The long way to the free piston motor

Von Eva Behrendt

09.04.2009 / Frankfurter Rundschau

At last the time has come. At 3.30 pm Herr Stockhausen is allowed to take the floor for five minutes. The audience has already thinned but is curious. This minor shareholder with his baseball cap has been acting like a permanently disruptive Rumpelstiltskin at the Daimler Annual Shareholder’s Meeting, despite threats to throw him out. Now at the climax of his confused but burning appeal he unfolds a poster from the children’s medical journal "medizini", on which a sad-eyed baby monkey can be seen. Widespread laughter.
Chairman of the Supervisory Board Manfred Bischoff declared at the outset that, "This is not a play or a theatre piece" but "the stockholders’ meeting of one of our country’s most important industrial enterprises". It was obviously necessary to make this clear. Not so much because of Herr Stockhausen, but because, just in time for the financial crisis, directors‘ collective Rimini Protokoll had the ingenious idea of declaring the AGM 2009 a ‘readymade theatre piece’ with the title "Annual Shareholder’s Meeting", providing around 150 audience members and two dozen culture journalists with admission to it by having shareholders’ voting rights transferred to them.
Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel compiled background information in a catalogue, but did not intervene in the progress of the event. Their artistic act consists solely in having shifted the perspectives. In doing so they don’t want to "denounce the self-presentation of a global player as a show" but to make it "able to be experienced as a ritual of a meeting of different interests". They succeed in masterly fashion by leaving the audience mostly to themselves, providing details only in "niche discussions" with experts.
Unlike most of the around 6,000 people streaming into Berlin’s Messezentrum, I don’t own a single Daimler share. Unionists and environmentalists demonstrate at the entrance but the atmosphere in the corridors of the ICC is like on a duty-free shopping cruise. Crowds of pensioners tuck into free croissants and try out the interiors of the cars on display. They’re all entitled to vote on the ratification and approval of the board, which is what the waiver of claims against the Board of Management and the Supervisory Board is called, and on future capital expenditure.
Theoretically. In practice, banks, emirates and investment companies have the biggest share of the votes, although no shareholder is big enough to give the Board a serious rap on the knuckles. On this evening, too, the ratification and approval is passed with a socialistic result of almost 100 percent. Now it’s nearly ten and the head of the Hebbel Theatre Matthias Lilienthal says in passing, "The next three hours will be about as exciting as a Zen buddhistist exercise." How often does a theatre manager announce one of his productions in such terms? In fact, the Chairman of the Board of Management Dieter Zetsche reads out the annual financial report so skilfully somnolently that we almost lose sight of the scale of the crisis. Time to muster the stage set. The Board and Supervisory Board sit at massive tables before a monumental rear wall with the company logo on it. The fact that only a single woman has made it into this body is later criticised by three of the equally underrepresented female shareholders. And is it a coincidence that the two Daimler protagonists sport large walrus moustaches?
Daimler has had to accept a four percent fall in revenues in the past year. Instead of 2 euros, the dividend this time is only 60 cents. The consequence is a rigid economy drive, affecting the wages of employees and even of the Board. Mr Zetsche says he can not "in all honesty" exclude the possibility of lay-offs.

The price of self-presentation as a transparent corporate management, able to take criticism: For many long hours the Board and Supervisory Board must sit out criticism and enquiry. The tenor: the fault lies not only with the crisis, management has also made mistakes; too little emphasis on small cars, awareness of environmental protection issues came too late. The first speeches especially are rhetorically polished and fun. They make the preclusive answers passed to the Board from the back rows to read aloud sound all the greyer. One surprise is that not only activists, such as Freiburg‘s "critical shareholder" Jürgen Grässlin, accuse the company, which is also involved in the arms industry, of ethical failure. Profit-oriented investment companies also bring in moral and social positions. Logical - if the rich also campaign for environmental protection and reject arms production and limitless bonuses, an opposing attitude can’t be profitable in the long term.
The later the afternoon, the weirder the speeches get. A man trembling with excitement begs Mr Zetsche to entrust to him the development of a revolutionary free piston motor. With all the hilarity and emotion spreading though the auditorium at the same time - is this theatre? What has viewing the AGM as a performance achieved? Can’t the average shareholders, who are not theatre experts, also distinguish reality from appearance? I, ignorant of economics and owning no shares, have at any rate been able to completely represent my interests as a spectator here, have learned a lot and found it all very entertaining. Had I owned shares I might have reacted like the investor whose provision for old age has been drastically reduced. Her furious statement was: "What a three-ring circus!"