Germany’s Fintech Star Falls on Failure to Clean Up Wirecard

(Bloomberg) — Wirecard AG Chief Executive Officer Markus Braun resigned on Friday in a bid to save the digital payments company he shaped into a rare German technology success.

Braun’s position had become untenable after revelations on Thursday that about 1.9 billion euros ($2.1 billion) — two-thirds of 2019 revenue and about a quarter of the company’s consolidated balance sheet — had gone missing. Two Asian banks that were supposed to be holding it denied any business relationship with Wirecard, raising fresh questions about the embattled company.

After years of allegations of wrongdoing at the payments company, Braun was at the center of the controversy, with repeated assurances that Wirecard’s accounts were above the board. The executive, who’s also the company’s largest shareholder, will now be replaced on interim basis by James Freis, who was originally appointed in May to take the new role of chief compliance officer.

Freis, who previously pursued financial criminals at the U.S. Treasury Department, will need to act fast to restore trust and reassure creditors. Failure to publish audited results on Friday could trigger the termination of up to 2 billion euros in loans. Wirecard said Friday it is in “constructive” talks with its banks to continue credit lines and the further business relationship.

“A change in management was warranted for some time and following yesterday’s events and the further decline in Wirecard shares today, we are not surprised that the CEO is stepping down,” said Sanjay Sakhrani, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. “There may be no quick fix.”

The story of Wirecard’s woes trace back to Braun. The Austrian may have been too invested in the company, making him either unwilling or unable to see issues and take corrective measures.

Just a month ago, he boasted on Twitter that the future would still be bright for the digital payments company when “all the noise and dust settles.” The value of his 7% stake, which once made him a billionaire, has dwindled to about 240 million euros in the course of a two-day rout.

When Braun joined Wirecard in 2002, the payments company had a few dozen employees and in its early years serviced mainly clients active in online gambling and porn. The Austrian national since engineered a growth story by acquiring companies in the U.S. and Asia. Today, customers include Germany’s most successful soccer club Bayern Munich, French mobile phone carrier Orange SA and Swedish furniture giant Ikea.

In September 2018, Wirecard replaced Commerzbank AG in Germany’s elite DAX index, making Braun a star of the country’s digital ambitions.

“Markus Braun’s resignation was overdue,” said Danyal Bayaz, a lawmaker with Germany’s Greens. “Wirecard is not a small fintech, but a DAX member.”

Unlike U.S.tech billionaires, Braun usually sports a suit instead of a hoodie, but generally shuns wearing a tie. He got a degree in computer science from the Technical University of Vienna and a doctorate in social and economic sciences. He worked as a management consultant at KPMG before joining Wirecard.

Even after winning SoftBank Group Corp. as an investor in April last year, Braun had been unable to re-establish trust following a series of articles in early 2019 by the Financial Times about potential fraud. Despite aggressive denials and allegations of market manipulation leveled at the reporter, the company acknowledged irregularities following an independent investigation that had access only to limited information.

Braun’s response to the latest crisis followed a similar pattern: downplay or dismiss the allegations, paint the company as a victim and attempt to switch over to business as usual.

At 8:19 a.m. on Thursday — a time when investors were nervously awaiting delayed 2019 financial results — Wirecard posted on Twitter about how Chinese shopping trends were favoring its business model, sparking enraged comments as the stock collapse took shape hours later.

The company was well aware of the issue at the time of the feel-good tweet. Chief Operating Officer Jan Marsalek, who has been temporarily suspended, had tried to get in touch with the two Asian banks and trustees over the past two days to recover the missing money, according to a person familiar with the matter.

In the direct aftermath, Braun pointed the finger at everyone but himself.

“It is currently unclear whether fraudulent transactions to the detriment of Wirecard AG have occurred,” he said in a statement on Thursday, adding that the company will file a complaint against unnamed persons. “It cannot be ruled out that Wirecard has been the victim in a substantial case of fraud,” he said later.

Long-term investors criticized Braun for being too much of a “techie” — big on vision but short on management expertise. They’ve noted that he was very loyal to employees and resisted firing people. Those characteristics could have made him too trusting to delve into compliance issues as many in charge of those areas have long histories with the CEO.

Center stage is not where Braun says he’s comfortable. The Austrian computer scientist steers Wirecard from a suburban office park, a world away from the glittering urban towers that house most financial powerhouses. He calls himself shy — his birthdate isn’t publicly known and the company only acknowledges him being born in Vienna in 1969 — but there’s more than a hint of false modesty.

He aggressively pushed the company’s expansion, executing numerous takeovers of smaller and at times intransparent operators. And he wasn’t bashful about trumping up Wirecard’s success.

“It can make you stronger and more robust if you focus on the positive and manage to make something positive from negative energy,” he told Bloomberg in an interview in September 2018 with the company at its peak. “Whenever you stick your head out, some people will like it and some won’t.”

A year later at banking conference in Frankfurt, the bravado was still there despite months of turmoil over accounting concerns. Sitting on stage alongside, his counterpart at Deutsche Bank AG — a lynch pin of the German economy and a company will versed in crises — the moderator asked both men what it meant that Wirecard’s share price was above Deutsch Bank’s, Braun replied: “It means we are both undervalued.”

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