Hilmar Kopper’s name will always be associated with peanuts. At a legendary press conference in April 1994, the then CEO of Deutsche Bank was supposed to provide information about the bankruptcy of the Frankfurt construction company Jürgen Schneider and the foreseeable consequences of the bankruptcy. It also involved overdue craftsmen’s bills of 50 million marks, for which Deutsche Bank had to pay. These are “peanuts” that the bank will pay of course, Kopper said. The offhand wording sparked a storm of protests in Germany. Calling 50 million marks like peanuts seemed to prove the arrogance of the Frankfurt bankers. Peanuts was voted Unword of the Year in 1994.
In fact, all this fuss was a little unfair. Kopper had only said that what Deutsche Bank had to pay was small compared to the total damages of Schneider’s bankruptcy, it was more than five billion marks. He also took things with humor: for an advertising campaign for the FAZ (“There’s always a smart head behind that”), he sat on a container with peanuts.
The rather introverted Kopper worked mostly inward
Hilmar Kopper took over the management of Germany’s largest bank in late 1989 after RAF terrorists assassinated the former boss, the charismatic Alfred Herrhausen. While Herrhausen was considered a visionary and used the public for his ideas, the rather introverted Kopper mostly worked inward. This is why it is easy to overlook the formative role he played in the change of Deutsche Bank in an era of increasing globalization of financial markets.
Herrhausen initiated the internationalization of the institute and Kopper put it into practice. For example, he finalized the purchase of London investment bank Morgan Grenfell and prepared to purchase the American Bankers Trust. In 1989, Deutsche Bank’s main activity was still at the national level; he directed the bank more and more towards the European internal market.
Kopper also wanted to make Deutsche Bank a leading player in the international capital market. As a result, extremely well paid investment bankers came to the bank, causing disruptions in the culture of Frankfurt. At the same time, the German took over the former state bank of the GDR and became the first private bank in East Germany.
In May 1997, Kopper handed over his functions to his successor Rolf-E. Breuer and at the same time, as was customary at the time, took over the chairmanship of the bank’s supervisory board. In the following years, the bank decided to outsource and sell the German industrial participations. Kopper fails to assert himself with the merger of the Germans with the Dresdner Bank, which he advocates.
Kopper’s role on the supervisory board of Daimler-Benz AG, which he led for 17 years, should not be underestimated. At that time, Deutsche Bank was the main shareholder with a quarter of the share capital. Such investments were then called “Deutschland AG”. Under the aegis of Kopper, the company has said goodbye to the idea of becoming an “integrated technology group”. Instead, he imposed the young Jürgen Schrempp as boss, who wanted to turn Daimler into an international car company, whose idea of a merger between Daimler-Benz and the American manufacturer Chrysler he supported. However, the ambitious project quickly turned out to be a costly failure.
Kopper was not entirely satisfied with the supervisory board of HSH Nordbank, where the state governments of Kiel and Hamburg had brought him in as emergency aid. The Landesbank was in dire straits during the 2009 financial crisis.
In 1954 he began his banking apprenticeship, in 1969 he became branch manager, and in 1977 he joined the board of directors.
Kopper’s career has unfolded in a way that probably wouldn’t be possible today. He had done an apprenticeship in the bank but had never gone to college. He was born in 1935 as the son of a Pomeranian farmer. His parents were Mennonites, an evangelical free church in the tradition of the Anabaptists. After being deported and on the run, the family settled in Schleswig-Holstein. After graduating from high school in 1954, Kopper joined the Rheinisch-Westfälische Bank, which soon after became part of Deutsche Bank. He remained at the institute all his professional life. In 1969 he took over the management of the Leverkusen branch and in 1977 he joined the Frankfurt board of directors.
Kopper was married in his second marriage to the widow of former Chancellor Willy Brandt, Brigitte Seebacher. The couple lived isolated in the Westerwald. Kopper has three children from his first marriage, including historian Christopher Kopper.
As Deutsche Bank reported, Kopper died of a brief serious illness on Wednesday at the age of 86. After Alfred Herrhausen’s death, Kopper took responsibility at a difficult time, CEO Christian Sewing said. “He strategically shaped our bank and paved the way for us to support our clients around the world as a global home bank. We will keep Hilmar Kopper fondly remembered.