presidency (1.1.2013 – 31.12.2016). He wanted to once more make it clear to the general public that industry is the bulwark of society and is ready to take on this responsibility.