July 23rd, 2009
06:02 PM GMT
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For the past 12 years, some 50 of Europe’s top corporate leaders have been under special surveillance.

Wendelin Wiedeking's time at the head of Porsche has come to an end.
Wendelin Wiedeking's time at the head of Porsche has come to an end.

This has nothing to do with this week’s revelation that Frankfurt state prosecutors are deciding whether to bring criminal charges as they investigate allegations of illegal tactics by private detectives on contract to Deutsche Bank – though that mighty bank’s former CEO and Chairman, Rolf Breuer, is among the names being watched.

In 1997 and 1998 I was part of a CNN team that made some 50 programmes about individual company bosses in a series called “Pinnacle Europe.” We spent at least a day with each one, talking to them about how they’d got to the top, what they’d done for their companies, how they planned to stay ahead and what they did outside the office.

The series producer, Jeff Nathenson, and I still regularly exchange banter about what has happened to each of the CEOs we profiled; he maintains there is a “curse of Pinnacle” that gradually topples them, one by one. So we continue our casual surveillance of all 50 – by the boringly legal method of watching the headlines, I should add.

The fact is, though, that many are now ex-bosses. Many crashed and burned; they fell victim to boardroom knife attacks and are spending more time with their families. Some, like Jorma Ollila of Nokia, completed their distinguished careers and moved on to even higher things. Others sold their companies.

A handful have survived. Sir Richard Branson is still running Virgin in his unique way and is even wealthier than he was in 1997; Daniel Vasella is still atop the Swiss pharmaceuticals company Novartis; and Klaus Schwab is still head of the World Economic Forum.

But today one name did fall victim to Jeff Nathenson’s putative “curse of Pinnacle.” Germany woke up this morning to learn that one of its corporate titans, Wendelin Wiedeking, had been ousted as boss of Porsche, the role in which I had interviewed him for our CNN profile early in 1998, and which he had held for a very successful five years before that. With Wiedeking and his impressive collection of model cars evicted from the Porsche headquarters, talks are now underway to bring about a merger of the sports car maker and Volkswagen.

Dr Wiedeking had sought exactly the same thing, but in a different format. Having rescued Porsche from the weak dollar of the early 1990s (US sales are crucial to the company), he launched new models, shifted some production out of Germany and made the Stuttgart-based icon one of the jewels of its sector: prestigious and profitable.

Money piled up at the bank – and in the CEO’s personal wallet. His contract awarded him 0.9% of Porsche’s pre-tax earnings, a bonus reported at some 77 million euros in 2007-08. Confident in his ability to run any car company, even Europe’s largest, Wiedeking set his sights on a takeover of Volkswagen.

That proved his undoing. Like the Icarus of myth, this high-flier had ventured too close to the sun. True, Porsche amassed more than half of VW’s shares and had options on a further 20 percent. But it had also run up $14.2 billion in debt, and as the credit crunch bore down on big corporate borrowers, that burden crushed the life out of his ambitions.

Family politics also played a part. Porsche and Volkswagen have always been intertwined. Before World War II, Ferdinand Porsche designed the original Volkswagen or “People’s Car” – the evergreen Beetle. When the War was over he built his first Porsche model in a shed up an Austrian mountain, shifting production to Stuttgart when his sports cars started selling in big numbers.

Ferdinand Porsche’s descendants still control the company he founded – but one of his grandsons is the redoubtable Ferdinand Piëch, the Austrian former Volkswagen CEO, now its chairman. Wiedeking’s designs on VW split the extended family, and made an enemy of Piëch, a man not to be crossed.

History will shake its head at the ill-fated ambitions of Wendelin Wiedeking, while admiring the way he rescued Porsche, and that neat clause in his contract which rewarded him so handsomely for genuine, measurable success.

But why am I writing him off? He still has some interesting directorships – Novartis, for example. He has no need of money, even giving half his $70 million pay-off to charity, but driven people like that don’t just retire to the golf course. They waste no time in passing out their telephone numbers to the head-hunters.

There aren’t that many executives who can say they’ve rescued a major car company once before and left it wonderfully profitable, and these days those qualifications are badly needed. Like, who’s going to run Opel once it’s been sold off by GM?



July 23rd, 2009
12:22 PM GMT
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(CNN) – The Quest Means Business team has been tasked to try and explain business jargon to its viewers.

