BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Germany’s Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Tuesday he would welcome an alternative offer for industrial robot maker Kuka (KU2G.DE) following Chinese home appliance maker Midea Group Co Ltd’s (000333.SZ) 4.5 billion euro ($5 billion) takeover bid.
Kuka is the latest and biggest German industrial technology group to be targeted by a Chinese buyer as the world’s second-largest economy makes the transition from a low-cost manufacturer into a high-tech industrial hub.
Government sources have said Berlin will examine how critical Kuka’s technology is for the digitisation of industry, an economic priority for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.
“Of course I would view it as appropriate if there were at least an alternative offer from Germany or Europe,” Gabriel said at an economic conference, describing China’s interest in German technology companies as “not worrying, but noticeable”.
Citing government and industry sources, Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung said on Wednesday that Gabriel wants to forge an alliance of German or Europe firms to prevent a sale to the Chinese company.
Gabriel has approached several companies in recent days, including German carmakers, to see if they would be interested, the paper said, adding it remained unclear who would lead such a consortium.
German industrial group Siemens (SIEGn.DE) had considered a counterbid for Kuka, but quickly dismissed the idea as too expensive, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.
The ruling coalition of Merkel’s conservatives and Gabriel’s Social Democrats (SPD) is loath to meddle in takeovers and Berlin has indicated it will not intervene to stop the transfer of Kuka and its technology to Chinese ownership.
Gabriel said ministers in Germany’s cabinet had not addressed the bid, but he had discussed it with Merkel’s office.
“The possibilities we have are basically limited to words,” he said, adding: “Of course you can imagine that we have had a number of conversations in the last few days and weeks to support any such possibilities,” he said without elaborating.
Asked about the desirability of keeping Kuka European, the company’s chief marketing officer and supervisory board member Wilfried Eberhardt said his priority was to safeguard jobs and, in the best case, to create new ones.
“There’s no simple answer there as to what the right option is,” he told a Frankfurt conference on the future of work.
“Of course know-how is important for jobs. On the other hand, markets are important for jobs,” he said, noting that China is the world’s biggest market for industrial robots.
“I’m sure that Kuka’s management will make a sensible decision,” added Eberhardt, who is an employee representative on the supervisory board.
Gabriel’s emphasis on the benefits of keeping knowledge in Germany chimed with remarks by Germany’s European Union Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, who called on majority shareholders to consider alternatives to Midea’s bid. Kuka was of strategic importance to Germany, he said.
“Since there was no cry for help to China, we should be allowed to think about whether a European approach wouldn’t be the better solution for Kuka,” Oettinger told Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Industrial chiefs have urged that rules of free movement of capital must prevail in Europe and also in China. BDI industry association chief Ulrich Grillo told the economic conference it was a good sign if China wanted to buy something in Germany, but Beijing must give German companies equal opportunities in its country.
Writing by Madeline Chambers; editing by David Holmes and G Crosse