* Cromme says supervisory board could have done better
* Puts blame for Americas disaster on management board
* CEO calls on shareholders to look to the future
By Maria Sheahan
BOCHUM, Germany, Jan 18 ThyssenKrupp AG
Chairman Gerhard Cromme admitted on Friday to making
mistakes that contributed to massive losses at the German
steelmaker, but didn't bow to pressure from some shareholders to
"If you ask me whether we as a supervisory board could have
done things better in the past, then my honest answer is 'yes,
we trusted too long, we could have acted sooner'," he told the
company's annual shareholders' meeting.
Cromme has come under fire for not stopping a botched
multi-billion euro project in the Americas that caused Thyssen
to post an annual loss of 4.7 billion euros ($6.3 billion) and
pay no dividend for the 2011/12 fiscal year.
The euro zone debt crisis has meanwhile hurt demand for cars
and weighed on steel prices, causing a slump in profits at
Thyssen's European steel business. The company has 5.8 billion
euros of net debt, almost 1.3 times its equity.
Cromme, also chairman of Siemens AG, continued to
put most of the blame for the Americas disaster on former
executives and said at the meeting that the supervisory board
provided Thyssen with stability.
His comments were greeted by a mix of cheers and boos from a
lively audience of several thousand, aware that problems had
mounted under Cromme and former Chief Executive Ekkehard Schulz.
Shareholders taking to the podium at the AGM called
Thyssen's ill-advised investment in the Americas a "disaster"
and a sign of a "lack of healthy scepticism" by the board.
"Shareholders are shocked about the development of your
firm," Thomas Hechtfischer of shareholder rights group DSW said.
LOOK TO THE FUTURE
Despite shareholder criticism, silver-haired Cromme still
looked unlikely to be forced out after 11 years at the helm of
Thyssen's supervisory board, because he is backed by Berthold
Beitz, the 99-year-old patriarch at its biggest shareholder.
The Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation headed
by Beitz has 25.3 percent of the voting rights and has the right
to name three members to the 20-member supervisory board, one of
them being 69-year-old Cromme.
Current CEO Heinrich Hiesinger, brought in from Siemens by
Cromme two years ago, axed half of his management board last
month and vowed to do away with self-interested "old boy
networks" in the company. He pleaded for shareholders to focus
on the company's future rather than on past failings.
"If we continue to focus exclusively on the past we will
find countless things that were not appropriate by today's
standards," he told the meeting.
Hiesinger became the first Thyssen boss to be hired from
outside the steel industry when Cromme brought him over from
Siemens two years ago.
He has already launched an overhaul to cut the company's
exposure to the volatile steel sector and shift investment into
higher-margin products and services such as elevators,
submarines or automotive components.
Following the sale of assets with annual sales of 10 billion
euros, only about 30 percent of Thyssen's business will come
from the steel sector.
But the quagmire in the Americas, a fine for fixing the
price of rail tracks and a scandal over luxury press trips have
countered Hiesinger's attempt to focus on his renewal efforts.
Thyssen invested billions of euros in Steel Americas -
comprising two steel mills in Brazil and Alabama - which cost
more than expected to set up and have generated losses since.
"You can do everything right and it will still go wrong,"
Cromme said. "It is what it is."