We are often guilty of throwing terms around when talking about company results that are difficult to explain in a sentence or two.

EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) is one of those for me.

So I was pleased to delve into it, not only to try and explain it, but also to really get my head around it. Why did companies publish EBITDA figures during the dotcom bubble era? Why do few companies use it now? Why is it not acceptable under so-called U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)?

Ok, I will try and explain it again. Basically (and really basically) it’s a way to express a company’s earnings (the same as net income or profits or the “bottom line”) in a given period. But it is a number that is expressed before the company strips out recurring charges or costs like taxes, interest paid on debt, the loss of value of assets etc. (If I write anymore, I will confuse myself).

Companies use EBITDA (and ITDA and other complication formulae) especially when the number is positive while all others may be negative: “Company X lost six billion dollars last quarter, but EBITDA grew 15 percent!”

To be fair it is a way to try and show a consistent number if a new company is growing fast and spending huge amounts of money so it has no hopes of turning a profit. That is why it became a popular number during the late 1990s.

Today, private equity likes to look at EBITDA figures during a potential takeover because it helps to clarify a company’s underlying ability to earn money.

Is it any clearer to you now?

If not, the video below shows me trying to explain it to a classroom full of children. They were enthusiastic to learn and were shouting “EBITDA” when we packed up to leave their London school.



July 23rd, 2009
12:05 PM GMT
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(CNN) – The Quest Means Business team has been tasked to try and explain business jargon to its viewers.

We are often guilty of throwing terms around when talking about company results that are difficult to explain in a sentence or two.

EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) is one of those for me.

So I was pleased to delve into it, not only to try and explain it, but also to really get my head around it. Why did companies publish EBITDA figures during the dotcom bubble era? Why do few companies use it now? Why is it not acceptable under so-called U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)?

Ok, I will try and explain it again. Basically (and really basically) it’s a way to express a company’s earnings (the same as net income or profits or the “bottom line”) in a given period. But it is a number that is expressed before the company strips out recurring charges or costs like taxes, interest paid on debt, the loss of value of assets etc. (If I write anymore, I will confuse myself).

Companies use EBITDA (and ITDA and other complication formulae) especially when the number is positive while all others may be negative: “Company X lost six billion dollars last quarter, but EBITDA grew 15 percent!”

To be fair it is a way to try and show a consistent number if a new company is growing fast and spending huge amounts of money so it has no hopes of turning a profit. That is why it became a popular number during the late 1990s.

Today, private equity likes to look at EBITDA figures during a potential takeover because it helps to clarify a company’s underlying ability to earn money.

Is it any clearer to you now?

If not, the video below shows me trying to explain it to a classroom full of children.  They were enthusiastic to learn and were shouting “EBITDA” when we packed up to leave their London school.



July 23rd, 2009
10:50 AM GMT
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July 23rd, 2009
07:27 AM GMT
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July 23rd, 2009
05:28 AM GMT
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If you want to make money in the pharmaceutical industry, you must be looking for the next Viagra. Or the next Prozac. Or the next Botox.

In short, if you want to extend the financial life of your pharmaceutical company, you focus on extending the quality of life for potential consumers – not necessarily the duration. Chronic ailments are rainmakers – acute illnesses such as Swine Flu, or H1N1, typically are flashes in the pan and not worth the R&D expense, researchers say.

“There haven’t been that many new drugs out there for acute diseases,” Dr. Robert C. Liddington, director of the infectious disease department at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in California, told me shortly after H1N1 broke out.

“One reason for that is the poor business model – it’s hard to make money curing people,” he said. “But influenza is big enough and there is big enough market use.”

A big reason companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Roche can sell H1N1-related treatments is that governments are stepping in to create a market, said Joseph Giambrone, a professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.

“They don’t make a lot of money on vaccines … if they come out with an influenza vaccine and it mutates (into a resistant strain) that’s $100 million down the tube,” Giambrone said. “It’s not a cheap process.”

The way vaccines are made hasn’t changed dramatically in 40 years, and production time literally comes down to a chicken-and-egg question: Live cultures have to be harvested in eggs, which requires a whole lot of microbe-free chickens.

More promising – and faster – vaccine production methods and treatments are being researched. But until then, expect to hear more breakthroughs on depression or dermatology. Acute diseases? Sorry, no shareholder value there.

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Filed under: BusinessH1N1


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